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Catholic Church and capital punishment

Acceptance and approval of capital punishment within the Catholic Church has varied throughout time, becoming significantly more critical since the mid-20th century.[1][2][3] The Catechism of the Catholic Church states "in the light of the Gospel" the death penalty is "an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person"[3][4] and advocates for capital punishment to be abolished worldwide.[5]

In past centuries, the teaching of the Catholic Church was generally accepting of capital punishment under the belief that it was a form of lawful slaying.[6] The Catholic Church generally moved away from any explicit condoning or approval of capital punishment and adopted a disapproving stance on the issue by the mid-20th century.[2][1] Modern Church figures such as Pope John Paul II,[7] Pope Francis,[8] and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops[9] have actively discouraged the imposition of the death penalty and advocated for its abolition. Since the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church became staunchly opposed to the death penalty in the vast majority of applications. During his papacy, Paul II appealed for a consensus to end the death penalty on the ground that it was "both cruel and unnecessary".[10][11]

Pope Francis also proposed the abolition of the death penalty, as well as life imprisonment, which he felt is just a variation of the death penalty. [12] [13]


Early history to Middle AgesEdit

In past centuries, the teaching of the Catholic Church generally categorized capital punishment as a form of "lawful slaying."[6]

This was the view defended by theological authorities such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.[6]

Augustine of Hippo (354–430 AD)Edit

In St. Augustine's The City of God, published in 426 AD, he wrote in Chapter I that:

The same divine authority that forbids the killing of a human being establishes certain exceptions, as when God authorizes killing by a general law or when He gives an explicit commission to an individual for a limited time.

The agent who executes the killing does not commit homicide; he is an instrument as is the sword with which he cuts. Therefore, it is in no way contrary to the commandment, 'Thou shalt not kill' to wage war at God's bidding, or for the representatives of public authority to put criminals to death, according to the law, that is, the will of the most just reason (from The City of God, Book 1, Chapter 21)

Augustine felt that the death penalty was a means of deterring the wicked and protecting the innocent.[14]

Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274 AD)Edit

In the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas reaffirmed this position. (See also Aquinas on the death penalty). The following is a summary of Summa Contra Gentiles, Book 3, Chapter 146 which was written by Aquinas prior to writing the Summa Theologica. St. Thomas was a vocal supporter of the death penalty.

This was based on the theory (found in natural moral law), that the state has not only the right, but the duty to protect its citizens from enemies, both from within, and without.

For those who have been appropriately appointed, there is no sin in administering punishment. For those who refuse to obey God's laws, it is correct for society to rebuke them with civil and criminal sanctions. No one sins working for justice, within the law. Actions that are necessary to preserve the good of society are not inherently evil. The common good of the whole society is greater and better than the good of any particular person. "The life of certain pestiferous men is an impediment to the common good which is the concord of human society. Therefore, certain men must be removed by death from the society of men." This is likened to the physician who must amputate a diseased limb, or a cancer, for the good of the whole person. He based this on I Corinthians 5, 6: "You know that a little leaven corrupts the whole lump of dough?" and I Corinthians 5, 13: "Put away the evil one from among yourselves"; Romans 13,4: "[it is said of earthly power that] he bears not the sword in vain: for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that does evil"; I Peter 2, 13-14: "Be subjected therefore to every human creature for God's sake: whether to be on the king as excelling, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of good." He believed these passages superseded the text of Exodus 20,13: "Thou shall not kill." This is mentioned again in Matthew 5,21. Also, it is argued that Matthew 13, 30: "Suffer both the weeds and the wheat to grow until the harvest." The harvest was interpreted as meaning the end of the world. This is explained by Matthew 13,38-40.[15]

Aquinas acknowledged these passages could also be interpreted as meaning there should be no use of the death penalty if there was a chance of injuring the innocent. The prohibition "Thou shall not kill", was superseded by Exodus 22,18: "Wrongdoers you shall not suffer to live."

The argument that evildoers should be allowed to live in the hope that they might be redeemed was rejected by Aquinas as frivolous. If they would not repent in the face of death, it was unreasonable to assume they would ever repent. "How many people are we to allow to be murdered while waiting for the repentance of the wrongdoer?", he asked, rhetorically. Using the death penalty for revenge, or retribution is a violation of natural moral law.

