Let’s End the Death Penalty, Now

This essay originally appeared on March 11, 2009, as Abp. Chaput’s syndicated column. It is reprinted with permission, as part of Crisis’s symposium on capital punishment. For the view of Christopher Ferrara of The Latin Mass Magazine, see this piece. Recent Vatican statements on the issue are reported here.


Capital punishment, euthanasia, abortion and war: All these issues raise profound questions for Catholics as we reflect on the sanctity of human life.  But while they all touch on human dignity, they don’t all have the same moral content.

Euthanasia and abortion are always, intrinsically wrong because they always involve an intentional killing of innocent human life.  War and capital punishment, in contrast, can sometimes be morally acceptable as an expression of society’s right to self-defense.

Both Scripture and a long tradition of Catholic thought support the legitimacy of the death penalty under certain limited circumstances.  But as Pope John Paul II argued so eloquently, the conditions that require the death penalty for society’s self-defense and the discharge of justice in modern, developed nations almost never exist.  As a result, the right road for a civilized society is to abolish the death penalty altogether.

Readers of this column know that I’ve written and spoken many times, for many years, against the death penalty.  But I’m hardly alone in that view; bishops and many lay Catholics around the world and across the United States have urged public officials to end capital punishment for more than four decades.  Earlier this year the four bishops of Colorado jointly revisited the issue yet again, saying:

As the Catholic bishops of Colorado, and consistent with Christian respect for the sanctity of human life, we oppose the use of capital punishment in our state.

We believe that all people have a natural right to life, because every human being is made in the image and likeness of God, who alone is Lord of life from its beginning until its end (cf. Gn 1: 26-28).

Obviously, behavior that threatens or takes lives cannot be tolerated. Those whose actions harm others must be held accountable. Society has a right to establish laws that protect all people and promote the common good. But the need to punish violent criminals does not logically lead, in our day, to the conclusion that capital punishment should be employed.

We grieve for the victims of murder and the terrible suffering of their families. In capital murder cases, we recognize that grave punishment is needed both to serve justice and to ensure the safety of the community. But we also believe, as Pope John Paul II once observed, that improvements in the penal system of developed countries like our own make the death penalty unnecessary to protect the community.

The state of Colorado has other means available to it besides the death penalty to exact justice and render the criminal unable to do harm. We need to continue the reform of our criminal justice system, and we need to impose punishment in a way that protects society from violence while avoiding further killing under official guise.

All human life, from conception to natural death, including the life of a convicted murderer, has intrinsic value. For the sake of our own humanity, we need to turn away from a mistaken idea of justice based—in practice—on further and unneeded violence.

The Colorado General Assembly currently has before it an important and hopeful piece of legislation—House Bill (HB) 1274—that would end the death penalty in our state.  Support for capital punishment has steadily eroded around the country in recent years as more people come to see the inadequacy of the death penalty as a deterrent, the racially and ethnically biased manner in which it’s often applied, and the number of innocent persons wrongly condemned to death who have been exonerated by new DNA techniques.

I ask Catholics around the archdiocese to please contact their elected state lawmakers.  Please ask our legislators to support HB 1274.  We need to end the death penalty now; it’s the right course for a humane society.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.


Most Reverend Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., is the archbishop of Philadelphia. Before his appointment to Philadelphia by Pope Benedict in 2011, he served as bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota and archbishop of Denver. He is the author of three books: Living the Catholic Faith: Rediscovering the Basics (2001); Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life (2008) and Strangers in a Strange Land (2017)

  • Joseph Conley

    I have changed my view on the death penalty. Almost always I am against it lest an innocent person be convicted and so sentenced. However, I still have strong reservations of those prisoners serving life sentences who kill other prisoners. I think of poor Fr. Geoghan killed in his cell so the murderer could be moved to another prison where his friend was! Or a recent case in th e news where 2 “lifers” brutally stabbed many times a fellow prisoner. It seems that Society was unable to protect others from them. I do think that these should be executed.

  • Robert Brennan

    I am the last person on earth to disagree with a good Bishop like Bishop Chaput but here I am doing just that. I guess I disagree with his stated premise that capital punishment exists to “protect society.” I believe capital punishment exists to provide justice.

