Can the Church Ban Capital Punishment?

Today Crisis is offering a symposium on capital punishment. For Archbishop Charles Chaput’s view, see this essay. For news about recent Vatican statements on the issue, see this article.


This piece on capital punishment is a revision of the original, which first appeared in Latin Mass Magazine (Summer 2001). It is written from a “traditionalist” perspective, a traditionalist being simply a Catholic who affirms—as a Catholic must—that the Second Vatican Council changed nothing of what a Catholic must believe in order to be a member of the Church in good standing. As the First Vatican Council declared: “For the Holy Spirit was not promised to the Successors of Peter that by His revelation they might disclose new doctrine, but that by His help they might guard the revelation transmitted through the apostles and the deposit of faith, and might faithfully set it forth.” (Cf. Denzinger, §1836)

Of course, an authentic development of doctrine is always possible in the sense of a fuller explication of what the Church has always taught.  But neither a Pope nor a Council has an oracular function of providing the latest and most reliable Catholic teaching. The Catholic faith, unlike the statute books on which lawyers rely, does not involve periodic “pocket parts” containing amendments or repeals to be inserted into the back of the book.  If the “hermeneutic of continuity” means anything, it means that Catholic teaching on faith and morals is not subject to reversal. A reversible Magisterium would be no Magisterium at all, but rather a human agency bereft of the promises of Christ—like the Protestant sects which have abandoned doctrine after doctrine over the centuries since Luther began the process of abandonment.


The Traditional Teaching on Capital Punishment

And so it is with Catholic teaching on the morality of capital punishment. According to the constant teaching of the Church, God Himself has ordained that legitimate civil authority shall have the right and duty to punish deliberate murder  (and other grave crimes) with the penalty of death. Capital punishment honors the Fifth commandment, because it vindicates the sanctity of human life. Hence, in its teaching on the Fifth Commandment the Catechism of the Council of Trent declares:

Again, this prohibition does not apply to the civil magistrate, to whom is entrusted the power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which he punishes the guilty and protects the innocent. The use of the civil sword, when wielded by the hand of justice, 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 sanctity of human life, and to the attainment of this end, the punishments inflicted by the civil magistrate, who is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend, giving security to life by repressing outrage and violence.

As the Tridentine Catechism teaches, the death penalty protects the sanctity of life through legitimate legal vengeance to repress outrage and violence in society. This involves just retribution and deterrence as legitimate aims of penal law.

The Catechism’s reference to the civil sword evokes St. Paul’s teaching on the divine right of civil authority to avenge wrongdoing by the sword: “But if thou do that which is evil, fear: for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is God’s minister: an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” Rom. 13:4  Reflecting on this passage, St. Thomas teaches that capital punishment imitates divine justice; for after all, eternal damnation is the ultimate form of capital punishment: “According to the order of His wisdom God sometimes slays sinners forthwith in order to deliver the good, whereas he sometimes allows them time to repent, according as what is expedient to His elect. This also does human justice imitate according to its powers . . .” (ST II-II, Q. 64, Art. 2)

Thus the right of civil authority to punish evildoers by the sword in appropriate cases is a matter of revealed truth, not a changeable prudential judgment.  This is not to deny that civil authority can exercise prudential judgment in abstaining from the exercise of its right to impose capital punishment, or even abolish it entirely in keeping with historical circumstances.  For example, earlier this year the Governor of Illinois, Pat Quinn, signed an executive ban on the death penalty in his state given the appalling evidence of numerous executions of innocent persons in Illinois based on “forced confessions, unreliable witnesses, and incompetent legal representation.” As a lawyer, I am well familiar with the grave potential in any legal system for catastrophic miscarriages of justice which, in the case of capital punishment, cannot be rectified. The Church has never taught that civil authority must impose capital punishment for murder, but only that it has a divine sanction when it does so.

It must not be forgotten that the death penalty, like any criminal penalty, serves as a form of expiation. That is why prisons were once called penitentiaries. As Saint Thomas observes in the Summa: “Even death inflicted as a punishment for crimes takes away the whole punishment for those crimes in the next life, or at least part of that punishment, according to the quantities of guilt, resignation, and contrition; but a natural death does not.” (Cf. Romano Amerio Iota Unum, 435). Further, in the case of capital punishment the expiatory penalty reflects the sin of one whose grave crime has caused him to lose the right to life.  Some 700 years after the Summa, Pope Pius XII repeated the constant teaching of the Church in this regard: “Even when it is a question of someone condemned to death, the state does not dispose of an individual’s right to life. It is then the task of public authority to deprive the condemned man of the good of life, in expiation of his fault, after he has already deprived himself of the right to life by his crime.” (AAS, 1952, pp. 779 et. seq)

Pius XII rejected what Romano Amerio calls “the canons of the new hermeneutic” when he insisted in a speech to Catholic jurists in 1955 that “the passage of St. Paul was of permanent and universal value, because it refers to the essential foundation of penal authority and to its inherent purpose.” Amerio rightly notes that the modern opponents of the death penalty “ignore the great truth that capital punishment is itself expiatory.”  But, he writes, “one cannot cancel out the decrees of the Old Testament regarding the death penalty, by a mere stroke of the pen. Nor can canon law, still less the teaching of the New Testament, be canceled out at a stroke.”  (Amerio, 432, 434).

The expiatory nature of the death penalty may be its most important aspect. Sacred Scripture itself provides the example of the good thief on the cross (Lk. 23-39-42), whose very recognition that “we receive the due reward of our deeds” is a sign of the working of God’s grace in a soul being moved to faith in Christ. The good thief’s expiation, through his acceptance of the condign penalty of death, is so complete as to merit his immediate entry into paradise. Indeed, the common experience of mankind is that nothing is more likely to provoke repentance in hardened sinners than imminent execution. The historic accounts of death row conversions could be set forth endlessly. Even the proudly defiant Timothy McVeigh apparently converted. McVeigh, “a self-described agnostic, received the Catholic sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick by an unidentified prison chaplain.” (CNN, June 11, 2001). We do not know if McVeigh was saved, but who can say that convicted killers languishing in prisons which are sinkholes of immorality are more likely than a condemned man to receive the grace of final penitence?