Reformation period to early modern era (1520–1911)Edit

Exsurge Domine (1520 AD)Edit

During the Leipzig Debate prior to his excommunication, then-Catholic priest Martin Luther made commentary against the morality of burning heretics to death. His position was summarized as "Haereticos comburi est contra voluntatem Spiritus" (It is contrary to the Spirit to burn heretics).[16] As such, it was one of the statements specifically censured in the 1520 papal bull Exsurge Domine.[17] When he failed to accept the bull and give a broad recantation of his writings, he was excommunicated in the subsequent 1521 papal bull Decet Romanum Pontificem. Although Luther's partial rejection of capital punishment is not the same as a broad rejection of capital punishment today, it was controversial even at the time because this had previously been a freely debated idea and had not resulted in charges of heresy.

Roman Catechism (1566 AD)Edit

The Council of Trent, an ecumenical council held in Italy between 1545 and 1563 and prompted by the Protestant Reformation, commissioned in the seventh canon ("De Reformatione") of Session XXIV the first Church-wide catechism of the Catholic Church, later known as the Roman Catechism and also as the Catechism of the Council of Trent. A commission of eminent theologians supervised by three cardinals produced a catechism, which was published in Rome under Papal authority, after the Council had concluded, under the Latin title "Catechismus ex decreto Concilii Tridentini ad parochos Pii V jussu editus, Romae, 1566" [in-folio]. In its section on the Fifth Commandment, the Roman Catechism teaches that civil authority, having power over life and death as "the legitimate avenger of crime," may commit "lawful slaying" as "an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder" by giving "security to life by repressing outrage and violence."

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.[18]

Early modern era (1911–2015)Edit

The 1911 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia suggested that Catholics should hold that "the infliction of capital punishment is not contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church, and the power of the State to visit upon culprits the penalty of death derives much authority from revelation and from the writings of theologians", but that the matter of "the advisability of exercising that power is, of course, an affair to be determined upon other and various considerations."[19]

In an address given on 14 September 1952, Pope Pius XII made clear that the Church does not regard the execution of criminals as a violation by the State of the universal right to life, arguing that:

When it is a question of the execution of a condemned man, the State does not dispose of the individual's right to life. In this case it is reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned person of the enjoyment of life in expiation of his crime when, by his crime, he has already disposed himself of his right to live.[20]

Some Catholic writers, such as the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin of Chicago, argued against the use of the death penalty in modern times by drawing on a stance labelled the "consistent life ethic". Characteristic of this approach is an emphasis on the sanctity of human life, and the responsibility on both a personal and social level to protect and preserve life from "womb to tomb" (conception to natural death). This position draws on the conviction that God has "boundless love for every person, regardless of human merit or worthiness."[21]

Pope John Paul II advocated incarceration in lieu of the death penalty whenever possible. In his 1995 Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II suggested that capital punishment should be avoided unless it is the only way to defend society from the offender in question, opining that punishment "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."[7] The edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in force until August 2018 supported John Paul II's statement:

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.][22]

However, according to Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), the 1995 assessment of the contemporary situation advanced by John Paul II is not binding on the Catholic faithful. In 2004, Ratzinger wrote:

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.[23]

Modern era (2015–)Edit

Pope FrancisEdit

Pope Francis has stated that he is against the death penalty.[24] In 2015, Pope Francis addressed the International Commission against the Death Penalty, stating that: "Today the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed." Francis argued that the death penalty is no longer justifiable by society's need to defend itself, and the death penalty has lost all legitimacy due to the possibility of judicial error. He stated that capital punishment is an offence "against the inviolability of life and the dignity of the human person, which contradicts God's plan for man and society" and "does not render justice to the victims, but rather fosters vengeance." [25] In the address, Francis further explained:

In certain circumstances, when hostilities are underway, a measured reaction is necessary in order to prevent the aggressor from causing harm, and the need to neutralize the aggressor may result in his elimination; it is a case of legitimate defense (cf. Evangelium Vitae, n. 55). Nevertheless, the prerequisites of legitimate personal defence are not applicable in the social sphere without the risk of distortion. In fact, when the death penalty is applied, people are killed not for current acts of aggression, but for offences committed in the past. Moreover, it is applied to people whose capacity to cause harm is not current, but has already been neutralized, and who are deprived of their freedom. [...]

For a constitutional State the death penalty represents a failure, because it obliges the State to kill in the name of justice [...] Justice is never reached by killing a human being. [...] The death penalty loses all legitimacy due to the defective selectivity of the criminal justice system and in the face of the possibility of judicial error. Human justice is imperfect, and the failure to recognize its fallibility can transform it into a source of injustice. With the application of capital punishment, the person sentenced is denied the possibility to make amends or to repent of the harm done; the possibility of confession, with which man expresses his inner conversion; and of contrition, the means of repentance and atonement, in order to reach the encounter with the merciful and healing love of God. Furthermore, capital punishment is a frequent practice to which totalitarian regimes and fanatical groups resort, for the extermination of political dissidents, minorities, and every individual labelled as "dangerous" or who might be perceived as a threat to their power or to the attainment of their objectives. As in the first centuries and also in the current one, the Church suffers from the application of this penalty to her new martyrs.

