Respect life: the Church's evolving views on capital punishment

While the Catholic Church has does not forbid the death penalty under all circumstances, it has voiced strong and growing opposition to the practice, as Catholic News Service reports:

Because the church has only in the past few decades begun closing the window — if not shutting it completely — on the permissibility of the death penalty, people who give just a partial reading of the church’s teachings may still think the death penalty is acceptable today, said Tommaso Di Ruzza, desk officer at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

St. Thomas Aquinas equated a dangerous criminal to an infected limb thereby making it “praiseworthy and healthful” to kill the criminal in order to spare the spread of infection and safeguard the common good.

However, over the centuries, justice has evolved from being the smiting arm of revenge toward a striving for reform and restoration, much like today’s medical science, where amputation is no longer the only recourse for curing an infection.

Modern-day popes have reflected that change in attitude.

As far back as the 19th and early 20th centuries theologians pondered the seeming paradox between the Fifth Commandment, “You shall not kill,” and the church’s dark history of condoning state-held executions to deal with heresy and other threats and crimes.

Pope Paul VI took concrete action in distancing the church from this form of punishment, first by formally banning the use of the death penalty in Vatican City State, although no one had been executed under the authority of the Vatican’s temporal governance since 1870.

Pope Paul also spoke publicly against planned executions and called for clemency for death-row inmates. Pope John Paul II also would punctuate his Angelus and general audience talks with impassioned appeals to spare the life of a prisoner on the verge of execution.

It was the Polish pope who “earnestly hoped and prayed” for a global moratorium on the use of capital punishment and the abolition of the death penalty worldwide.

Pope Benedict, too, continues to send appeals for clemency in high-profile cases via telegrams either through a country’s bishops or nuncio, and he has praised a U.N. resolution calling upon states to institute a moratorium on the use of the death penalty.

The 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church recognized “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.” At the same time, it said, “bloodless means” that could protect human life should be used when possible.

The “extreme gravity” loophole was tightened with changes made in 1997, which reflected the pope’s 1995 encyclical, “Evangelium Vitae.” It specifies that the use of the death penalty is allowed only when the identity and responsibility of the condemned is certain and if capital punishment “is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”

However, given the resources and possibilities available to governments today for restraining criminals, “cases of the absolute necessity of the suppression of the offender ‘are very rare, if not practically nonexistent,’” it says.

Pope Benedict, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, had a major role in drafting the 1992 Catechism and, especially, its 1997 revised passages. When he told journalists about the changes in 1997, he said while the principles do not absolutely exclude capital punishment, they do give “very severe or limited criteria for its moral use.”

“It seems to me it would be very difficult to meet the conditions today,” he had said.

When a journalist said the majority of Catholics in the United States favor use of the death penalty, Cardinal Ratzinger said, “While it is important to know the thoughts of the faithful, doctrine is not made according to statistics, but according to objective criteria taking into account progress made in the church’s thought on the issue.”

Read the rest.


  1. Elizabeth Scalia says:

    Prominent Catholic theologians (including our own Tim Muldoon) signed this statement on the death penalty:

  2. Deacon John M. Bresnahan says:

    I too consider cap punishment barbaric and should only be used in extremity situations–altho with EVERY article I have ever read in opposition to capital punishment there is NEVER a mention in the human cost to prison guards to salve the consciences of people against cap punishment. An average of 8-10 prison guards are murdered in prison each year –usually by inmates that in some states would have been executed. We had such a situation locally involving a local gross, heartless murder of a young clothing store clerk here in Ma. The murderer was given life, but killed a guard to facilitate a successful escape. At the time the mass media (except locally) ignored this case as if it never occurred.
    Sometimes, in ignoring the deaths of prison guards, I think that, because of their determined silence and lack of interest in finding a solution to the problem,, some of those against cap punishment consider guards expendable. To paraphrase elitist Sen. Kerry a few years ago who wise-cracked about non-college graduates in the military–maybe its the guard’s own fault for not getting a Harvard education then they wouldn’t have to be working in a prison (or serving in Iraq.)

  3. pagansister says:

    IMO, there are some human beings who have done such horrible things to another person, ending in murder, that the person who is totally proven guilty should be helped to meet his/her maker. The chance to live although it be in prison, is more than the victim was given.

    Deacon, #3. Prison guards shouldn’t have to be the victims of a prisoner that has been allowed to live their life in prison, and decides to make a run for it. You’re right—the guards are never mentioned as the targets of a disgruntled murderer in prison.

  4. ron chandonia says:

    The Catholic movement in favor of nonviolence is sometimes seen as innovative, even a concession to modern secularists, but it actually represents a return to the position of the pre-Constantinian Fathers. As late as the 4th century, the Christian apologist Lactantius insisted that “it will be neither lawful for a just man to engage in warfare, since his warfare is justice itself, nor to accuse anyone on a capital charge, because it makes no difference, whether you put a man to death by word, or by the sword, since it is the act of putting to death itself which is prohibited.” Thinly-catechized Roman converts and the medieval warlords who succeeded them had little patience with such sentiments, but they were reawakened in the ressourcement that ushered in Vatican II, and they stand today in the mainstream of Catholic thought.