  • Bill Bannon

    Plato said in book three of the Republic that too much culture makes men feminized. You are seeing that in our Church. Fr. Andrew Greeley in a 2004 book said that 16% of priests self identify as gay. That’s not identical with being feminized but it’s related.
    It’s not just the death penalty. Both John Paul II and Benedict stated that we cannot be sure Judas is in hell
    whereas Augustine and Chrysostom were dead sure in sermons they gave on that very topic because Christ said words about Judas that make zero sense if Judas was glory bound. Women, excepting when they’re angry, are more lenient on evil doers than men are. That’s why James Joyce in “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” found it easier to talk to Mary than to God. Mother Teresa was against the death penalty but never seemed cognizant of God’s word in that area. These last two Popes have a woman’s horror of the God commanded violence of the OT: read section 40 of Evangelium Vitae and section 42 of Benedict’s Verbum Domine for the proof….it pushed them both into a modernist concept of inspiration of the Bible (neither man takes seriously all the 1st person imperatives said of God in the OT).
        John Paul II had two similar moral theology mistakes and you can easily test it.  He had the identical pattern on two topics: wifely obedience and the death penalty.  In both he lets the scripture verses which refute him….drop out of sight.  Read “Evangelium Vitae” and you’ll see that he never once mentions Romans 13:4 which was classic for Aquinas on the topic of the death penalty and war.  John Paul cites repeatedly the half of Genesis 9:6 that he likes: “man is made in the image of God”.  And he never once shows the reader the half he didn’t like: ” if any man sheds the blood of man, by man will his blood be shed.”
         The result is that a Pope wrote on the death penalty while effectively hiding the two classic verses on it.
         Go to both TOB and “Dignity of Women” on wifely obedience.  John Paul loves one phrase in Ephesians…”be subject to one another” so he cites it and lets 5 other passages drop out of your sight because they simply say..”wives obey your husbands” in one form or other  ( I Cor.11:3/ Col.3:18/ ITim.2:11-12/Titus2:5/ I Peter 3:1).  The result was that his theory that both spouses must be subjecting themselves always in every decision to each other…removed husband headship from the place Pius XI gave it in section 74 of casti connubii in the most trenchant of terms.  The real result is that the catechism has nothing on the topic despite the Holy Spirit wanting it six times in the NT.  And the Church in an age of divorce is silent on wives obeying husbands.  Sorry folks.  That is not normal nor is it normal that the catechism affirms the death penalty but pretends that only in modern life are prisons secure for life sentences that make the death penalty unnecessary.
    Prisons in past centuries were more secure for life sentences in that lifers could not order murders of witnesses from a court mandated freedom of phone calls.
          John Paul is uncritically followed into mistakes because writing careers and clergy careers rise and fall on the degree of one’s docility to everything a Pope says….and because most Catholic teachers (and I suppose Bishops) take an oath to submit in mind and will to the non definitive when they take the Profession of Faith….the oath is at the ending.  The problem with that is that it means the same docile writers and clergy would have followed the
    heretic burning Popes of 1253 AD and afterwards….Popes
    who had an opposite view of the death penalty. At bottom, it’s about careers or paying the mortgage.
    John Paul put in that oath and it guarantees an unhealthy conformism that now ludicrously denounces the death penalty as “cruel” in a Bishop’s document aping John Paul….and yet God gave death penalties over thirty times in Scripture as Cardinal Avery Dulles noted….prior to
    the oath mentioned. How cruel of God…..lol.

  • Bill Russell

    A prudential judgment about the application of natural law must not usurp that law itself. Were that the case, contraception would be open to revision. As an incarnation of the tradition of immutable natural law, Pius XII concisely explained capital punishment: “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.” On the other hand, in light of his loathing of Communism, his simultaneous impulse of mercy could be startling, as when he twice pleaded for clemency for the convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg – and, in an unprecedented act, published his appeals to President Eisenhower in L’Osservatore Romano.

    • Sarto

      Ahh, the good old “prudential judgment.” The conservative weasel word that allows them to dodge the social teaching of the Church. But then, I have to admit, I consider the Church’s teaching on contraception to be a prudential judgment, and not a very prudent one at that.

      I was a young man when Humanae Vitae came out. I had studied philosophy in the seminary and knew a lot about natural law. The pope’s argument seemed flawed then and even more flawed now. In the end, the pope had to keep repeating, “Now you respect the authority of the Magisterium!” without realizing that, in this modern world, an argument from authority is the weakest of all arguments.

      Now I respect people who try to follow the teaching on the Church because they understand that every vocation involves a sacrifice and married people have to accept the cross that comes from their life choice. This has nothing to do with “natural law.” My Protestant friends are suspicious of natural law thinking because Catholics, citing natural law, tried to justify slavery and the domination of women.

      • Bill Bannon

        Both Protestants and Catholics had slaves. The South was not by and large Catholic.
        It was the Quakers whose total anti-slavery position who were the only perfect anti-slavery group. Despite Pope Leo XIII rhapsodizing about the Catholic anti slavery leadership, John Noonan Jr. put that puppy to rest by showing the Catholic University theologians’ four exceptions that allowed slavery to be in a Catholic country last…Portugal….and to be in our moral theology books til 1960 (Iorio’s Moral Theology, 5th
        printing)…. after which the Quaker position of the 18th century is found in Vatican II…and in section 80 of Splendor of the Truth.

        • Sarto

          That’s my point. The natural law argument used to justify slavery simply ignored the suffering and indignity experienced by real people. And I grieve again and again that it was the Quakers, and not the Catholics, who understood that the whole idea violated the spirit of Christ. And the same today with capital punishment. Legal arguments aside, it is grotesque. Christ’s death on the cross was legal and the peoplel who counted thought he was guilty. His very death should make executions unthinkable.

