Catholicism and Capital Punishment

Introduction

In Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”), Pope St. John Paul II stated that, “Human life is thus given a sacred and inviolable character . . . God will severely judge every violation of the commandment ‘You shall not kill’” (EV 53). After considering the implications of this precept, he goes on to discuss the death penalty saying that punishment “ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity . . . such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent” (EV 56). Much confusion has been generated in the years since Evangelium Vitae‘s publication concerning the Catholic Church’s teaching on capital punishment. Although the Church’s position has been spelled out for centuries, a failure to distinguish between her moral principles (policy) and prudential judgments (application of policy) has muddled these otherwise clear statements.

Church Teaching

The official policy of the Catholic Church has always been—and continues to be—that capital punishment is allowable under certain conditions. It cannot be, then, that capital punishment is immoral in and of itself. This conclusion is supported by every available line of ecclesiological evidence:

Scripture

  • Genesis 9:6 “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.”
  • Numbers 35:33 no expiation can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of him who shed it.
  • Deuteronomy 19:11-12 “But if any man hates his neighbor, and lies in wait for him, and attacks him, and wounds him mortally so that he dies, and the man flees into one of these cities, then the elders of his city shall send and fetch him from there, and hand him over to the avenger of blood, so that he may die.”
  • Luke 23:41 “And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”
  • Acts 25:11 ” If then I am a wrongdoer, and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death; but if there is nothing in their charges against me, no one can give me up to them.”
  • Romans 13:4 the state “does not bear the sword in vain [but] is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer”

Church Fathers, Doctors, and Saints

  • St. Clement of Alexandria says that “when one falls into any incurable evil… it will be for his good if he is put to death.”
  • St. Augustine “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 the State’s authority to put criminals to death, according to law or the rule of rational justice.”
  • St. Jerome taught that “he who slays cruel men is not cruel.”
  • St. Aquinas “if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good,” (ST II-II Q.64 A.2). . . . “It is permissible to kill a criminal if this is necessary for the welfare of the whole community. However, this right belongs only to the one entrusted with the care of the whole community” (ST II-II Q.64 A.3)

Popes

  • Pope St. Innocent I taught that to deny the legitimacy of capital punishment would be to go against biblical authority, indeed “the authority of the Lord” himself.
  • Pope Innocent III required adherents of the Waldensian heresy, as a condition for their reconciliation with the Church and proof of their orthodoxy, to affirm the legitimacy in principle of capital punishment.
  • Pope Pius XII taught that “it is reserved… to the public authority to deprive the criminal of the benefit of life when already, by his crime, he has deprived himself of the right to live.
  • Pope St. John Paul II: “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. It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishmentmust be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent. In any event, the principle set forth in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church remains valid: “If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person”. (EVANGELIUM VITAE – “The Gospel of Life” 56)

Catechisms

  • Roman Catechism (promulgated by Pope St. Pius V): “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.”
  • Catechism of Christian Doctrine (promulgated by Pope St. Pius X): “It is lawful to kill… when carrying out by order of the Supreme Authority a sentence of death in punishment of a crime.”
  • Baltimore Catechism 1276. Under what circumstances may human life be lawfully taken? Human life may be lawfully taken: 1. In self-defense, when we are unjustly attacked and have no other means of saving our own lives;  2. In a just war, when the safety or rights of the nation require it;  3. By the lawful execution of a criminal, fairly tried and found guilty of a crime punishable by death when the preservation of law and order and the good of the community require such execution.
  • Catechism of the Catholic Church (promulgated by Pope St. John Paul II): 2266 The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people’s rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and 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. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people’s safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party. 2267 Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, 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.

Modern Theologians

  • Cardinal Ratzinger (while head of the CDF) “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion” –
    “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 exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible… to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about… applying the death penalty.”
  • Archbishop Levada (who succeeded Ratzinger as head of the CDF) – in the USCCB’s “Theological Reflections on Catholics in Political Life and the Reception of Holy Communion” (2004):
    “Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to disagree 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 with regard to abortion and euthanasia”
  • Cardinal Avery Dulles Catholicism and Capital Punishment” –
    The Catholic magisterium does not, and never has, advocated unqualified abolition of the death penalty. I know of no official statement from popes or bishops, whether in the past or in the present, that denies the right of the State to execute offenders at least in certain extreme cases.
  • The USCCB “Bishop’s Statement on Capital Punishment”-
    “Catholic teaching has accepted the principle that the State has the right to take the life of a person guilty of an extremely serious crime.”

For more click HERE.

Conclusion

Pope St. John Paul II’s opposition to the use of the death penalty under today’s circumstances was neither an alteration of Church policy nor a dogmatic judgment that required the assent of the faithful. This was made clear by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger while serving as head of the CDF: “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. . . . 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.” (“Worthiness to Receive Communion – General Principles”).

As even the anti-death penalty Catholic apologist Mark Shea admits, “The Church does not and cannot say that the death penalty is intrinsically immoral.” Catholics need to carefully distinguish between the Church’s official teachings (which faithful Catholics are required to affirm) and their varying application options (which faithful Catholics may choose between). This is especially important when interpreting remarks implying that the Church’s Sacred Scripture and Tradition have been in error for 2,000 years. That way lies heresy.

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