    In his latest weekly column, Atlanta’s Archbishop Wilton Gregory offers a timely reflection on how these principles apply to capital punishment in America:

  5. If it were not for capital punishment, there would be no Catholic religion.

  6. Cardinal Ratzinger also stated in a letter that catholics are not bound upon pain of sin to oppose the death penalty in all circumstances. It is not a teaching on a par with the immorality of abortion or contraception for example.

  7. George: Would you like the US to reinstitute crucifixion while you are singing the praises of the death penalty?

    If it comes to it, if there were no sin, there would be no Catholic religion. Shall we encourage a worldwide campaign of sin in order to promote more baptism and confession? How about prayers to St. Judas Iscariot, without whom there would be no Catholic religion?


    Since when did Catholic moral theology become predicated on “As long as its not as bad as abortion, it’s AOK!” And since when do private lay interpretations of private letters without magisterial weight trump encyclicals and the Catechism?

  8. Kevin in 100% correct. It would be easy for the Catholic Church to change its teaching on the death penalty to one that is stated from the Chair of Peter making it infallibale and something Catholics have to accept and believe that no capital punishment is accepted.

    Of course that seems to mean little to many Catholics who continue to vote for pro abortion candidates. SAD.

    By the way, how does this all work out with a president who sends drones out to ID and kill specific people by name who have not been tried or found guilty of any crime. I have read a lot from those who oppose the death penalty based on maybe we made a mistake about those who might be innocent but have been found guilty by a jury of 12 people unanimously and after 10 years or so of massive appeals, are put to death for their crime. I thought there would be a lot more on the left screaming about Obama and the use of drones and kill teams sent to end the life of both foreign and now American folks. How can you approve the killing of bin laden and other foreigners or the two Americans taken out missles after they were ID’d, but scream about someone why has been given their day in court and years of appels? I wonder how the left would be screaming if W. Bush had done the same thing with bin laden and all the others killed by drones.

    But if the Pope states tomorrow this is a teching we must believe from the Chair of Peter, I am right there. Now if the left would just agree as well…

  9. “St. Thomas Aquinas equated a dangerous criminal to an infected limb thereby making it “praiseworthy and healthful” to kill the criminal in order to spare the spread of infection and safeguard the common good.”

    What you see in St. T.A.’s position is the notion of just consequences for societal actions. It is justice to put a murderer to death for certain actions which society deems heinous. It says that certain crimes are so grave that we as a society have to take such an action to demonstrate the moral value that was transgressed. If such a demonstration is not shown, an “infection” to society takes hold. All one has to do is read what that murderer did to innocent people and realize the death penalty is justice.

    You know the Catholic Church holds a few incongrous positions that it refuses to change her position. She holds that the use of non concieving birth control between married couples is a sin while promoting the natural cycle method to prevent pregnancies. That makes no sense. Or that masturbation is a mortal sin (yes, it’s a sin, but a mortal sin? how silly) with all the same damning possibilities of abortion, rape, or murder. A teenage boy masturbates is the moral equivilent of Ted Bundy or John Gotti? But yet the Catholic Church is “evolving” on the death penalty.

    I stand with the original magisterium and with St. Thomas Aquinas. The death penalty is justice.

  10. Anyone can read the now pope’s letter on this topic. As raymond arroyo pointed out, cardinal mccarrick concealed it from the american bishops. No offense mark but between you and joseph ratzinger, i’ll go with joe.

  11. I go with Joe too. I agree with every word of his letter. Only, you do realize that Joe is a death penalty abolitionist, right? The attempt by death penalty enthusiasts to make the letter a license for completely ignoring Evangelium Vitae’s teaching is ridiculous.

  12. “I stand with the original magisterium and with St. Thomas Aquinas.”

    There is no such thing as the “original Magisterium”. There is just the Magisterium, continuous throughout the history of the Church. Do you also stand with the “original Magisterium” in confining Jews to ghettos and compelling them to wear to special dress to identify them in public? Are Nostra Aetate and Dignitatis Humanae dispensible “new Magisterium” documents?

    Doctrine develops and the Magisterium is particularly charged with that task. Splitting the Church in two and positing an “orginal” vs. “new” Magisterium is, I submit, to deny the indefectibility of the Church.

  13. Ok, then I stand with more than a millenia of tradition and Thomas Aquinas. And if that makes me in opposition with some Church position, so be it. I’m not a mind numbed robot.

  14. Similarly, St. Thomas rejected the Immaculate Conception, which was not defined till 1854. Do you “stand with the original Magisterium” and reject that as a novelty too?

