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Can a Catholic be for the Death Penalty?

Sermon: Capital Punishment is Consistent w/ Dignity for Life


It seems that the common opinion among pro-lifers, and even Catholics in that movement, is that capital punishment is an evil on the same level as abortion, euthanasia, homicide, suicide, etc. This is a grave mistake, however, because all of the latter are intrinsically evil according to the teaching of the Church, but the former is not.

And it would seem that this misconception about capital punishment derives from three main sources.

The first of these is a misunderstanding based on the translation of Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17: “Non occides.” (Clementine Vulgate) “οὐ μοιχεύσεις” (Extant Greek). Most commonly it is translated in English as “Thou shalt not kill”, as it was originally in the Douay-Rhiems and (borrowing from it) the original King James. The problem is that the English language has changed a great deal over time and the meaning of words have become different over time as well. The word kill today is the general word of ending the life of any creature whatsoever. This was not the meaning in the 16th century when these translations were made. In fact the equivalent word for them would have been to slay, and at that time kill had a much more specific meaning of to do murder. To have a clear and Catholic understanding of the nature of what constitutes murder I would recommend that you read the entirety of Question 64 of the Secunda Secundae of the Summa Theologiae of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and in particular Article 2.

The second issue is that a very basic and yet vital distinction is not made by so many pro-lifers: there is a significant difference between the taking of the innocent human life, which is always evil, and the conviction and sentencing to death of a criminal by the legitimate governing authority.

Thirdly, many Catholics seem to be under the impression that Pope Saint John Paul II condemned capital punishment as being an intrinsic evil on the level of abortion. This, however, is not the case.

This confusion is in large part perpetuated by some editing of the CCC from the 1992 edition to the 1997 edition.

Here are the two texts side by side:

CCC (1992) CCC (1997)
2266 Preserving the common good of society requires rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm.   For this reason the tradition teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty. For analogous reasons those holding authority have the right to repel by armed force aggressors against the community in their charge.The primary effect of punishment is to redress the disorder caused by the offense. When the punishment is voluntarily accepted by the offender, it takes on a value of expiation. Moreover, punishment has the effect of preserving the public order and the safety of persons. Finally punishment has a medicinal value; as far as possible it should contribute to the correction of the offender. [Lk 23:40-43.]] 2266 The State’s effort to contain the spread of behaviors injurious to human rights and the fundamental rules of civil coexistence corresponds to the requirement of watching over the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime.The primary scope of the penalty is to redress the disorder caused by the offense. When his punishment is voluntarily accepted by the offender, it takes on the value of expiation. Moreover, punishment, in addition to preserving public order and the safety of persons, has a medicinal scope: as far as possible it should contribute to the correction of the offender. [Lk 23:40-43.]
2267 If bloodeless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person. 2267 The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.”If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

“Today, in fact, given the means at the State’s disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender ‘today … are very rare, if not practically non-existent.'[John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56.]

Now in his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, the Pope says the following:

The nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.

In any event, the principle set forth in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church remains valid: “If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person”. [No. 2267]

Here the Pope is making reference to the 1992 text, but as you can see in the current text promulgated in 1997 the text referred to has been edited and the original text has been replaced, in part, with a commentary on the very text that was removed. Thus the encyclical now makes reference to a text that no longer exists. This change is not insignificant and as one can easily see by reading both side-by-side there is definite change in tone and even in the fundamental content.

It is worth considering here the actual authority of the CCC, which in fact has no binding teaching authority, but is simply an approved explanation of the actually binding teachings of the Catholic faith, which may yet still carry errors, or at least be confusing, since it does not bear the mark of infallibility. And even the authority of this particular passage of Evangelium Vitae, which does not meet the requirements for an infallible declaration and thus is not binding on the faithful, leaves one free to disagree.

Now let us consider that what our late Holy Father actually said was that capital punishment ought to be a last resort, but this clearly means that it can be resorted to when necessary, and thus cannot be intrinsically evil. It was, however, the Pope’s opinion that it would only be necessary in rare instances today to impose the death penalty. His reason given for this was because “today, however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare”. This, however, seems difficult to defend when one familiarizes themselves with the inner workings of the prison system in the United States today, which it would seem clear is completely broken, and incapable of reforming its inmates.

For what is the basic goal of punishing criminals? Again the 1997 edition states:

The primary scope of the penalty is to redress the disorder caused by the offense. When his punishment is voluntarily accepted by the offender, it takes on the value of expiation. Moreover, punishment, in addition to preserving public order and the safety of persons, has a medicinal scope: as far as possible it should contribute to the correction of the offender.

The Holy Father makes an important point when discussing the centrality of the reformation of each individual criminal, for he believed that capital punishment denied the criminal the opportunity to reform his life, and hopefully to convert and be saved. The problem, however, is that for many criminals, in the United States in particular, the prison system not only does not help to reform them and give them an opportunity for conversion but instead buries them deeper in the darkness of evil.

Being sentenced to death, however, makes things very clear to a criminal that his days are numbered and the time for conversion is now, and if then remains obstinate in his sin then that is his choice to reject the grace of God which is always there. This terrible punishment also is a great deterrent for other criminals.