  • Mack Hall

    The death penalty should be withdrawn, with a temporary exemption regarding whoever invented reality television.

    • Sarto

      Actually, I think every execution should be shown in every detail on primetime, so the people so in favor of this atrocity can see exactly what they want so badly.

  • Allan Wafkowski

    Archbishop Chaput overlooks the almost 2000 years that the Catholic Church approved and used capital punishment. In its place he offers vague and saccharine feelings that amount to something like, it must be wrong because God is nice.

    This nice, loving and merciful God is quite willing to place you in hell if you don’t obey Him. Is that nice? You can’t follow that train of thought without coming to the awkward conclusion that maybe God is not so nice.

    It would be a faulty conclusion because the process is faulty. God is not man and man is not God, but God has authorized a God-like authority on earth that parallels the judgments of God in eternity.

    The result of not having God’s plan for justice on earth should be apparent to all with open eyes. There is little justice on earth because we have chosen to replace the true God of mercy and justice with the god of nice. A judge-less impotent God who blesses every evil action because he is nice and doesn’t dare judge.

    The opportunity for evil offered by believing in a judge-less God is immense, and is how we have arrived at a generation of ill-informed believers with little sense of sin and its consequences.

    Without a God of judgement and mercy we are unable to understand God and his ways.

    • Bill Bannon

      And this trend comes from two Popes who both stated that we could not be sure Judas is in hell whereas Augustine and Chrysostom were sure of it based on Christ’s words about Judas. Catholic countries without the death penalty are numbers one and two as the worst murder rate countries on earth:

      El Salvador #1 worst murder rate.             79% Catholic      no dp 
      Honduras #2. worst          ”          ”               97%.Catholic   no dp
      Venezuela.# 4 worst            ”         ”             96%.          ”        no dp
      Colombia. #7.worst               ”       ”              90%.      ”             no dp
      Brazil. #19.worst.              ”.          ”              73%.             ”        no dp
      Dominican Republic #20.worst “. ”               95%.         ”            no dp

      • Bill Bannon

        source is wiki…murder rates by country.

      • Sarto

        El Salvador and Honduras are still suffering from the consequences of U.S. supported death squads and guerrilla war. It will take generations for the violence to finally disappear. Along with Colombia they are also in the front-line for the drug trade, which supplies U.S. demands.

        • Bill Bannon

          Nice try.

          • Tom

            ..actually most of these countries suffer from a drug war, fuelled by US addiction. If you compare the murder rate in the US to other democratic western countries with similar GDP/person, with no death penalty, US murder rates are way, way, way higher. Capital punishment is no deterrent. Go Archbishop Chaput!

            • Bill Bannon

              The US has no death penalty that is quickly applied….a necessary element of punishment. Acts 5 says it deters when done fast. But what does the Holy Spirit know compared to two Popes.
              Now tell your confessor that you are selling drugs but it’s not your fault because part of your town wants drugs with an insatiable demand. See if he thinks their demand has an iota to do with your sin.

              • paris-dakar

                Excellent point. Amazing the degree to which determinism rears its ugly head in these capital punishment debates. I guess if you don’t really believe in responsibility then you can never understand retribution, expiation or contrition.

        • CheheheGuevara

          Go home, Yankee Imperialist!!! On second thought . . . wait for us . . . can we come too?

        • paris-dakar

          How droll, it’s America’s fault.

  • trad_cat

    “Obviously, behavior that threatens or takes lives cannot be tolerated. Those whose actions harm others must be held accountable. Society has a right to establish laws that protect all people and promote the common good. But the need to punish violent criminals does not logically lead, in our day, to the conclusion that capital punishment should be employed.”

    Until we have robots running prisons and incarcerated violent criminal will continue to be a threat to lives (i.e. Prison guards) even under tight securty.

  • Mark

    How is it that some states can outlaw the death penalty or put a moratorium on it; but states are unable to put a moratorium on abortion despite the pain it causes?

  • Micha Elyi

    “We grieve for the victims of murder and the terrible suffering of their families.”-The Four Bishops of Colorado

    Yet no bishops publicly and noisily grieve for those who must guard imprisoned murderers, though they and their families too be victims of those murderers.

    I look forward to an article by a prison chaplain who details the spiritual help given to guards, other prison staff, and their families.

  • Bill Curry

    Cap Punishment is JUSTICE !! If we had caught Hitler, would JUSTICE be to allow him to sit in a prison at public expense?? interviewed, allowed to write…as a great old statesman?? NOT for killing 6 million Jews !! Get real !!

  • dudette

    i support the death penalty. This is a human imperfect world–but give to caesar what is caesars’—if there is an injustice in this imperfect world God will sort it out –what is inexplicable to us on earth is made right in the next life. And i do believe we must protect society.