Whether they recognize it or not, Catholic death penalty opponents implicitly view the right to life from a worldly and bodily perspective, “as if it were inherent in man’s mere [biological] existence, when, in fact, it derives from his moral goal… his ordination to values that transcend temporal life, and this goal is built into his spirit inasmuch as it is an image of God.”  (Amerio 1996, 436).  The eternal destiny of man is precisely why, as the Tridentine Catechism teaches, capital punishment actually defends life in its full and supernatural sense.


A “Development” of Doctrine?

It is claimed there was a “development” of Catholic doctrine on the death penalty during the pontificate of John Paul II that precludes its application in “modern society.” Upon close examination of the relevant texts, however, one finds that the posited “development” is really an opinion bound up with a matter of fact: that current penal systems can render murderers “harmless,” so that the death penalty should be imposed only rarely, if at all. This opinion does not (and cannot) repeal the traditional teaching that just retribution, deterrence and expiation are also legitimate aims of the death penalty.

First of all, the 1992 version the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC)—issued before the definitive Latin text now in effect—preserved the traditional teaching intact:

2266:   Preserving the common good of society requires rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm.  For this reason the traditional 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 . . . 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 the value of expiation.  Moreover, punishment has the effect of preserving public order and the safety of persons. . . .


2267: If bloodless 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 common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

“Rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm” is not positively presented as the sole criterion for imposition of the death penalty, but as only one element of  “preserving the common good of society,” which certainly includes more than restraining future violence by the same criminal. Paragraph 2266 also teaches that commensurate punishment, redressing the disorder caused by the offense and expiation are legitimate purposes of penal law.  Public authority—exercising the discretion I have already mentioned—“should” use bloodless means in place of capital punishment, but only if they would be sufficient to protect public order and the safety of persons, not simply the safety of persons. Thus, the 1992 CCC can be harmonized with the traditional teaching that the death penalty is a legitimate form of civil vengeance for grave crimes, not merely a form of societal self-defense.

Uncertainty arises, however, with the statement that penalties short of death “better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good.” This is a sweeping factual claim outside the competence of the Magisterium. No explanation is offered as to which “concrete conditions” in which places suddenly make the death penalty inappropriate, even though Pius XII expressly approved it as recently as 1954.

Even more problematic is the statement that bloodless penalties are “more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.” If this is true, then why did the Church approve the death penalty for 1,992 years? The CCC does allow that the death penalty also conforms to human dignity, only less so than bloodless penalties.  But how is one to determine relative conformity to human dignity as between confinement for life in a hellish prison and an execution that may well be preceded by repentance?  Here the distinction between natural and supernatural dignity must be drawn. All created things have natural dignity, but only man has the supernatural dignity of an immortal soul. From the natural perspective, a prison sentence may appear more “dignified” than execution; but if imminent execution provokes final penitence, from the supernatural perspective a death freely accepted in expiation for sin is infinitely more in accord with human dignity.  Moreover, “modern” prisons are occasions of grave sin at every turn. That prisons are “more in conformity to human dignity” than capital punishment is dubious at best.  The Holy Ghost does not vouchsafe factually contingent assessments of prison conditions throughout the world. Such assessments are simply not matters of Catholic doctrine.

The question of the “development” of teaching came to the fore with promulgation of John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae (EV) in 1995.  The following  passages are pertinent:

Modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform.  (EV, 27)

The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is to redress the disorder caused by the offence.” Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfils the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people’s safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behaviour and be rehabilitated. (EV, 56)

It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, 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. (EV, 56)

EV moves closer toward the position that there is only one basis—societal self-defense—for imposition of the death penalty. Yet the phrases “defending public order,” “adequate punishment for the crime,” and “redress the disorder caused by the offence” would allow imposition of the death penalty even when the offender can supposedly be “rendered harmless” by other means.  EV does not strictly deny this, but rather proposes prudentially to limit application of the death penalty based on an assertion that is patently dependent upon the existence of particular facts: because “modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless,” cases in which the death penalty is warranted are “very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

In the first place, the phrase “very rare, if not practically non-existent” offers no real guidance. Who defines “very rare,” and what is meant by “practically” non-existent?  The words suggest a prohibition of the death penalty without actually imposing one—because, of course, the Magisterium cannot now prohibit what it has always approved as a matter of revealed truth. Rather, the proposed new limitation on the death penalty is bottomed entirely on the claim that “Modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless . . .”

But what are these “means” which modern society has? None other than prisons. Yet there have always been prisons. If it were merely a question of rendering criminals “harmless” by imprisonment, the Church would always have taught that life imprisonment is to be preferred to capital punishment. If anything, life imprisonment 500 years ago was far more likely to be life imprisonment than it is today. EV’s reference to “steady improvements in the organization of the penal system” is of no help. Which “steady improvements” in which “penal system” now make the death penalty unacceptable?  May only societies with laggardly penal systems continue to execute convicted murderers in ordinary course? How many “steady improvements” must prisons achieve before the death penalty becomes “very rare, if not practically non-existent”?

In short, the quality of prison systems seems a rather insubstantial moral criterion for deciding application of the death penalty. What about just retribution, expiation, deterrence, and aggravating factors such as the number or tender age of the victims? The Pope has no right to remove these criteria from civil authority’s prudential judgment, nor does EV actually do so.

All of this assumes it could be demonstrated that “modern” imprisonment really achieves even the minimalist penal goal of rendering murderers “harmless.”  Quite the contrary, convicted murderers routinely kill each other in prison, or kill guards, or are paroled to claim more victims among the general population.  For this reason alone, we are not bound to accept EV’s purely factual assertion that prisons render murderers harmless.  This is simply not true.  And what about the murderer who does kill again, either in prison or upon release?  How many people must a murderer murder before the death penalty becomes appropriate under the  nebulous “rare, if not practically non-existent” standard?

Amazingly, EV does not even call for life imprisonment without parole for cold-blooded killers, but rather states that “modern society” should allow even these “the chance to reform” and “be rehabilitated.” Neither the Catechism nor EV provides an answer to a grieving father’s recent lament that if a “rehabilitated” murderer-rapist on parole had been executed—in accordance with traditional Church teaching based on revealed truth—his daughter would be alive today.