On the other hand if the man sentenced to death accepts his death then he can obtain full remission of all temporal punishment due to his sins and having made a good confession and received the last sacraments will, upon his death, go straight to heaven without the need for purgatory, which is indeed a great grace. How difficult it is to come to accept one’s own death which so often comes upon one without any warning, and thus this grace is not easy to obtain, but for the condemned criminal he has a wonderful opportunity to do this, and indeed he also has a great deal to make satisfaction for and he is given an opportunity to take care of all of it before leaving this life!

And even considering the many cases of men and women are falsely convicted, and even sentenced to death for the crimes of others, this does not make capital punishment intrinsically evil, or even sinful when legitimately implemented.

It is interesting to note that Venerable Pope Pius XII would not have supported the language used so commonly today by Pro-Lifers who hold that all human beings have a “right to life”, yet the Holy Father explains that there is an exception:

When it is a question of the execution of a man condemned to death it is then reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned of the benefit of life, in expiation of his fault, when already, by his fault, he has dispossessed himself of the right to live. [Address given Sept 14th, 1952]

It is interesting to note that Pope Sixtus V (reigned 1585-1590) actually decreed that those who perform abortions or sterilizations in the Papal States were to be punished with the death penalty [Apostolic Constitution Effreanatum]. This of course was when the Church still had the Papal States which covered most of central Italy and was ruled over by the Pope. Sadly these lands given free to the Church by various Catholic Kings were stolen from the Church during the reign of Blessed Pope Pius IX in the late mid-19th century. And in fact according the Lateran Treaty of 1929 the death penalty is still in force in the Vatican City State.

And we can see from the example of the Saints that they did not so much worry about ending the application of the death penalty as much as worrying about the salvation of souls. Unlike the many campaigns by Catholic communities today, writing letters to the Governors of various states to stay an execution that was soon to take place, we see in stark contrast in the life of Saint Therese of Lisieux that when she heard that the notorious criminal Pranzini was to be put to death that she didn’t write the magistrate letters to stop the execution, but rather prayed for (and it would seem obtained) the conversion of the man.

But let us now look at the clear, constant, and traditional teaching of the Church on this issue.

First, let us consider the section on the 5th Commandment from the Roman Catechism (commissioned by the Council of Trent and Pope Saint Pius V and edited by Saint Charles Borromeo), which is still one of the official Catechisms of the Catholic Church:

Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder. The end of the Commandment is the preservation and security of human life. Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing outrage and violence. Hence these words of David: In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land, that I might cut off all the workers of iniquity from the city of the Lord.

Let us now consider the greatest teaching in the history of the Church, of whom Pope Leo XIII said: “We exhort all of you, Venerable Brothers, with the greatest earnestness to restore the golden wisdom of St. Thomas, and to spread it as far as you can, for the safety and glory of the Catholic Faith” [Aeterni Patris, 4 August 1879], and what he had to say on the death penalty:

It is lawful to kill dumb animals, in so far as they are naturally directed to man’s use, as the imperfect is directed to the perfect. Now every part is directed to the whole, as imperfect to perfect, wherefore every part is naturally for the sake of the whole. For this reason we observe that if the health of the whole body demands the excision of a member, through its being decayed or infectious to the other members, it will be both praiseworthy and advantageous to have it cut away. Now every individual person is compared to the whole community, as part to whole. Therefore if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since “a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:6)….It is lawful to kill an evildoer in so far as it is directed to the welfare of the whole community, so that it belongs to him alone who has charge of the community’s welfare. Thus it belongs to a physician to cut off a decayed limb, when he has been entrusted with the care of the health of the whole body. Now the care of the common good is entrusted to persons of rank having public authority: wherefore they alone, and not private individuals, can lawfully put evildoers to death. [Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, Q. 64, a. 2-3]

Finally, let us consider a defense of the practice of capital punishment during the Inquisition in France and Spain in the 13th-16th centuries where in some cases the death penalty was applied. This defense is from Saint Robert Bellarmine who was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1931 by Pope Pius XI. It is from his work De Laicis – On Government, and was translated from the original Latin by Fr. James Goodwin, S.J.:

De Laicis


by Saint Robert Bellarmine, Cardinal-Bishop and Doctor of the Church


Chapter XIII – It is Lawful for a Christian Magistrate to Punish Disturbers of the State with Death

Fourth proposition: It is lawful for a Christian magistrate to punish with death disturbers of the public peace. It is proved, first, from the Scriptures, for in the law of nature, of Moses, and of the Gospels, we have precepts and examples of this. For God says, “Whosoever shall shed man’s blood, his blood shall be shed.” 159 These words cannot utter a prophecy, since a prophecy of this sort would often be false, but a decree and a precept. Hence in the Chaldaic paraphrase it is rendered, “Whosoever sheds blood before witnesses, his blood shall be shed by sentence of the judge.” And Judas says, “Bring her out that she may be burnt.” 160 Here the patriarch Judas, as head of a family, condemned an adulteress to death by fire.

