Catholic Teaching on the Death Penalty

Here’s the church’s teaching on the death penalty. It’s clear. While the death penalty is not totally excluded, the church teaches that, in practice there’s no need for it. Just because it’s not totally excluded doesn’t mean you can be in favor of it.

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 with the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent. (CCC, 2267)

The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of Life in every situation. A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary. (Pope John Paul II, Mass in St. Louis, MO, January 27, 1999)

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  • JG

    Dear Father,This post fails to address my previous point about murderers in prison who commitmurder or direct othersoutside of prison to commit murder.Sincerely,John

  • hilaron

    Dear Father,The Catholic Encyclopedia clearly states 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. The advisability of exercising that power is, of course, an affair to be determined upon other and various considerations." Thus, if you are to argue your point you must claim that the CCC is an infallible declaration of the Extraordinary Magisterium, since there seems to be some discussion in the Ordinary Magisterial teaching. The more universal teaching would probably be that of a State's right to punish certain offenders with capital punishment.To further use a statement by the Pope of low-level authority, a sermon at a Mass, instead of relying on Magisterial documents seems imprudent. As I commented on your last post, were S:t Augustine, S:t Thomas of Aquino, S:t Pius V not pro-life? That would seemt to me to be an absurd conclusion.In Christ,David

  • Matthew the Curmudgeon

    All well and good, then the church can pay for career criminals and stop using my tax money. I believe in the death penalty un deer certain circumstances and crime, that will never change. GOD I hate pacifists!

  • Fr Longenecker

    John, see my comment on the other post.Hilarion, I'm afraid the Catholic Encyclopedia is not really an authoritative document. The Catechism is.By all means quote the catechism back to me if you can.A Pope–even in a sermon–trumps a bishop or a theologianMatthew, a pacifist and a person opposed to the death penalty aren't the same thing.

  • Deacon Dick

    Dear Father Dwight, thanks for posting the TRUTH, and not virtual reality. Thanks for standing on your head, and standing up for God's Word. Isn't the slippery slope, slick? God Bless,Deacon Dick Murtaugh.

  • hilaron

    Dear Father,A pope is not infallible in a sermon. It is not even part of the Ordinary Magisterium, as far as I know. The reason I quoted the CE was of course to show that there is pedigree behind the idea of the State's right to punish criminals with the death penalty. If you want authoritative statements I will quote them. The first is from the Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent, which should be considered just as authoritative as the CCC."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." (Catechism of the Council of Trent, The Fifth Commandment)The Catechism of St Pius X states in the 3rd question on the Fifth Commandment:"It is lawful to kill when fighting in a just war; when carrying out by order of the Supreme Authority a sentence of death in punishment of a crime; and, finally, in cases of necessary and lawful defense of one's own life against an unjust aggressor."Cont…

  • Fr Longenecker

    Hilaron, sorry not to post all your comments, but they were too long. I appreciate the gist of what you said, but trying to make the Council of Trent disagree with the Catechism doesn't work.As you've pointed out, the CCC doesn't prohibit the death penalty completely, and therefore doesn't disagree with Trent.The fact is, Catholic doctrine develops, and the CCC is the most recent expression of the timeless teaching of the church–not Trent.The teaching of the church is clear. The death penalty is possible, but increasingly un necessary.

  • hilaron

    Dear Father, I think there was some problem, because Blogger kept bouncing me back. So I think I might have posted the second part of my comment several times. It never seemed to "catch" so to speak. It would be very gracious of you if you were to post that second part (you don't have to post it several times of course. :).The gist of my argument is that we can not put capital punishment on par with abortion, since the latter is intrinsically evil as to its object whereas capital punishment is not. The Church's current position is a prudential judgment of factors and not a binding teaching which would alter the Church's constant teaching that States may legitimately use capital punishment within the framework of law. As to doctrinal development, I am fully aware of it but saying that one can not be pro-life and in favor of the death penalty seems like a hermeneutic of rupture and discontinuity and not one of legitimate doctrinal development. The Church's teaching is not solely based on the concept of the dignity of human life, as important as that is, but also on the concepts of justice and natural law.To make a comparison: if we are to make human dignity the rule for everything then we should not penalize criminals at all, which is the liberal approach, but only "rehabilitate" them and maybe not even have fixed penalties but prison terms based on a doctor's or psychologist's determination of danger, development and so on. That leaves no room for justice towards the victims and we get an imbalance in the legal system. The rights of the prisoner must be upheld, but not to the degree that we no longer claim any rights of the victims.Yours in Christ,David

  • hilaron

    PS. I wasn't trying to say that the CCC disagreed with Trent, but that the notion that the Church is fundamentally opposed to capital punishment is not true. DS.