  15. Greta:

    I, for one have grave reservations about Obama unilaterally targeting American citizens for killing and the press’ (and the Left’s) docility to this astounding arrogation of power over, let’s be clear, every human being on earth he decides to declare and Enemy of the State.

    I’m not sure what abortion has to do with anything here. Opposing the death penalty does not mean supporting abortion, a monstrous crime I oppose with every fiber of my being. Evangelium Vitae opposes the death penalty because of the premium the Church put on the value of human life, even guilty human life.

  16. Deacon John M. Bresnahan says:

    It is amazing how those who oppose capital punishment ignore the blood price prison guards will pay to keep in prison serial killers, mass murderers, brutal slayers, AND murderers of prison guards. Again no solutions here offered to the problem. No strategies to protect the guards suggested. Just stop cap punishment and let innocent blood flow in prison (and the number of guards murdered by murderers in prison doesn’t come close to matching the number of prisoners in prison for lesser crimes murdered by murderers there–a while back a state’s local jail was full so a drunk teen-ager was put in a prison for a few days. There he was murdered.)
    Prison guards are usually not elite educated. Just working stiffs. Clearly Bishop Gregory and ALL the commenters here opposed to cap punishment can’t even be bothered with their lives and blood. Not even to say a word on their behalf. Or even mention their existence. Cold! Cold! Cold!
    And, of course, that doesn’t even look into the issue of a victim’s family having to, in some states, relive the horror of their loved one’s murder at repeated parole hearings in order to keep a lifer in jail–or the constant fear some family members have of the release of someone who might later come after them in revenge or to “finish business.”
    Whether it is Bishop Gregory or Mark Shea or ron here hiding behind “Well, give them life” the refusal to look deeper at the issue other than in anti-cap punishment bumper sticker slogans is a horrendous disservice to every victim of deadly crime and their surviving families.

  17. @Mark #14
    “Similarly, St. Thomas rejected the Immaculate Conception, which was not defined till 1854. Do you “stand with the original Magisterium” and reject that as a novelty too?”

    No I don’t reject that because I have no first hand knowledge one way or the other. That’s a theological issue that can only be obtained though divine guidence. If I were to receive such guidence, then I might differ with the Church position.

    By the way, Blessed Julian of Norwich differed and still differs with the Church position against universal salvation. I happen to side with her. I believe she received such divine guidence.

  18. By the way, is it a coincidence that the countries who have pushed the abolition of the death penalty happen to be the most atheistic countries? When there is no distinction between what is justice, then does moral relativism set in, the very notion of an “infection” to society as Thomas Aquinas states?

    Just thinking out loud on that.

  19. Deacon John:

    Are you saying that Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI and the bishops are cold!cold!cold? Your argument seems to be predicated on the notion that it is absolutely impossible to create prison technology that can keep guards and other prisoners safe. Do we know this? Is there a huge mortality rate among corrections officers in countries without the death penalty? I have no idea, so I’m asking. I have no problem with putting prisoners to death who pose an ongoing threat. Nor does Evangelium Vitae. But the notion that it’s simply impossible, or that this justifies the maximalist approach which applauds a governor with the biggest kill count, is dubious. The obvious point of the Church’s teaching remains “Don’t kill unless you absolutely have to” not “Oh well, if we have to let a few guards get their throats cut to feel good about being enlightened, then who cares?” Consider it possible that death penalty opponents are not do-gooding ninnies. I simply think that if we can put a man on the moon, we can come up with prison technology and sentencing that doesn’t let criminals kill at will.

  20. Manny:

    I didn’t realize you were a Protestant. Never mind.

  21. Is it a coincidence that the country’s which apply the death penalty most are China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the US? August company, that.

  22. “I didn’t realize you were a Protestant. Never mind.”

    No, I should not have included “Blessed” as a title. I accidentally picked that up from the Anglicans. I am not a protestant.

    “Is it a coincidence that the country’s which apply the death penalty most are China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the US? August company, that.”

    Say what you will, but they are not moral relativists and except for the Chinese government (not necessarily the people) among the most devout. Plus I said I was only thinking out loud.

  23. Fiergenholt says:

    Let me ask a very fundamental question here. Is anyone on this blog-stream an experienced prison minister of any type?

    The reason why that is important to me is that I have met and know on a first name basis maybe five priests who are (including four who minister on Death Row). I also have met maybe that many deacons who work in this ministry as well — although they almost never work Death Row.

    In my area of the world, the Cursillo Movement also has a strong presence behind the walls of several prisons and while Death Row inmates never participate, most of the Cursillo team members doing this prison ministry are laymen.

    The priests I know who work Death Row are all against capital punishment. Every one of them. That choice was theirs based solely on their experiences inside the walls — not because of anything else. They sort of fell into the “Seamless Robe” theory by accident.

  24. Deacon Norb says:

    Deacon John B.

    Your repetition of the whole danger to prison guards is lost on most of us but the fact you are from Massachusetts makes your insights into the John Geoghan/ Joseph Druce situation very important.