The death penalty is contrary to the meaning of humanitas and to divine mercy, which must be models for human justice. It entails cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, as is the anguish before the moment of execution and the terrible suspense between the issuing of the sentence and the execution of the penalty, a form of "torture" which, in the name of correct procedure, tends to last many years, and which oftentimes leads to illness and insanity on death row.[26]

Vatican support for UN campaign against the death penaltyEdit

The Vatican had also officially given support to a 2015 United Nations campaign against the death penalty.[25] During a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting concerning the abolishment of capital punishment, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi declared that "The Holy See Delegation fully supports the efforts to abolish the use of the death penalty."[27] The Archbishop stated:

Considering the practical circumstances found in most States ... it appears evident nowadays that means other than the death penalty 'are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons [...] We should take into account that no clear positive effect of deterrence results from the application of the death penalty and that the irreversibility of this punishment does not allow for eventual corrections in the case of wrongful convictions.[27]

Modification to the Catholic catechismEdit

On 2 August 2018, it was announced that the Catechism of the Catholic Church would be revised to state that the Church teaches that "the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person".[28][29] A full letter to the Bishops regarding the change stated that it was consistent with the previous teachings of the Catholic Church regarding the dignity of human life, and that it reflected how modern society had better prison systems with a goal of criminal rehabilitation that made the death penalty unnecessary for the protection of innocent people.[30]

The new text will say:

Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.

Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.[28]

Within two weeks forty five Catholic scholars and clergy signed an appeal to the cardinals of the Catholic Church, calling on them to advise Pope Francis to retract the recent revision made to the Catechism,[31] on the grounds that its appearance of contradicting scripture and traditional teaching is causing scandal. (See Pope Francis#Appeal against the changes on the death penalty.)

Church teachingEdit

The Church teaches that the commandment is "Thou shalt not murder", which permits the death penalty by the civil authority as the administrator of justice in a human society in accordance with the Natural Law. The Church’s teaching is that punishments, including the death penalty, may be levied for four reasons:[32]

  1. Rehabilitation - The sentence of death can and sometimes does move the condemned person to repentance and conversion. The death penalty may be a way of achieving the criminal’s reconciliation with God.
  2. Defense against the criminal - Capital punishment is an effective way of preventing the wrongdoer from committing future crimes and protecting society from him.
  3. Deterrence - Executions may create a sense of horror that would prevent others from being tempted to commit similar crimes.
  4. Retribution - Guilt calls for punishment. The graver the offense, the more severe the punishment ought to be. In Holy Scripture death is regarded as the appropriate punishment for serious transgressions. Thomas Aquinas held that sin calls for the deprivation of some good, such as, in serious cases, the good of temporal or even eternal life. The wrongdoer is placed in a position to expiate his evil deeds and escape punishment in the next life.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the death penalty is permissible in certain cases if the "guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined". As to defense against the criminal, the Church teaches that if there are other means available to defend people from the "unjust aggressor", these means are preferred to the death penalty because they are considered to be more respectful of the dignity of the person and in keeping with the common good.[33](2267) Because today's society makes possible effective means for preventing crime without execution, the Catechism - quoting Pope John Paul II wrote that "the cases in which execution of the offender is an absolute necessity 'are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.'"[33]

On 25 March 1995, Pope John Paul II affirmed the church's stance towards capital punishment in his 1995 encyclical titled Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life).[34]

In January 1999, Pope John Paul II, without changing Catholic teaching, appealed for a consensus to end the death penalty on the ground that it was "both cruel and unnecessary."[10][35] He said that criminal offenders should be offered "an incentive and help to change his or her behaviour and be rehabilitated"[36] Pope Francis advocated that "capital sentences be commuted to a lesser punishment that allows for time and incentives for the reform of the offender."[37]