Based solely on EV 56, however, in 1997 the 1992 CCC was amended for the Latin definitive edition:

2267:  [T]he traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person. Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm—without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself —the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically non-existent.’ [quoting EV, 56]

Note that the key phrase in the 1992 version—

the traditional 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

has been replaced by—

the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

Thus, societal self-defense now appears to be presented as the sole criterion for imposition of the death penalty under the “traditional teaching of the Church.”  And yet in the 1997 CCC we still find the following: “Legitimate public authority has the right and the duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation.” (¶ 2266)  Is not the death penalty a punishment proportionate to the offense of murder?  Does it not redress the disorder caused by the offense?  Does it not assume the value of expiation—indeed, the supreme expiation—if  willingly accepted?

The 1997 CCC addresses none of these questions, but simply repeats the Pope’s sweeping penological opinion in EV that cases requiring the death penalty are “rare, if not practically non-existent,” because of “the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm.” But who decides whether penological “possibilities” suffice to outweigh the need for capital punishment? As always, civil authority decides. EV does not bind civil authority to forego the death penalty.  EV does not forbid Catholics to advocate the death penalty or to vote for general death penalty legislation. Therefore, the posited “development” of doctrine is illusory.


Can a Pope Ban Capital Punishment?

The matter, however, does not end there. It is clear that John Paul II would have liked to go even further by declaring the death penalty immoral per se. In his homily at Saint Louis on January 27, 1999, which he did not impose upon the universal Church, the Pope said:

The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life in every situation. A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform (cf. Evangelium Vitae, 27). I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.

The conclusion is inescapable: Speaking as a private theologian, the John Paul II believed that to be “unconditionally pro-life” one must oppose the death penalty as intrinsically immoral, for what is “cruel” is by definition immoral. But this is nothing other than the late Cardinal Bernadin’s “seamless garment”—a liberal notion whose primary effect is to retard the pro-life movement by chaining the cause of the innocent unborn to the cause of sparing guilty murderers from a justly imposed penalty.

John Paul II apparently believed that no crime whatsoever, no matter how heinous, deserves capital punishment. Accordingly, the Pope sent a letter to the White House seeking clemency for McVeigh, who admitted to murdering 168 men, women and children in cold blood.  (“White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said that a letter from John Paul requesting clemency was received this week. She would not reveal the details of the letter.” ABC News, April 27, 2001). Had the Pope’s plea for clemency been heeded, however, McVeigh might have died the agnostic he was instead of calling for the ministrations of a Catholic priest in his last moments on earth.

John Paul II’s personal campaign against the death penalty was joined by numerous bishops. Perhaps the most surprising example was Archbishop Chaput’s statement following the McVeigh execution: “[I]n executing Mr. McVeigh we’ve answered violence with violence and compromised our own human dignity … The same needle that kills the condemned murderer poisons us with the habit of violence. May God grant us the conversion to see that—for our own sake, and for the sake of our children.”  “Statement on the Execution of Timothy McVeigh, June 11, 2001.”

So, according to Archbishop Chaput, Catholics who believe that mass murderers deserve capital punishment are advocating “violence” and are in need of “conversion.” It is as if 2,000 years of Church teaching rooted in divine revelation had vanished overnight.  But neither the Archbishop nor the late Pope had any authority to declare immoral in all circumstances a form of punishment the Church has always declared not only morally licit, but divinely sanctioned as a just penalty.

Where, then, do we stand?  Clearly, the Church has no authority to abandon the radical moral distinction between capital punishment of the guilty and the killing of an innocent. To reject that distinction is to undermine belief in divine justice itself, which demands the supernatural death of unrepentant souls for all eternity. It is manifestly impossible for Catholic doctrine on the death penalty to “develop” from an approbation based on revealed truth to  a condemnation based on the teaching of the last Pope. And, if we are not discussing the immorality of capital punishment in itself, when all is said and done it is not a question of “development” of doctrine, but only the debatable application of a morally legitimate penalty. Here Catholics, and civil authorities, remain free to make their own prudential judgments.

  • Kerry

    Thank you. I am tired of feeling bullied into believing that an evil monster who has chosen a life of sin has the same expectation of respect for his/her life as an innocent child in the womb. I believe that God is just and requires us, as a society, to deal strongly and swiftly with murderers (I would like to see child rapists treated in the same manner.)

    • paris-dakar

      Amen to that.

    • sarto

      Aah, the blood lust of the pro-life lawyer. A characteristic of many pro-life people.

      • Jack

        It doesn’t follow, sarto.

        I’m very much pro-life.

        And I’m also against capital punishment. I’ve also met pro-death people who were in favor of it. At least they are consistent.

        I could serve on a jury that simply decided the guilt or innocence of any person charged with murder on the basis of the evidence.

        However, I could not serve on a jury that had to decide on the death penalty, and I would never vote in favor of it, even risking contempt of court charge myself.

        • Bill Bannon

          Try assasinating a Pope. The Swiss Guard have top of the line Sig-Sauer pistols (P220) and Heckler and Koch submachine guns (MP-7…armor piercing). Your transportation to the particular judgement is assured….unfortunately so is that of the person behind you if they use the Heckler and Koch. Neither of the last two Popes have disarmed the Swiss Guard yet both have said that “war solves nothing” within sermons and generally have tried to seem above the human condition ala Joan Baez and Phil Ochs ( ” I ain’t a marching anymore”). It’s all about talk and getting that Nobel Peace prize for the Vatican. Two Popes who failed (as Pope and as CDF head (the NY Times found out the CDF had jurisdiction all of Ratzinger’s tenure)) to protect children from priests now see themselves as penology experts….without citing any penology literature at all either in EV nor in the CCC.
          Go to section 42 of Verbum Domini by Pope Benedict surveying the OT:
          ” the preaching of the prophets vigorously challenged every kind of injustice and violence…”
          Sounds very Joan Baez in that in the context of Benedict’s seeking abolition of the death penalty and saying that “war solves nothing” ( in direct imitation of a John Paul Easter sermon), we sense that he saw the prophets as against not just wicked violence but just violence as in 
          just war and executions done justly. 