    For the rest of the bloggers here need a review, Geoghan was the 68-year-old de-frocked Roman Catholic priest from Boston whose reputation as an extensive pedophile likely caused his death (in August 2003) behind bars at the hands of his cell-mate — Joseph Druce — who was already serving a life-term for homophobic murder. Prisons have their own sub-culture: If you have a reputation of being violent against men on the outside (murder, assault, etc), then you are in the highest level of that society’s pecking-order. If you abuse women and/or children (rapists and particularly pedophiles) then you’re not likely to live very long behind bars. Druce killed Geoghan by strangulation in their two-man cell apparently to raise his status within that prison. He was convicted of first-degree murder for that crime as well, but since Massachusetts does not have the death penalty, his second life sentence without parole is fairly meaningless — except within the prison society itself.

    Care to comment? Or is this all “ancient history”?

  25. Donal Mahoney says:

    I can remember years ago being assailed by a lapsed Catholic, now a secular progressive, who was pro-choice but anti-death penalty. I was vehemently pro-life then as I am now but I held no firm opinion on the death penalty.

    After a heated conversation with this intelligent if now faithless lady, I had to agree with her that the death penalty has no place in our society. I don’t know, however, if she would agree with me that the death penalty should be replaced by life without parole while doing hard labor six days a week–real hard labor, even if it has no useful purpose.

    Videos of felons so sentenced might be featured every so often on MTV as a public service. In the long run, visions of that kind of sentence might deter those motivted to kill when miffed.

  26. ron chandonia says:

    Manny, St. Thomas wrote his Summa in the 2nd half of the 13th century. It is the “original magisterium” only if you ignore the gospels and more than 12 centuries of Catholic teachings that preceded his work. As I pointed out in an earlier post, current Catholic thinking on violence generally–and specifically on the death penalty–is actually a RE-turn to what might more accurately be described as the “original magisterium”: In the very words of Jesus, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But now I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you.” (Good News translation)

  27. A dogmatic insistence on abolishing the death penalty in all cases to me unwittingly devalues respect for life. I.e. the life of the victim, and future victims.

  28. @ Mark Shea

    You missed the point of my post and it’s deeper meaning.

    Without capital punishment, Jesus could not have fulfilled his promise to open the gates of Heaven.

    Jesus used capital punishment as the tool that sparked Christianity.

    Did Jesus ever say that capital punishment (Man’s Law) should be repudiated? No.

    In fact, Jesus had this to say:

    Matthew 5:17-18

    “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

    At the time, Jesus was a Jew and the moral code of Old Testament provided for death penalties for certain crimes.

    Another example:

    Jesus scolds the Pharisees and scribes for teaching leniency toward rebellious children by quoting the Old Testament:

    “For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him be put to death’” (Matthew 15:4).

    Saint Paul and apostle of Jesus acknowledges there are crimes worthy of a death penalty in Acts 25:11:

    “If I am a wrongdoer, and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die; but if none of these things is true of which these men accuse me, no one can hand me over to them.”

    Catholics for 2000 years have understood that capital punishment for certain crimes. Popes have even used it.

  29. I had voiced the issue of the safety of other prisoners and the guards as well around those who are sentenced to life without possibility of parole. I began to understand that view after talking with a friend of my fathers who was a prison guard in a maximum security prison for decades. He saw a few of his fellow guards lose their lives. He also said that prisoners were also in greater danger. The problem is that they have nothing to lose. You have limits on what you can do to these prisoners based on laws put in place led by the ACLU on prioner rights. Almost anything is considered to be cruel and inhumane.

    The Catholic teaching and position of Popes JPII and Benedict XVI have been clear as far as I know and that is that the death penalty is OK if there is no means to protect others lives or safety.

    So the question is can we put someone into prison for life without possibility of parole with all the prison restrictions for their “rights” and make sure others around them are safe? This is my last objection to doing away with the death penalty. Maybe it will require a comprehensive look at ways that these issues can be worked out and agreed in exchange for ending the death penalty. But placing those who are not housed in our prisons for crimes should not face the death threat nor should our prison guards because we want to end the death penalty for the convicted of crimes we now see as deserving of the death penalty. Our inability at this point to secure the safety of these people seems to still dictate at this point the “Don’t kill unless you absolutely have to” Catholic position.

  30. Mark, I am eager to see others come out against the use of drones to kill with one single person, the President, being the judge, jury, and executioner of people all over the world no matter who the president is and I am amazed that this gets all favorable press with very minimal questions being asked. I would think this would justify a post from Deacon Greg and wide examination on just how far we are prepared to allow this to go. We sent a military team into Pakistan and I have no doubt the instruction was to kill bin laden, not to take him prisoner. The fact that there were so many different stories about the incident even days later made it pretty clear that no order to capture and return had been given. Of course one could say this is speculation, but either way, it was sending our troops into a country we are not at war with to get a person we deemed guilty of massive crime. Now we have drones killing American citizens (who appear to be very bad guys according to our American intellegence agencies and the media) in another foreign country by drones with certain clear intent not to capture and bring to trial to prove guilt before we kill them. I bring this up on this post because it is a massive change in our policy and no one seems to want to question or stop it. Now we can be sure that if W. Bush was President and doing the exact same things, the outcry would be unending with calls for impeachment. At a minimum, this should bring congress to life wondering how the executive branch has this power.