  • Gail F

    I think it is naive to say that rendering a person incapable of committing a crime is what always happens, although it is far more possible than it has ever been. There are many countries in the world, however, that do not have functional police, court, and prison systems. First World countries do make it possible to control prisoners, and in most cases do a very good job.However, just last year in my city, a man who had served 16 years in prison for killing and burning the body of a women — and then went back to prison for a year for importuning — kidnapped and murdered a 12-year-old girl he didn't even know. He was let out of prison early and sent to a halfway house that kicked him out for violent behavior to other residents. He took a bus to a wooded area where he met this girl, who was out jogging only a few minutes from her house — and, in a different direction, from my house. He grabbed her, raped her, and murdered her after she begged for her life. have no problem with the death penalty (which he recieved) for this man. Why he only received 16 years for the violent death and mutilation of a corpse is beyond me. It turns out that he threatened and stabbed several other people, and that he killed and burned the bodies of at least two other women and one other teen. Now, if he had been kept in prison the first time there would have been no reason to kill him. But he wasn't, and FOUR other people died. Who is to say that if he doesn't get the death penalty, he might get let out of prison again?In theory, prison for life without the possibility of parole should be all we need in a country with a secure prison system. But tragically, that isn't what really happens. This is only one case. There are others. Do I think that we should reform prisons? Yes. But one doesn't have to be a rabid "kill all murderers!" type person to think that circumstances in which the death penalty are moral are not as "nonexistent" as we would like.

  • danightman

    Fr. LongeneckerWhen referencing the Council of Trent, I was not attempting to put a division between it and the recent CCC. When I read them closely, I didn't think there was one.Your comments answered my question on it. Thank you very much.Steven P. Cornett

  • Mark in Spokane

    Father,Cardinal Dulles wrote a very good article prior to his passing into glory on this topic. It basically refutes the position you are taking — the good cardinal maintained that it was possible to be in favor of the death penalty as a faithful Catholic. I believe the article was published in First Things.I have worked on the defense side in one death penalty case, and I worked on several homicide cases when I was just out of law school and clerking for three trial court judges in eastern Washington State. My experiences in the legal system have absolutely convinced me that the death penalty is both a necessary and salutary component of our criminal justice system. In fact, I doubt very much that it is possible to have a civilized criminal justice system without it. The basic reason for my view on this, aside from my own (admitted subjective) experience is a magnificent essay by the late Russell Kirk regarding the death penalty, published in his book Redeeming the Time.Finally, what do you propose we do to punish a murderer who is already serving life in prison without the possibility of parole when he turns around and kills one of his fellow inmates, or a guard, or he escapes and kills someone. By eliminating the death penalty, you would automatically render it impossible to punish such a murderer for his crime. For this reason alone, justice demands that the death penalty be available in at least some cases. The criminal justice system is not a place for doily parties, Father. It is a place filed with the violent, the brutal and the cruel. Remove the death penalty from the table and that violence, brutality and cruelty will only escalate — and justice, just retribution, will be mocked. That is simply a fact.

  • Robert Sheehan

    It is very unfortunate when conservative Catholics try so hard to avoid agreeing with the teaching of the Church. It makes one wonder why they agree with somethings and not with others. Of course exactly the same thing is done by liberal Catholics as well.

  • Arkanabar T’verrick Ilarsadin

    It's really not that tricky. Execution should meet the same requirement as other justifiable homicides: it is acceptable when it is done to protect the lives of others (including other prisoners, as was previously mentioned) and there are no other prudent means of doing so.

  • kycatholic

    Dear Father,I accept the teaching of the Bishops on this and I try to vote in a way that is consistent with life but I still struggle internally. I think what I struggle with most is this: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. (CCC, 2267)Do we have conclusive evidence of it? I am not denying the point, I just never see it supported or refuted by evidence, merely asserted or denied. The fact it is in the CCC does not make it an article of faith , does it?I just don't know.SincerelyPhilip

  • nannon31

    The catechism is not infallible unless it is citing an infallible document. John Paul's prudential judgement that life sentences protect was placed within a catechism and you Father….like that. Unfortunately in wiki's list of high murder rate countries, 9 predominant Catholic countries in Latin America are in the top 20 worst murder rate countries and they have no death penalty.John Paul apparently did little research and indeed, Weigel in Witness to Hope stated that John Paul did not read newspapers. Were he alive today, he could read that Mexico has 28,000 murders in 4 years and has no death penalty. Do we aspire to make all countries as dangerous as many of ours?