          Let’s tour several prophets…the first of whom was picked by God to return just prior to Christ’s second coming:

          Elijah… speaking about 450 Baal prophets…
          1Ki 18:40 “And Elijah said unto them, Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there.”

          1Sa 15:33 “And Samuel said, As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women. And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the LORD in Gilgal.”

          2Ki 2:23 ¶ And he went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head.
          2Ki 2:24   And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.

          Well….there’s three prophets who didn’t vigorously challenge executions.

          • But as evolution moves forward, here are some later prophets who did.

            Isaiah 2:4, They will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will no longer fight against nation, nor train for war anymore.

            Hosea 6:6 I want mercy and not sacrifice.

            Matthew 5:35 You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you… whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.”

            Matthew 6:15 But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses

            • Bill Bannon

              Isaiah can’t be instructing us on war but rather predicting the ending part of history because the Maccabees after him are war heroes of the Old Testament…and because God in Romans 13:4 says the state carries the sword (machaira) to execute God’s wrath (see Acts 12:2 for this same machaira being used in an unjust execution). Romans 13:4 also logically means you are stretching inappropriately all the other remaining passages.
              For example, Fr. Raymond Brown notes that your passage about turning the other cheek and indicating the right cheek was slapped first….means that your opponent used his weaker hand, the left. Ergo Brown said the passage was about mideastern insult rituals not attrocious assault. If a thug punched your wife on the street on the right side, would you tell her to expose the left also…or would you actually protect her presuming you have some strength in your arms?

              • Bill Bannon

                Indeed your passage is preceded by my interpretation:

                 2 And it shall come to pass in the alast days, that the bmountain of the Lord’s chouse shall be destablished in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all enations shall flow unto it.

                 3 And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us ago up to the bmountain of the Lord, to the chouse of the God of Jacob; and he will dteach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of eZion shall go forth the flaw, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

                 4 And he shall ajudge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn bwar any more.

              • Bill Bannon

                AWFUL ABOVE TEXT VIRUS

                2:2 And in the last days the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be prepared on the top of mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills, and all nations shall flow unto it.
                2:4 And he shall judge the Gentiles, and rebuke many people: and they shall turn their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into sickles: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they be exercised any more to war.

        • Sarto

          Thanks for thoughtful words. Just recently, I attended a vigil while a murderer was being executed. A long, cold wait praying about something that was being done in my name, because I am a citizen of my state.

          At the same time, I can sympathize with the rage that can lead to a pro-death choice. This particular murderer had committed horrific crimes against two young women. I lived in the area and I would have rejoiced if they had skinned the guy to death with a butter knife.

          But then twenty four years went by. Twenty four years! Appeal after appeal after apeal on different levels, to different courts, etc.. At this point, execution becomes nothing but revenge. The father of one of the victims was there…a truly broken man. But even he was not sure if the execution should take place. My group prayed with him and for him.

          One last thought: I don’t think the Church can ever “outlaw” the death penalty. That is a stupid headline. But it can lead us to a place of moral discernment–this is where the popes have gone– that rejects the death penalty. Crisis Magazine and some of the people on this thread have a long way to go.

          • Bill Bannon

            Have you even read Evangelium Vitae in the death penalty sections. If it were submitted as a paper under an ordinary but false name as a paper to any good prof, it would not get the highest grade. He sees the immunity of Cain as relevant to our avoiding the death penalty without realizing that the God who gave that immunity then gives a death penalty afterwards under the Noachic covenant right before Nimrod is the first king. Prior to Nimrod and the first kingdom, all there was….was private revenge….hence the immunity for Cain. Once governments are to be a reality, the same God
            issues the first death penalty in Genesis 9:6 and governments at first set rules for the avenger of blood. It would be nice if Popes had to submit their encyclicals to Pontifical Universities for biblical data check so we don’t look like amateur hour to Princeton and Harvard
            etc. Divinity schools. Let’s make a rule. Popes have to have read the whole Bible prior to office.

  • Todd M. Aglialoro

    Thank you for this comprehensive survey and for the well-reasoned arguments. Most valuable, I thought, was your charitable but devastating deconstruction of the flawed passages in Evangelium Vitae and the revised Catechism: first in their locating, without justification, the Church’s approbation of capital punishment solely within the model of just self-defense; and secondly in their verbal ambiguities, which make them appear to outlaw (for all practical purposes) capital punishment in modern society even though they do not and cannot.

    I’m glad, too, to see so well-put the oft-ignored truths that capital punishment vindicates the dignity of human life and encourages the final penitence of criminals.

  • annie

    This article points out my main problem with the new catechism. The old catechisms, such as that of the Council of Trent, used to contain only things which were held de fide. The new catechism mixes in things which are held to be debatable among the de fide articles and it is not clear which is which. A catechism should make you less confused, not more confused.

  • job

    Are the end times at hand? Chris Ferara in Crisis magazine?

    If you told me this a year ago, I would have said you’re off your nut!

    Hurray for Crisis! Talk about a “development”!


    • Bill

      I’ll yell “It’s a miracle” when Ferrara gets his own program on EWTN. 😉 But even on my best days, I’m not that optimistic.

  • Congratulations getting this published in Crisis of all places!

    I’ve long thought that a condemned man viewing the gallows from a solitary cell stood a better chance of being saved than someone convinced he was immortal dying one night at the hands of his sodomizer.

  • Kevin

    References in the Catechism of John Paul II to alternatives to capital punishment are political judgments outwith the competence of the Church. The sincerity of these comments is questionable given no-one who makes them suggests that the death penalty is therefore licit in countries that have nowhere near the resources of the West.

    It would also be interesting to interview Liberal clerics when a prisoner kills a guard or another prisoner, as recently happened in France, when the killing involved cannibalism.

  • Kenneth

    All good and well, as long as you are not caught sleeping at the time of your own judgment. Dissent against the guidance of Christ’s Church at your own peril. Putting someone to death unnecessarily in the hope that it will bring about conversion strikes off as the ends justifying the means. Determining necessity is prudential, but Christ gave us the teaching authority of the Church to help guide us on that as well. The death penalty may bring about the repentance of some, but that is a possible and hoped for consequence of an action that was necessary in the past but no longer for the most part at least. It is not a reason in itself to seek the death penalty.