In the law of Moses there are many precepts and examples. “He that striketh a man with a will to kill him, shall be put to death.” 161 And Moses himself, Josue, Samuel, David, Elias, and many other very holy men put many to death. And as for “All that take the sword shall perish with the sword,” 162 these words cannot be rightly understood except in this sense: Every one who commits an unjust murder ought in turn to be condemned to death by the magistrate. For Our Lord rebuked Peter not because a just defense is unlawful, but because he wished not so much to defend himself or Our Lord, as to avenge the injury done to Our Lord, although he himself had no official authority, as St. Augustine correctly explains, 163 and St. Cyril also. 164 Besides, “If thou do that which is evil, fear: for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is God’s minister.” 165 St. Paul says that the sword is given by God to rulers to punish evildoers, therefore, if like men are found in the Church, why may they not be put to death?

Secondly, it is proved from the testimony of the Fathers. Innocent I., being asked whether it was lawful for a magistrate who had been baptized, to punish by death, answered that it was entirely lawful. 166 St. Hilary says that it is certainly lawful to kill in two cases, if a man is fulfilling the duty of a judge, or if he is using a weapon in his own defense. 167 St. Jerome says, “To punish murderers, and sacrilegious men, and poisoners is not a shedding of blood, but the administration of law.” 168 St. Augustine, “Those who, endowed with the character of public authority, punish criminals by death, do not violate that commandment which says, Thou shalt not kill.” 169

Lastly, it is proved from reason; for it is the duty of a good ruler, to whom has been entrusted the care of the common good, to prevent those members which exist for the sake of the whole from injuring it, and therefore if he cannot preserve all the members in unity, he ought rather to cut off one than to allow the common good to be destroyed; just as the farmer cuts off branches and twigs which are injuring the vine or the tree, and a doctor amputates limbs which might injure the whole body.

To the argument of the Anabaptists from “An eye for an eye, etc.,” 170 there are two solutions. One, that the Old Law, since it was given to imperfect men, allowed the seeking for revenge, and only forbade that the retaliation be greater than the injury; not that it is lawful to seek revenge, but because it is less evil to seek it in moderation than inordinately; besides, Christ, Who instructed more perfect men, recalled this permission. Thus says St. Augustine, 171 and St. Chrysostom and St. Hilary are of the same opinion regarding this passage; but since retaliation is prohibited, “Seek not revenge,” 172 and, we read, “He that seeketh to revenge himself, shall find vengeance from the Lord,” 173 we shall, indeed, reply correctly with St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure and some others, in their commentary on the third Sentence of Peter Lombard, 174 when Our Lord says: “You have heard that it hath been said of old, an eye for an eye, etc.,” He does not condemn that law, nor forbid a magistrate to inflict the poena talionis, but He condemns the perverse interpretation of the Pharisees, and forbids in private citizens the desire for and the seeking of vengeance. For God promulgates the holy law that the magistrate may punish the wicked by the poena talionis; 175 whence the Pharisees infer that it is lawful for private citizens to seek vengeance; just as from the fact that the law said, “Thou shalt love thy friend,” they infer that it is lawful to hate enemies; but Christ teaches that these are misinterpretations of the law, and that we should love even our enemies and not resist evil, but rather that we should be prepared, if necessary, to turn the other cheek to him who strikes one cheek. And that Our Lord was speaking to private citizens is clear from what follows. For Our Lord speaks thus: “But I say to you not to resist evil, but if one strike thee on thy right cheek, etc.”

But it should be observed that when He says, “not to resist evil,” just defense is not prohibited, but retaliation; for Christ commands not to strike him who strikes you, as Theophylactus rightly teaches. But he is said to strike who strikes to injure, not he who strikes to protect himself; and, briefly, revenge, not defense, is forbidden, according to “Revenge not yourselves, my dearly beloved,” 176 that is, not avenging yourselves. For thus it is in the Greek .., whence it goes on to say: “But set aside wrath, for it is written: Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.” But neither is revenge forbidden absolutely, if, indeed, it is sought from a lawful judge and for a good end, either because there is hope that the malefactor will be reformed by this punishment, or because his malice can be kept in check and restrained in no other way, and he will continue to do evil if he is allowed to go unpunished; therefore, what is forbidden is only that revenge which private citizens wish to take on their own account, and which they seek from a judge through the desire of harming an enemy, and of satisfying their own ill-will and hatred.


159 Gen. IX., 6.

160 Gen. XXXVIII., 24.

161 Exod. XXI., 12.

162 Matt. XXVI., 52.

163 Treatise 112 on St. John.

164 Bk. II. on St. John, ch. 35.

165 Rom. XIII., 4.

166 Epis. 3, to Exuperius, ch. 3.

167 Canon 32 on Matt. XXVI.

168 Commentary on Jeremias, ch. 22.

169 City of God, Bk. I., ch. 21.

170 Matt. V., 38.

171 Bk. I. on Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, ch. 35, and Against Adimantus, ch. 8.

172 Levit. XIX.

173 Ecclus. XXVIII., 1.

174 Distinct. 30.

175 Exod. XXI., and Levit. XXIV.

176 Rom. XXII., 19.


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