  • Hermannn

    Ad nannon31:Permit this Non-American to wade into the debate. I am an Austrian, where capital punishment was struck from the Penal Code in 1950. This applied to ordinary process of law. Until 1968, it was possible under certain circumstances to proclaim Martial Law and execute perpetrators (which, however, did not happen). In 1968, the statutes on Martial Law were abolished as superfluous. However, when the death penalty was abolished 1950, the general crime rate remained virtually unchanged. The same has happened in almost all of Western Europe. So, the argument that the death penalty is a deterrent to other criminals has not been proved. The only other argument for the death penalty is revenge.In every debate on capital punishment, examples like the one you cited do come up. Unfortunately, they do not make a convincing argument. Mexico is a tragic case of being in the wrong neighbourhood at the wrong time. Most of the murders you mention are the result of a war among rivalling drug gangs and the state. Drug traffic means big money, since the US of A have a huge appetite for anything people can snort, smoke, swallow or inject, and quite a lot of these substances pass through Mexico. Big money does talk loudly in a poor society. While you are at it, why don't you argue that the Mafia murders in Catholic Italy just cry out to be avenged on behalf of the state?

  • nannon31

    Hermann, Austria and Western Europe have little relevance to this side of the pond. Spain and Portugal historically were able to rob and enslave Latin America with the initial support of 4 Popes in the second half of the 15th century ( see "The Church That Can and Cannot Change" John Noonan Jr./Nortre Dame Press). But they were able to leave the resultant slave derived violence problems here just as England left many of her damages of imperialism outside of Europe. Canada is similar with no vestiges of great inequality. Niall Fergusson's recent best seller "The Ascent of Money" shows that for a very long time, 40% of Spain's budget was silver stolen from Peru. The land system left in Latin America of few families owning the best land leaving most people poor can actually be found nascently in Romanus Pontifex 1454….mid 4th large paragraph….Pope Nicholas V. Read that section and you will understand much about Latin America's violence. Japan by the way is the 4th safest country in terms of murder rates and has the death penalty. So if a wealthy Catholic were going to allow their daughter to vacation alone in a foreign country, Japan is safer than almost every Christian country on earth.

  • Christopher Joseph

    " … the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent."To my knowledge, the only prudential judgment to have crept into the Catechism.

  • Hermannn

    ad nannon31:Thank you for your reply. Unfortunately, it is only partly relevant for the question discussed, i.e. capital punishment.No, I have not read the books you mention, nor do I intend to, since they apparently report facts which have been well-known for decades. So, thank you, I'll pass. Now, if you want to lay the whole blame for the current situation in Latin America to the Spanish of the 15th and 16th centuries, feel free to do so, but don't expect me to join you. Analysis of the social situation is hardly ever so simple as you make out. Just to annoy you, a counter-position: The situation of Latin America is very much a result of the Revolutions of 1810-1820 (Simon Bolivar et al.) – which cemented the power of the Creole families and did away with the Spanish legislation to protect the Indigenas.I concur that Western Europe as a whole has apparently little relevance for, to quote you, "this side of the pond". No argument there. The statistics, however, remain the same, whether you like that or not: Whether in Austria, or the UK, or Spain, or Germany – the abolition of the death penalty had virtually no effects on the crime rate of any of the nations in question.So, this argument remains unchanged. It was difficult to stomach for the advocates of capital punishment over here, too, since the death penalty appeals to something dark within all of us: Having the power to decide over life and death; how intoxicating.

  • nannon31

    Hermann,       Well, apparently you not only avoid certain authors that rattle your paradigm including Pope Nicholas V but you avoid the Author of all authors in Genesis 9:6.  " If anyone sheds the blood of man, by man will his blood be shed; for in the image of God has man been made."  Christ was referring to this passage when Pilate reminded Christ that Pilate had power over His life.  Christ then said in Jn 19:11, "You would have no power over me at all were it not given you from above" ie. in Genesis 9:6 which being said to Noah was said to both Jews and Gentiles like Pilate in his day.  So there in Genesis with a permanent underlying reason concerning being made in God's image, God handed over to man the job of executing murderers and God repeats that after Christ rises in Romans 13:4 concerning the state using the "sword" ( synecdoche…up to and including ) as a minister to execute on the evil doer …the wrath of God…not to reduce Austria's murder rate first and foremost so that it can one day be as safe as pagan Japan…though that would be good in itself.

  • hilaron

    "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." (Cardinal Ratzinger, Letter to Cardinal McCarrick, it would be a good thing to share the thoughts of Cardinal Ratzinger on this subject.In Christ,David

  • Hermannn

    Ad nannon31:Thank you for your second reply.Apparently, I have expressed myself ambiguously: I do not intend to read books that report facts as completely new, which are already well-known and historically established. Waste of time, if you ask me.As a non-theologian, I shan't wade into the debate on whether or not to take the Old Testament literally. If you want to continue the debate via e-mail, I'll be happy to.