    Death penalty can quickly make yourself guilty of murder. You may very well be damned for your actions, that very well may lead to the salvation of others. But as Fulton Sheen once remarked, I won’t choose Hell for myself for the sake of others (good intentions and all that). As a note, I would say that you don’t know the relative percentages of true conversions of those who get the death penalty vs. those who don’t. The death penalty cases get the media focus, the others not so much. Be careful of the judgement you dole out, as you may find that at the end you were responsible for more souls being in Hell by your choice.

    • Doug Pearson

      “Dissent against the guidance of Christ’s Church at your own peril”

      Read everything the Church has given us on this topic. The Fathers, Doctors, Saints, Popes (ALL not just the last couple) and of course you might include scripture.

      The Church I belong to cuts across 2,000 years and includes those in Heaven, on Earth and in Purgatory… not just the those currently alive.

      When a Pope tries to teach something that no Pope’s have taught before, he would do well to take your warning to heart. And we have no choice but to chalk it up to a private opinion… just like BXVI thinking that condoms can be a move toward morality.


      • Kenneth

        That is what I am defending, the pope’s right of opinion to believe that the death penalty is for the most part unnecessary today in many parts of the world, which in fact does not contradict the teachings of the Church.

        “just like BXVI thinking that condoms can be a move toward morality.”
        This statement here confirms my suspicion that you don’t do serious research into what people are actually saying, intending to mean. Read other media besides the MSM.

        “Read everything the Church has given us on this topic. The Fathers, Doctors, Saints, Popes (ALL not just the last couple) and of course you might include scripture.”
        Please do, with the spirit of faith in Christ. With humility, and not with arrogant pride.


  • annie

    Thomas Aquinas made a watertight case in favor of capital punishment and a Dominican priest recently said to me, “whatever happened to retributive justice?” Indeed.

    • paris-dakar

      The idea of retributive justice is inconsistent with the determinism and relativism which plague modern culture. Sadly the Church has been weaker that it ought to be in opposing these destructive impulses.

  • digdigby

    You, a stranger, have no right to ‘forgive’ the murderer of my child or wife or best friend.

  • Bill Russell

    A prudential judgment has no place in the official Catechism of the Catholic Church. This was a mistake and, while Pope Benedict XVI takes a clear position about the use of capital punishment, he knows that he cannot declare it intrinsically evil. I expect he was not happy with the inclusion of a prudential opinion in the Catechism when he was Prefect of the CDF. . As I have pointed out elsewhere, Pius XII taught on retributive justice: “Even in the case of the death penalty the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. Rather, public authority limits itself to depriving the offender of the good of life in expiation for his guilt, after he, through his crime, deprived himself of his own right to life.”

  • Chris

    Although I agree with the general position that the Church has always taught the death penalty is morally licit, there is a significant flaw in reasoning in the artlcle: the claim that to want to outlaw the death penalty is equivalent to a declaration that it is intrinsically immoral. This is a non sequitur, while there is no positive statement establishing this, i.e. a more direct statement that it is intrinsically immoral/is never considered morally licit It seems to be an attempt to set up a straw man argument- claiming it is such a declaration of an instrinsic evil, but that such a position is then in conflict with Tradition, and therefore it is erroneous.

  • Two recurrent ideas contained in this article make me uncomfortable.

    First, the idea that punishment for it’s own sake is compatible with love and mercy. Ultimately, it’s not. True justice must always include the goal of rehabilitation and reconciliation in this life. We must not resist growth in our understanding of love and mercy as presented in Jesus’ Sermon On the Mount.

    Second, the idea that our understanding of truth cannot evolve is contradictory and shackles us to an incomplete past. This sounds like Protestant evangelicals insisting that there be no development beyond the structure of the church as presented in the Book of Acts or Pauline epistles.

    I stand with Blessed John Paul II. Jesus reminded his disciples there was more to learn but they were not able to receive them at that time. He said the Holy Spirit would continue to guide us toward truth. We must continue letting this happen. “You have heard it said…but I say to you…”

    • Bill Bannon

      How is that The Holy Spirit wasn’t able to get John Paul to protect young boys from being sodomized by priests instead of traveling 17% of his time between 1979 and 2002? He was a real expert on security questions alright.

  • annie

    That confirms my idea that some have thrown away completely the principle of retributive justice, which after all is not a human invention. Revenge is human. Retributive justice is not.

  • Bill Bannon

    This is actually a case of two Popes dissenting from their own catechism which affirmed theoretic rare executions in #2267 while outside the catechism, both Popes have either called executions “cruel” (John Paul twice) or worked for its abolition (Benedict). So you have John Paul calling “cruel” something that God repeatedly commanded in the Bible…..and no Bishop or Cardinal will sat boo. It reminds me of the total abscence of any magisterium person as a hero in the sex abuse crisis. We have no heroes because our conformism is almost total and that’s partly due to the oath many in the Church take to keep their job.

  • Tony Esolen

    I have no dog in this hunt. I’m on the fence. But I will say that the idea that a murderer can be rendered harmless to others is simply not true. I mean that the facts don’t bear it out. There are escapes, unwise paroles, murders within the prison (of other prisoners, of guards, of other prison personnel), and murders ordered by organized-crime honchos in prison.

    Then there is the question of mercy for the families of the victims. The greatest cause of despair, that I can see, is the flagrant existence of injustice. The families of victims need to be protected from that …

  • Allan Wafkowski

    Mr Ferrara’s argument is eloquent in its presentation and flawless in its logic.

    The suggestion that capital punishment is unacceptable is based on faulty logic and a disregard for the consistent teachings of the Church. The present disdain for capital punishment can, I believe, be traced to a talk given by Pope John Paul II. A talk that had nothing to buttress it other than Pope JP II’s sentiments, but was repeated in the CCC with the some lack of authority.

  • Michael PS

    The arguments in Evangelium Vitae are by no means new.

    In fact, they are perfectly summarized by Robespierre, on the trial of Louis XVI:
    “I have asked the Assembly, which you still call Constituent, for the abolition of the death penalty, and it is not my fault if the first principles of reason seem to it moral and political heresies. But if you never bethought yourselves to invoke them in favor of so many unfortunates whose offenses are less their own than those of the government, by what fatality do you remember them only to plead the cause of the greatest of all criminals?