    As to abortion being part of the discussion when death penalty is the topic, have you ever seen a discussion on abortion where someone did not bring up the death penalty to show some as hypocritical? Their point being that since the candidate who is pro abortion also supports the death penalty they are consistent while pro life folks sometime support the death penalty. Your question therefore is indeed correct in that they are not the same issue at all. The Catholic Church tells us one is never acceptable with abortion, but has long held and continues to hold out positions where the death penalty can be supported. I pray each day we find a solution to allow ending the death penalty and will follow the Church teaching on whatever they tell us we must believe based not on an encyclical alone, but a firm statement from the Chair of Peter. However, only a fool would not take strong consideration of an encyclical when forming that conscience.

  31. Deacon John M. Bresnahan says:

    Mark– My quarrel isn’t with people who want to do away with capital punishment, but with those who want to do away with it without resolving issues around the situation most anti-capital punishment activists usually refuse to face–and frequently try to shut up debate on– or run away from an in depth look at the whole issue. As I have repeatedly written–just look at the statements of anti-cap punishment people and see for yourself the obvious total lack of consciousness about how other inmates and guards pay in blood to keep murderers in prison.
    You look to technology to make prisons safer for guards and other inmates. But shouldn’t the solutions come before we demand all states do away with cap punishment. In fact technology now can be used (through DNA) to make sure mistakes aren’t made in convictions.
    And there has been one tech solution promoted:: Super Max prisons. I believe the fed gov’t. already has at least one. But from what I have read virtually all those against cap punishment are among the strongest opponents of Super Maxes as being worse “cruel and unusual punishment” than cap punishment since it involves inmates never or almost never having any human contact.
    And what is your solution to the fear many family members of victims have over what might happen if the murderer of their loved one is paroled???What do you do about the horrors the family has to relive at parole hearings in most states to keep a lifer from getting parole.
    I am sure there are answers to most of the vital questions and issues I have raised. BUT where do you see any debate??? Where do you see solutions offered??? (other than the promise–oh! technology can figure something out.—If so then WHAT??? –Modern shackles to keep a “lifer” always attached to a wall–like in Middle Ages dungeons.)

  32. Life without possibility of parole in a,super max prison will keep others safe. It is also insanely cruel in and of itself. A fate worse than death in many ways.

  33. Mark:

    The Catholic Church does not teach that capital punishment is an inherently evil act. The Catechism does not say that at all. The Catholic Church has always – and still – teaches:

    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.

    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 to 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 nonexistent.”


    None of that says that it is immoral for a state to impose the death penalty. It says the conditions are such that there is little or no need – but it nowhere states that by natural law or divine revelation a legitimate authority is prohibited from imposing the death penalty.

    Mark – I am opposed to capital punishment. I am a fan of yours. But honestly – you need to stop reading “The Magisterium” in a Sola Scriptura kind of way. It is *not* the Catholic way.

  34. Barbara Peters says:

    Greta to take your argument that capital punishment is justified to keep prison guards safe, how dangerous do you think it would have been for the people of this country to put Bin Laden or the others on trial? I am not sure how I feel about the drone strikes and the killing of Bin Laden. I am generally against captital punishment because it feels wrong to me but as someone who experienced 9/11 and lost friends and neighbors I believe acting in this manner may be justified to end a great evil and make the world a safer place. I am grateful that living in New York I will not be called upon to sit on a jury that would have to decide this issue.

  35. So many Catholics — in this com box and elsewhere — want to defend a procedure that involves the state stopping a beating heart. That’s what happens: the state ends what everyone agrees is a human life — in your name and mine.

    Is God pro-life? I would say yes. Some, however, seem to think they’re doing God’s will when they champion the state killing people. They won’t admit that it’s their own anger and sense of vengeance seeping to the surface.

    I’m a cafeteria Catholic in that there are some teachings I flat-out reject. And I’m likely to be scolded by some, told that I’m no Catholic at all if I reject the ban on women’s ordination, for instance. Yet the people who reject church teaching on the death penalty, or who try to come up with convoluted excuses to justify their hard hearts — those folks are cafeteria Catholics as well. I guess I would be satisfied if they just owned up to it and said “John Paul was too soft when it came to the death penalty. Instead of cultivating a culture of life, we should embrace a culture of death and then criticize the larger culture for not being pro-life on other issues.”

    Yep, some will take the “it’s not an infallible teaching” road–which makes them the sort of cafeteria Catholics who are more interested in the letter of the law than the spirit of the law, the spirit of the law being rooted in Christ’s love and mercy.