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops states that "Our fundamental respect for every human life and for God, who created each person in his image, requires that we choose not to end a human life in response to violent crimes if non-lethal options are available."[38]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Bruenig, Elizabeth. "The Catholic Church Opposes the Death Penalty. Why Don't White Catholics?". New Republic. Retrieved 3 July 2016.
  2. ^ a b Desmond, Joan Frawley. "'Botched' Execution in Oklahoma Marks Church's Shifting View of Death Penalty". National Catholic Register. Retrieved 3 July 2016.
  3. ^ a b Harlan, Chico (2 August 2018). "Pope Francis changes Catholic Church teaching to say death penalty is 'inadmissible'". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2 August 2018.
  4. ^ Brockhaus, Hannah (2 August 2018). "Vatican changes Catechism teaching on death penalty, calls it 'inadmissible'". Catholic News Agency. Retrieved 2 August 2018.
  5. ^ "New revision of number 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the death penalty – Rescriptum "ex Audentia SS.mi"". Summary of Bulletin. Holy See Press Office. 2 August 2018. Retrieved 3 August 2018.
  6. ^ a b c "CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Capital Punishment (Death Penalty)". 1 June 1911. Retrieved 23 August 2010.
  7. ^ a b Papal encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, 25 March 1995 Archived 12 October 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ Ieraci, Laura. "Pope Francis calls death penalty 'unacceptable,' urges abolition". National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved 3 July 2016.
  9. ^ "Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty" (PDF). United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
  10. ^ a b Suris, Paul J. "Church Teaching and the Death Penalty". Archived from the original on 29 June 2009. Retrieved 5 May 2009. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  11. ^ "Catholicism & Capital Punishment". Catholic Education Resource Center.
  12. ^ "Pope Francis: Life sentences are 'a hidden death penalty'". Crux. 23 October 2014. Retrieved 2 August 2018.
  13. ^ X. Rocca, Francis (23 October 2014). "Pope Francis calls for abolishing death penalty and life imprisonment". National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved 3 March 2017.
  14. ^ Dulles, Avery Cardinal. "Catholicism & Capital Punishment". Retrieved 27 June 2014.
  15. ^ Latin source [1]
  16. ^ Haereticos comburi est contra voluntatem Spiritus in Google books, list of the propositions
  17. ^ Bainton, Roland H. (1950). Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Abingdon-Cokesbury Press., pp. 145–147.
  18. ^ Modern History Sourcebook, Fordham University, "Council of Trent: Catechism for Parish Priests"[2]
  19. ^ "CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Capital Punishment (Death Penalty)". 1 June 1911. Retrieved 23 August 2010.
  20. ^ His Holiness Pope Pius XII (14 September 1952). "The Moral Limits of Medical Research Treatment: Address to the First International Congress on the Histopathology of the Nervous System". Eternal World Television Network. Retrieved 27 April 2016.
  21. ^ Bernardin, J. Consistent Ethic of Life (Rowman & Littlefield, 1988), 66.
  22. ^ Article 2267 of the Catechism.
  23. ^ "Abortion – Pro Life – Cardinal Ratzinger on Voting, Abortion, and Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion". Retrieved 23 August 2010.
  24. ^ Bordoni, Linda (23 October 2014). "Pope: no to death penalty and to inhuman prison conditions". Radio Vatican. Retrieved 12 February 2015.
  25. ^ a b Gibson, David. "Pope Francis takes a dim view of the death penalty, but not all Catholics are convinced". National Catholic Register. Retrieved 3 July 2016.
  26. ^ "Letter of His Holiness Pope Francis to The President of The International Commission Against the Death Penalty". Vatican. Archived from the original on 22 May 2016. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  27. ^ a b McElwee, Joshua J. "Vatican 'fully supports' global abolition of death penalty". National Catholic Register. Retrieved 3 July 2016.
  28. ^ a b "New revision of number 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the death penalty – Rescriptum "ex Audentia SS.mi"". Summary of Bulletin. Holy See Press Office. 2 August 2018. Retrieved 3 August 2018.
  29. ^ Winfield, Nicole (2 August 2018). "Pope Francis changes Catholic teaching on death penalty, now 'inadmissible' in all circumstances". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2 August 2018.
  30. ^ "Letter to the Bishops regarding the new revision of number 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the death penalty, from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith". Summary of Bulletin. Holy See Press Office. 2 August 2018. Retrieved 3 August 2018.
  31. ^ Various (15 August 2018). "An Appeal to the Cardinals of the Catholic Church". First Things.
  32. ^ Dulles, Avery Cardinal. "Catholicism & Capital Punishment". Retrieved 27 June 2014.
  33. ^ a b Paragraph number 2258–2330 (1994). "Catechism of the Catholic Church". Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Archived from the original on 28 September 2007. Retrieved 27 December 2008. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  34. ^
  35. ^ "Catholicism & Capital Punishment". Catholic Education Resource Center.
  36. ^ "The Death Penalty Pro and Con - The Pope's Statement". PBS. 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 fulfills 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.
  37. ^ "Papal Message Reaffirms Call to Abolish Death Penalty". National Catholic Register. 19 June 2013.
  38. ^ "CATHOLIC CAMPAIGN TO END THE USE OF THE DEATH PENALTY" (PDF). United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.