    You ask an exception to the death penalty for him alone against whom it can be legitimate! Yes, the penalty of death generally is a crime, and for that reason alone, according to the indestructible principles of nature, it can be justified only in cases when it is necessary for the safety of individuals or the social body. Public safety never demands it against ordinary offenses, because society can always guard against them by other means and make the offender powerless to harm it. But a dethroned king in the bosom of a revolution which is anything but cemented by laws, a king whose name suffices to draw the scourge of war on the agitated nation, neither prison nor exile can render his existence immaterial to the public welfare…”

    A principled opposition to capital punishment in ordinary cases is perfectly compatible with its swift, severe, inflexible use when the public safety demands it.

  • Tom

    Ten reasons why Cafeteria Catholics are wrong about the death penalty

    1) The ten commandments state very clearly not to kill. This is repeated twice in the Old Testament (Exhodust 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17 “You shall not kill.”; 5th commandment ).
    2) Not a single Gospel passage supports the death penalty, in fact, Jesus was executed Himself by a capricious, incompetent Roman governor.
    3) Cafeteria Catholics can not accept teachings of the Church; to them it’s always “my way”. They don’t accept that two Popes have witnessed far more horrors they ever will in their comfy US gated suburban cocoons, that these Popes have, perhaps, some wisdom, something to teach them. Those are the exact same people that criticized JP2’s and Ratzinger’s opposition to the Iraq war that cost over 100,000 lives and bankrupted our country. Those are the exact same people that funded and protected people like Father Maciel, and his protectors. You would think they would have the humility for a self re-examination. Think again. They are now trying to buy and influence by force the Church.
    4) For them, “government” is always inefficient and to be shut down, except when it comes to capital punishment. In that case, government is always 100% correct in defining who to kill by various barbarous methods. This is despite mountains of evidence that many of those that are condemned are in grey zones, and would not be condemned to death, if they had money to properly defend themselves, or where of a different ethnicity.
    5) They use the canard that people on death row “convert”. One can make the reverse argument, that those that do not convert, never will. How often does that happen?
    6) They misuse the word “prudential” as in “prudential judgment”. The virtue of prudence dictates caution and self preservation, not rash revenge. According to their definition of “prudential judgment”, the entire Gospel teaching can be dispensed.
    7) They deliberately miss-read the Catechism. The Catechism on purpose is cautious (prudent) in its wording, because, yes, there may be rare times when capital punishment is the only way out (for example, some one that could never be safely incarcerated and that remains a danger to society; as dictated by prudence/self protection).
    8) They speak as if they were “victims” them selves, which they are not, in opposition to JP2, who was.
    9) They always use examples of the extremely deranged serial killers, which, granted, represent a special category, but are not representative of the majority of cases of capital punishment.
    10) They have no problems smearing the web with this dark topic on the first week of Advent (related to #3).

    Happy Advent

    Tom Adam kiewicz

    • Bill Bannon

      According to your essay, two main prophets of the OT broke the fifth commandment:

      Elijah… speaking about 450 Baal prophets…
      1Ki 18:40 “And Elijah said unto them, Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there.”

      Samuel…because Saul didn’t kill Agag as ordered by God..
      1Sa 15:33 “And Samuel said, As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women. And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal”

    • TomD

      I have always been under the impression that the Hebrew word translated as “kill” in the Commandments (ratsach) is more precisely translated as “take the life of the innocent,”, i.e., murder, or to “take life unjustly.” Ratsach is not accurately translated as an absolute prohibition against the taking of life. The critical distinction in this context is between justly and unjustly.

      If “kill” is an absolute prohibition on the taking of any life, as you seem to imply, then self-defense, including legitimate warfare, as during the Second World War, seems to be prohibited as well. If the state can never take life in the name of criminal justice, may it ever take life at a time of war?

    • Allan Wafkowski

      Tom, the problem with your reply is that you have avoided the almost 2,000 years in which the Catholic Church took a very different position than some are taking now.

      There is an absurd irony in your use of the term “Cafeteria Catholics” Didn’t you read the article? What is being offered today is a novelty that has been condemned by the Church in the past. Your use of select scriptural passages with your simplistic interpretations is unacceptable for a Catholic. The Church has the final say about interpretation, not Tom.

    • Bill Curry

      Oh Tom…your value judgements confuse you. Read what the Pope said in 2004….I support the death penaty…and I CAN !! Read #3

  • Michael PS

    Scandinavian prisons have seen a great reduction in violence, by allowing the routine compulsory, supervised administration of neuroleptic (anti-psychotic) drugs to the small number of criminals that actually need to be imprisoned

    • Bill Bannon

      Michael PS
      Your intellect knows data but does not work at making distinctions.
      Do you see any difference between ethnically homogenous nations with no historically deprived lower slave classes….and the US and Brazil, the latter of which received it’s slave legacy in part due to two bulls of Pope Nicholas V in the 1450’s which were affirmed by three other Popes.

      • Michael PS

        The distinction is between penal systems that systematically use neuroleptic drugs and those that do not.

        In the UK, even 50 years ago, padded cells and mechanical restraints AKA straight-jackets were routinely used in the three State Hospitals for criminal lunatics, like Broadmoor, Rampton and Carstairs. Now, they are unknown. Chlorpromazine, Chlordiazepoxide and their successors rendered them obsolete.

  • annie

    Chemical strait jacketing is a matter of six of one and half a dozen of another.

    As for capital punishment, it is certainly not “cafeteria Catholics” who read Aquinas aright.

  • paris-dakar

    More from the Angelic Doctor, Patron Saint of Cafeteria Catholics: “The fact that the evil, as long as they live, can be corrected from their errors does not prohibit the fact that they may be justly executed, for the danger which threatens from their way of life is greater and more certain than the good which may be expected from their improvement. They also have at that critical point of death the opportunity to be converted to God through repentance. And if they are so stubborn that even at the point of death their heart does not draw back from evil, it is possible to make a highly probable judgement that they would never come away from evil to the right use of their powers.” Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, 146.