  36. Steve, you are either ill informed on Catholic teaching or choosing to ignore it. I note that one thing that Pope John Paul II stated with force and which then Cardinal Ratzinger agreed could never be changed is the teaching on women priests. That has been stated more emphatically than stopping the death penalty without exception.

    I have thought long and hard about the issue of the death penalty and over time I have grown much closer to the ban. However, the Pope has provided for those with concerns, some areas where the Church does not condemn the death penalty and that is when other lives are at risk. I thus would never “admit that it’s their own anger and sense of vengeance seeping to the surface.” because it would not be true. I also do not need to”try to come up with convoluted excuses to justify their hard hearts — those folks are cafeteria Catholics as well,” because I am in direct line with Catholic teaching including both Pope JPII and Benedict XVI. That is not being a cafeteria catholic. I would never say Pope JPII was soft on anything except maybe his much more merciful and forgiving nature to allow dissenting Catholics more rope and more time to come back to Church teaching than I would, but that is why he was the Vicar of Christ and I and many others will never be.

    And Catholics should take the “infallible teaching road” and I am happy to be on that road. As I said, if the Pope tomorrow said from the Chair of Peter that there are no reasons ever to support the death penalty, even if other prisoners or guards are killed in the process, then I would have to accept that as my belief. After all, those are the areas where the Pope is never wrong protected by infallibility in areas of faith and morals.

    Just curious Steve, was the killing of bin laden and the recent kills in Yemen wrong and gravely evil in your understanding of Catholic teaching?

  37. Barbara “Greta to take your argument that capital punishment is justified to keep prison guards safe, how dangerous do you think it would have been for the people of this country to put Bin Laden or the others on trial?”

    First, if it is possible to meet the criteria that Popes JPII and Benedict XVI as I understand them that the death penalty should not be used unless allowing the convicted to live in prison can be accomplished without putting other lives at risk I am in full agreement. I am not trying to justify anything, only follow what I am hearing being taught.

    But I guess I have a question back. Is it your argument that killing someone accused of a crime without trail is OK because bringing them to trial is dangerous to others? It would seem like you are arguing that we should just give the police the power to kill the accused without bothering with a trial. I think all the folks on death row have had their trial, massive numbers of appeals over many years, various courts including the supreme court rule on the case, and only then are they put to death if the government authority does not grant clemency.

    Are you saying that having the president, in this case Obama, act as prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner is OK in the cases of bin laden and all others he has had killed with drone attacks? I am not saying I am against these attacks, but I am pretty sure that Catholic leadership would take a dim view on this issue. Does anyone know if the Pope has spoken out on this or clarified Church teaching on the issue? In view of the attacks killing two Americans in Yemen along with several other peace loving muslims, I am just curious where the rage has gone. I know that if W. Bush had done the same thing, the left would have been calling for his head. After all, the killing is being done using US intellegence which the left does not have much use for in the past. These are not random attacks, but taken to kill these specific persons and I guess anyone close by.

    So I do have concern for the prison guards and frankly for others in prison with these folks who are put at risk by ending the death penalty without a plan on how to insure the safety of others. As Kevin said, “Life without possibility of parole in a,super max prison will keep others safe. It is also insanely cruel in and of itself. A fate worse than death in many ways.” So what is the answer before we do away with the death penalty? Maybe we could force them to go a few weeks without cable TV…Sorry, but this points out the simple fact that in our world of legal manuvering over the years, it has become almost impossible to do anything to someone in prison for life with nothing to lose. I would not want to guard a group of prisoners like this and do not think anyone here can show a way to do so with existing protections and rights. That should be solved before ending the death penalty.

    Love to hear what everyone is thinking on the death penalty by fiat with drones and no trials.

  38. @ Steve

    Your knowledge of what is Catholic is quite poor. The Catholic church has for centuries supported capital punishment.

    Pope Innocent III, for example, put forward the proposition: “The secular power can, without mortal sin, exercise judgment of blood, provided that it punishes with justice, not out of hatred, with prudence, not precipitation.”

    A little history lesson.

    Did you know that executions were lawful in Vatican city through 1969?

    Common forms of execution ordered by the Pope’s.

    Axe, hanging, burning at the stake, guillotine, mazzatello (crushing of the head with a large mallet, followed by a cutting of the throat), drawing and quartering.

    Most common sites in Vatican City for executions?

    Castel Sant’Angelo bridge, the Piazza del Popolo, and Via dei Cerchi near the Piazza della Bocca della Verita

    Papal law prescribed a payment of only three cents of the Roman lira per execution for the executioner.

  39. Deacon John M. Bresnahan says:

    About murders in prison in non-cap punishment states that someone brought up. Ma. is agressively non-cap punishment. But as was brought up, Father Geoghan was murdered in his jail cell by a murderer-lifer. This is not uncommon in Ma. The Boston Strangler was also murdered in his cell. I don’t know if they caught his murderer.
    But for those absolutists on doing away with cap punishment without FIRST resolving many problems–how many bites of the bloody apple do murderers get??? How many murders does Geoghan’s murderer get to do??? Life in prison isn’t working to stop his doing evil and harming others!!!
    I notice how some are deftly avoiding discussing the key prudential issues surrounding doing away with cap punishment by sliding sideways into doctrinal discussions instead of proferring solutions. (Which I want found because I am basically against capital punishment.) Does that mean there aren’t any solutions and some against cap punishment, in effect, admit it by retreating to debating the meaning of papal statements.
    Already some on here have written–Forget using Super Max prisons.

  40. @George: What you say — about the church tolerating and at one point even embracing the death penalty — is nothing at all to be proud about. Actually, that’s a great source of shame. The church does sometimes correct it’s wrong (yes, I’m a Catholic and yes, I believe the church is at times gravely wrong). I would encourage you to read “The Gospel of Life” (Evangelium Vitae, JP2′s encyclical from the mid-90s). We are called, as JP points out, to reject the culture of death where ever possible. We are certainly not called to celebrate executions, not called to defend hatred and vengeance committed in God’s name.

  41. naturgesetz says:

    Deacon John,

    Suppose killing while in prison could have consequences. Suppose prisons were truly run as correctional institutions and every convict, including murderers, had a genuine chance for parole if s/he learned to live without violence, and every violent act postponed the date of parole eligibility.

    As you have pointed out, now we just warehouse them and let them become even more hardened. If they are released, it is without adequate rehabilitation, and without the support mechanisms to help them to lead peaceful lives in society.

  42. Barbara Peters says:

    Greta, I wasnt saying anything. I was just wondering how you would spin it. It seems to me from reading your various posts there is nothing that this President can do that you would agree with. I dont think it is just the President ordering these attacks on a whim – I am sure he is getting advice from the CIA and the Department of Defense. As far as my opinion on the drone attacks, I would rather that there be no war. But if you accept the premise that we are at “war” with terrorists then I would rather a targeted drone attack than a bombing that could resutlt in many more deaths of innocent civilians. I wonder what you were posting during the Bush administration’s shock and awe attack on the Iraqi population.

  43. @Greta: I have really mixed feelings about the killings of bin Laden and Anwar al-Asiri. I do not celebrate their deaths, but I do understand both of them to be actively engaged in a war against the United States, and both of them so averse to capture that it could have cost dozens of service members’ life to “extract” them from where they were. (They could have removed bin Laden from the house alive — maybe — but there were reports he was reaching for a weapon when he was killed.)

    That’s not the same situation we have when a prisoner is safely imprisoned and can be kept in prison for life without parole.

    Curiously, I hear many conservatives (including conservative Christians) lamenting President Obama’s decision to kill bin Laden and al-Asiri, even though very few voices from that corner condemned President Bush when he claimed he wanted bin Ladden “dead or alive.” Nor did they condemn Dick Cheney’s endorsement of torture. If some of those on the right are sincere in their concerns about human life, I commend them for that. Unfortunately, it seems to me that many of them are seeing this as just a convenient opportunity to portray Barack Obama as “pro-death,” when they would be condemning him as being “soft on Muslim terrorists” if bin Laden and al-Asiri were still alive. (I’m thinking of the folks on the right who claim that Obama wants to see extremists in the Islamic world succeed. Yes, there are folks on the right — some of the birther remnants — who have argued that very position.)

  44. @ron chandonia #26
    I hear you. I can’t speak for the history. But the Catholic Church has apparently supported capital punishment at least since Constatine, and under the right circumstances war for that matter. That’s a heck of a long time. In fact, it would have been impossible to govern without either. I’m not sure a major power can govern without the possiblity of going to war, which of course means the killing of people, and possibly, if not certainly, of innocents.

    Now here is something I think most of us would agree on:
    I would in a heartbeat trade the abolition of the death penalty for the abolition of the abortion.

  45. Steve, 40 “We are certainly not called to celebrate executions, not called to defend hatred and vengeance committed in God’s name”.

    War changes us as a people. Who would have thought we would see 620,000 killed in our own civil war that in many ways was fired up in our churches demanding the end of slavery. We are now in the war on terror which is unlike any way I know of in history where a worldwide network of terrorist following the teaching they find in the Koran and calling for the death of anyone who does not accept Islam or surrender. After major successful attacks, we see dancing in the streets of many Islamic countries with the greatest cheering going on after 9/11. Thus, when Bin Laden, who was seen as the leader of those who attacked the USA on 9/11, was killed, most of Americans rejoiced in his death. Would America have rejoiced if there had been no 9/11 and our President had decided he was dangerous and needed to be removed along with others including Americans in Yemen? So is America driven by vengence or are we willing to sanction these type of attacks without trial for our own safety?