    ” . . . the death inflicted by the judge profits the sinner, if he be converted, unto the expiation of his crime; and, if he be not converted, it profits so as to put an end to the sin, because the sinner is thus deprived of the power to sin anymore.” (Summa Theologica, II-II, 25, 6 ad 2.)

    “If a man is a danger to the community, threatening it with disintegration by some wrongdoing of his, then his execution for the healing and preservation of the common good is to be commended. Only the public authority, not private persons, may licitly execute malefactors by public judgement. Men shall be sentenced to death for crimes of irreparable harm or which are particularly perverted.” Summa Theologica, 11; 65-2; 66-6.

    • Tom

      Thanks for posting this.
      No argument with the Doctor of Church. If you really taste what St Thomas says, you will find that he uses the very sensible, same argument as that he uses to justify the just war. This is 100% accordance with current Catechism teaching.
      St Thomas key concepts are:
      “…the danger which threatens from their way of life is greater..”
      “..the sinner is thus deprived of the power to sin anymore..”
      “..If a man is a danger to the community, threatening it with disintegration by some wrongdoing of his..”
      Life time incarceration in modern penitentiaries does just that: it removes the danger posed by the criminal. This was not possible in St Thomas’s time to the extent it is possible now. Either way, the argument of self defense applies.
      End of story.

      • Bill Bannon

        In the Roman Empire, life sentences were work in the Roman mines. No one escaped. During the Avignon papacy, life sentences were in dungeons with walls ten feet thick.
        Now life sentences come with letter writing privileges and phone call privileges mandated by district courts….which phone calls are vehicles for gang ordered murders out on the street….300 in a ten year period in California according to an article in the
        NY Times years ago by gang members.
        A lifer killed Jeffrey Dahmer and a lifer killed Fr. Geoghan. In non death penalty states, they cannot be further punished except with solitary during which they gab with the guy in the next cell by yelling.
        The Pope therefore is making life more deadly for prison inmates. The Bishops agree with him because they take an oath to agree with him as do Catholic profs…over 379 of whom signed a letter backing him.
        So they are all making prisons more dangerous in the name of pro life. It’s fortunate I have Bourbon and Coke and ice….just ruminating on this tragedy. Plus the Popes are confirming and teaching that tradition means zero because you can change it overnight and call it development.

        • Michael PS

          You are right about poor penal policy.

          The fact is that it is now technically possible to keep violent offenders more or less permanently sedated. That is why State Hospitals, where inmates can be medicated without their consent are models of calm, compared to prisons, where they cannot, except in some more progressive jurisdictions, like Scandinavia, where mental health and penal administration have become more integrated.

          • John Zmirak

            Isn’t it more HUMAN, not to say more CHRISTIAN, to give criminals an honorable execution rather than a lifetime doped up into stupefaction like lowing cattle? I think you should read “A Clockwork Orange” to see this point illustrated.

            • Michael PS

              At least they remain alive, with the possibly of benefiting in the future from less debilitating means of addressing their pathologies.

              Given the advances in neurology and pharmacology over the last 50 years, do we have any reason to expect future developments to be less dramatic?

              • Bill Bannon

                The weekly cable tv series on prisons showed a US prisoner who was emailing erotic letters to multiple gays (each thinking he was the only one) out in civilian life and asking each of them to send him a little money for commissary items he could buy like cigarettes. He was banking the aggregate of all the money each sent and bragging about it to the interviewer. Let’s presume him a murderer for theoretic purposes. Now let’s say he also commits thousands of sins of masturbation prior to dying of
                old age in a life sentence.
                Wouldn’t he have been better off with the solemnity and possible contrition that gave the thieves on the cross a 50% salvation rate. Has a Pope even considered that some life sentences multiply the pains of hell by multiplying the ensuing mortal sins of SOME prisoners on life sentences. What is the probability of lifers living non masturbatory, religious or conscientious lives? I don’t know. But has a Pope even looked into it at all…at all?

              • paris-dakar

                So society has a responsibility to provide pharmacological ‘benefits’ to criminals to ‘address’ their ‘pathologies’? Pure determinism.

                What about the criminal expiating his sin through the proper application of retributive justice? Seems to ‘address’ free will and thus human dignity much more directly.

            • Sarto

              Would you nobly volunteer to stick in the needle?

              • paris-dakar

                Why not? If the person was convicted by a lawful process I wouldn’t have any especial qualms over it. After all, I benefit from being a member of the greater society so it would be hypocrisy to turn around and hold myself above the process.

                I would reverse the question and ask if the anti-Capital Punishment advocates are willing to spend a year actually working in a Maximum Security prison with the poor suffering sick people they’re so eager to embrace.

                I’ve actually had some limited contact with the congenital criminal type and I have no illusions about their proclivities and dispositions.

            • Donna G

              That reminds me of the argument pro-abortionists use in favour of aborting disabled or sick babies – better not to live than to live like that. But death is always death.

      • paris-dakar

        The logic of the modernist – even though something argues directly in support of a particular thing, it’s actually an argument against since the original author didn’t know as much as we know now. Same silliness that’s distorted the US Constitution beyond recognition so I guess Catholic Theology shouldn’t be any different.

        First, there’s no sense of either expiation or retribution in ‘life time’ incarceration.

        Second, ‘life time’ incarceration is hardly that in fact. As far as the idea of drugging convicts, how ‘merciful’ is it to impose a ‘life’ where free will and normal cognition is denied to a person? And besides which, if a person has to be permanently medicated to render them harmless isn’t that a pretty severe indicator of the content of their character?

        • Michael PS

          It is an indicator, certainly, of severe mental/neurological disturbance.

          Why not use the treatments we have available, in the hope of developing more successful treatments, in the future?

          Even in the 18th century, Robespierre, hardly a bleeding-heart liberal, could argue that capital punishment “can be justified only in cases when it is necessary for the safety of individuals or the social body. Public safety never demands it against ordinary offenses, because society can always guard against them by other means and make the offender powerless to harm it.”

          That is even more true today, given the advances in pharmacology I have noted

          • paris-dakar

            It’s extremely odd to hear pharmacological treatment throw up continually as an alternative to capital punishment on a Catholic website. It may make sense from a modern perspective of materialism/determinism but traditional Catholicism has some fairly clear things to say regarding free choice of the will as illuminated by reason. The idea of offering chemically ‘treating’ crime as a family of ‘disorder’ is contrary to the concepts of contrition and expiation, both of which require full function of both volition and cognition.
            The previous post about reading ‘A Clockwork Orange’ is spot on.