    My point in my posts has not been to attack Obama for doing these attacks as some have suggested. In this war, Obama has done the right thing in my view, but I think there should be a public debate about this in congress as to if we indeed want the president to have this power, repbuclian or democrat. It kind of scares me having one person with that much power over death choices. I wanted to draw out the thoughts on this issue and issues around capital punishment to get a discussion going about life itself. I note that while candidate Obama was harping on about torture because it changed our values as a society and on gitmo for it had prisoners without trial, I find it interesting that Obama commander in chief is now killing without trial, even of Americans, and that certainly is not in our standard culture or values and may even have legal problems if it is properly examined.

    I am raising a question that begins to show why the Church has always taken a position that is nuanced and evolving over time and situation. That is why the Church over time took a great deal of trouble understanding a standard position on war and came up with a just war explanation while in many ways leaving it open to debate. As we see from this short discussion, just ending the death penalty presents problems for the safety of other prisoners and for our guards who watch these most violent prisoners. The super max prisons are ruled out as inhumane. Now I see a suggestion we are not doing enough to rehab prisoners, but rehab programs have proven to be very costly and not very productive in keeping prisoners out of jail, especially the most violent and perverted. Some suggest that we hold out a possibility of parole to those now on death row if the death penalty is ended. Try that argument on those already worried about ending the death penalty and you will entrench capital punishment forever. So no super max, no parole as a real possibility in political comprimise, and we get life in prison without possible parole making them a danger to others. Of course the courts can just mandate no more capital punishment which in my view will be a disaster as every time judges force on society in this democracy something controversial, it ends up splitting the country further apart. If there is changes, it needs to be something we can move forward and agree on in some way or leave it to the individual states to decide. No more Roe type decisions.

    Until we can come to some agreements on life and the protection of the innocent, it will remain a hard situation to resolve. So lets give the Church a break on this one and understand we need to listen and unless the Holy Spirit guides our Pope, I doubt we will have a definitive and final word we must accept as infallible.

  46. naturgesetz says:

    Steve #43

    “That’s not the same situation we have when a prisoner is safely imprisoned and can be kept in prison for life without parole.”

    Until you respond to Deacon John Bresnahan’s repeated point about murders in prisons — murders by prisoners of guards and murders by prisoners of other prisoners — to speak of them as “safely imprisoned” is nonsense, and your position fails.

  47. Naturgesetz (#46): I’m not blind to the dangers that prison guards face, nor am I immune to arguments about their need for safety. Yet somehow, each year, this country manages to keep hundreds of prisoners who are waiting on death row — that is, prisoners who are already facing the maximum penalty and who cannot be threatened with a second execution — from killing or maiming the men and women who guard them. There ARE steps that can be taken — short of executing people on the spot — that will minimize a violent offender’s opportunities to commit further violence.

    My point is that if we already have safeguards in place that prevent those who have committed heinous crimes from enacting further violence within the prison, we cannot use the uncontrollable danger argument to justify the spirit of vengeance that many death penalty advocates exude. (I’m not saying that’s the case for you, Naturesetz; your argument is instead based on safety concerns.)

  48. Deacon John M. Bresnahan says:

    Steve–that is the point: safety concerns. But like with Mark–who says unnamed technology– you say: “There are steps that can be taken.”
    Well, I challenge those absolutely against any cap punishment: Name them!!!
    One only has been named so far
    : The Super Max type prison. But then that was damned by the same people who are against cap punishment.
    And I don’t know what safeguard would have protected the Boston Strangler–He was murdered in the prison infirmary.
    And if the bloodshed is a concern of those-like you–who are against cap punishment–why doesn’t it ever seem to show up in any media stories or blogs against cap punishment. It is as if the truth is a danger to the life-in-prison arguments against executions.
    Maybe if there were a genuine debate some solutions beyond the reviled Super Maxes could be found.
    And, oh yes, what changed after Constantine was Responsibility. Christians suddenly had the responsibility for the safety of the empire’s citizens. Safety from rapacious invaders. Safety from murderers that stalk the streets.

  49. ThirstforTruth says:

    Whomever said here that abortion and capital punishment are not moral equivalents was on the right track in this discussion. Abortion is inherently evil…capital punishment is not. We have no room for discussion on the former while support for the latter is not usually even sinful. The degree of respect for life within a society reflects to a large extent its soul. The fact that over 4000 abortions occur daily in this country should say something about our society’s lack of respect for life in general. The occurance of capital punishment in this country does not even come close. To compare this country to China, et al., does seem a stretch when it comes to murdering people legally. Society has the not only the right but the obligation to protect itself from heinous criminals. If life in prison meant life in prison, it might have more proponents than capital punishment. The Church, like the rest of us, struggles with this issue, as evident in its refusal to condemn the practice entirely. Let us pray that as a society we can evolve to the point where between improved technology and an increased respect for life we will no longer find the death penalty the only way to protect society against the most heinous criminal with the certitude societal responsibility demands.

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