  • annie

    So you think Dominicans are cafeteria Catholics? I think you don’t know what that term means. Cafeteria Catholics are the pro-abortion anti-death penalty ones.

    • Tom

      Pro-abortion is not compatible with being Catholic.
      Trigger happy pro-death penalty people do not follow Catechism teaching, they pick and choose what is comfortable for them, like in a cafeteria.

  • Ender

    I know this has already been mentioned but I don’t think enough attention is paid to the concept of retribution. It is a term that is routinely misunderstood and clearing up its meaning might go a long way in clarifying the debate.

    The catechism (2266) says that “The primary scope of the penalty is to redress the disorder caused by the offense.” That is, the primary justification for any and all punishment is … retribution (retributive justice). As a matter of fundamental justice the State must (not may) apply a punishment commensurate with the severity of the crime and the Church has always recognized that the death penalty was a just punishment for the crime of murder.

    Punishment is an obligation of justice and capital punishment is no exception; no debate that ignores the retributive aspect of punishment is meaningful.

  • A fine article. Vatican City State and the other Papal States themselves formerly used the death penalty.

    In the 19th Century, there existed the archconfraternity of San Giovanni Decollato (“Saint John Beheaded”), whose members did penance for those we now call death-row inmates. For them, part of being Christian also meant looking out for the spiritual welfare of the condemned, something Mr. Ferrara brings up here, but few others bring to the discussion.

    The State under the Popes was quite interested in man’s supernatural end, too. For this reason, execution days in Rome were days of prayer and penance.

    Saint Vincent Pallotti used to work with the archconfraternity of San Giovanni Decollato, and never complained that the Popes, one of whom was Blessed Pio Nono, were “violating human dignity.”


  • Joseph Breslin

    Excellent article Mr. Ferrara. What boggles the mind is the failure of the anti-death penalty Catholics (clerics included) to even attempt to make a substantive natural law argument against the justice of the death penalty. No matter how noble their intentions, when Popes and bishops seem alter the magisterial teaching of generations, they cause scandal to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. John Paul, like Peter, may be a saint. However, Peter refused to eat with the gentiles and ate instead with the Judaizing heretics, which gave scandal to the whole Church. It was saint Paul’s duty to correct him, and our duty as faithful Catholics to presume even to correct the Pope when in his private teaching or behavior he fails to act in accordance with teaching of the Church.

  • Bill Curry

    Its so weird…Cardinal Ratzinger distinuished abortion and the death penalty in a 2004 letter which clearly says that a catholic may DISAGREE with the Pope on whether to support the death penalty. Here is what he said

    3. Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”
    So…if we caught Hitler, it would be ok to have him spend life without parole in a cell painting, writing, etc. at OUR expense??? NO WAY…Justice for killing 6 million Jews is the death penalty. It is the only thing proportional to the crimes committed !!!

    • Bill Bannon

      Unforetunately Bill, by canon law all Catholic profs and Church office holders take an oath to religiously submit in the non definitive areas to the Pope. I think of it as the lemming oath though now they find that real lemmings are not as group think as we are. We should be group think on de fide things but being group think on non definitive things is the reason Catholic Bishops and Catholics generally supported burning heretics from 1253AD til 1816
      which is now an intrinsic evil in section 80 of “Splendor of the Truth”. Our Church needs a therapist. Lateran III and Lateran IV gave slavery of captured muslim collaborators as a reward to anyone who captured them. Now slavery is an intrinsic evil in section 80 of “Splendor of the Truth”.
      Pass the Sam Adams.

      • Sarto

        Have your Sam Adams but go slow on the infallibility stuff. Moral theology changes as civilization slowly matures.

        • paris-dakar

          Relativism for the win.

  • Michael PS

    No one is arguing that capital punishment is never necessary. One can think of numerous examples, from Louis XVI and Tsar Nicholas II to Ceauşescu and Gaddafi, whose continued existence, even in prison or exile, would make them a focus of counter-revolutionary activity. Hitler would have been a prime example

    Similarly, in forestalling or repressing a coup d’état or a widespread rebellion, maintaining discipline in an army in the field, maintaining order in a beleaguered city, capital punishment may be the only effective means

  • Tom McA

    Some traditional Catholic wisdom on the death penalty from the brilliant Radio Replies volumes of many years ago:

    “Those whose crimes gravely threaten the well-being of society may be put to death by social authority when lesser penalties prove inefficacious as a control upon them. God Himself sanctioned this law in Hebrew society, and it is entirely reasonable. If the extreme penalty could not be lawfully inflicted by the State upon enemies of the common good, much greater and more widespread evils would ensue. …

    “both by the natural moral law and God’s positive enactments the State is expressly authorised to safeguard social welfare by sentencing to death those guilty of capital crimes ….

    “In closer conformity with the actual Hebrew text, therefore, the Protestant Revised Version of the Bible and also the Catholic translation by Msgr. Ronald Knox render Exodus 20:13 as ‘Thou shalt do no murder.’ Peake’s 1962 Revised Commentary on the Bible says that the text ‘refers to murder, not to killing in war or capital punishment.'”

  • Brian K

    Less than 1300 have been put to death since capital punishment resumed in the USA in 1976, but 4000 babies die every day from abortion, 50,000,000 since 1973.

    I just think there is a gross lack of proportion in this whole debate.

    Why is this much ink spilled over capital punishment by our bishops and liberal Catholics when in comparison to real pro-life issues, the numbers are quite small?

  • Bill Curry

    Brian, ther answer to the question you ask is this: you cant SEE a child in the womb, but you can hear and see the criminals who have their lap dogs and sympathy-laden throngs who just cant see anyone executed, regardless of the crime….and I am constantly embarrassed at the Catholic priests who push this change in centuries-old support of the death penalty and who cant see the differerence between Adolph Hitler and an unborn child!! One is innocent and one is guilty !!!

  • Pingback: The Church and Capital Punishment–A Response | jaywhyte1085()