Pope Francis on the Death Penalty

Pope Francis on the Death Penalty March 21, 2015

On March 20, Pope Francis wrote a letter to Federico Mayor, President of the International Commission against the Death Penalty.  This letter builds on previous statements the Pope  has made against the death penalty, but it is much more detailed.  Significant extracts have appeared in English, but at the moment the full text does not seem to be available and I think that the missing parts contribute to the overall force of his argument.  The Vatican has published it in Italian and in the original Spanish.   In the future I  want to comment more fully on what Pope Francis and on the conservative backlash against it, but for now, as a first step, I want to make the full text available in English.

The translation below is partly my own from the Spanish, but I also drew heavily on extensive passages in English given by Independent Catholic News and by the Vatican Information Service.  However, these translations are awkward and I have made many changes and corrections to them.  In several places where the Spanish grammatical structure is involved, I have added words in “[…]” to help clarify the meaning.  Finally, in a couple places I have added some editorial comments.

As two of my fellow bloggers are professional translators, I hope they will have mercy on my efforts here.  Corrections to my translation will be gratefully accepted.


His Excellency
Sr. Federico Mayor,
President of the International Commission against the Death Penalty

With these letters I want to give my greetings to all the members of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty, to the group of countries that support it, and to those who collaborate with the organization over which you preside.  I also want to express my personal thanks, and also those of people of good will, for your commitment to a world free of the death penalty and for your contribution to the establishment of a world-wide universal moratorium on executions with the aim of abolishing capital punishment.

I have shared some ideas on this subject in my letter to the International Association of Penal Law and the Latin American Association of Penal Law and Criminology of May 30, 2014.  I had the opportunity to take a closer look at these ideas in my talk before the five largest associations in the world dedicated to the study of penal law, criminology, victimology and prison issues on October 23, 2014.  I want to take the opportunity on this occasion to share with you some reflections by which the Church can contribute to the humanist effort of the Commission.

The Church’s Magisterium, based on Sacred Scripture and the thousand-year experience of the People of God, defends life from conception to natural end, and supports full human dignity inasmuch as it represents the image of God (cf. Gen 1:26). Human life is sacred since from its beginning, from the first instant of conception, it is the fruit of God’s creating action (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2258).  And from this moment man, the only creature that God has loved for itself, is the object of a personal love on the part of God (cf. Gaudium et spes, 24).

States kill when they apply the death penalty, when they send their people to war or when they carry out extrajudicial or summary executions. They can also kill by omission, when they fail to guarantee to their people access to the bare essentials for life. “Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality” (Evangelii gaudium, 53).

“Life, especially human life, belongs only to God…Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this…” As St. Ambrose wrote, God did not want to punish Cain by a homicide “preferring the correction rather than the death of a sinner” (cf. Evangelium vitae, 9).  On some occasions it is necessary to repel an ongoing assault proportionately to avoid damage caused by the aggressor, and the need to neutralize him could lead to his elimination; this is a case of legitimate defense. (cf. Evangelium vitae, 55).  Nevertheless, the presuppositions of legitimate personal defense do not apply at the social level, without the risk of misinterpretation. When the death penalty is applied, it is not for a current act of aggression, but rather for an act committed in the past. It is also applied to persons whose ability to cause harm is not current since it has been neutralized and they are already deprived of their liberty.

Today the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed. It is an offense against the inviolability of life and the dignity of the human person, one which contradicts God’s plan for man and society and his merciful justice, and impedes the penalty from fulfilling any just objective. It does not render justice to the victims, but rather fosters vengeance.

For the rule of law the death penalty represents a failure as it obliges the state to kill in the name of justice.  Dostoevsky wrote: “to execute a man for murder is to punish him immeasurably more dreadfully than is equivalent to his crime. A murder by sentence is far more dreadful than a murder committed by a criminal.” [from The Idiot, ed.]   Justice can never be accomplished by killing a human being.

The death penalty loses all legitimacy because of the defective selectivity of the penal system and the real possibility of judicial error.  Human justice is imperfect and  not recognizing its fallibility can convert it into a source of injustice.  By the application of the death penalty the convict is denied the possibility of  repenting or making amends for the harm caused;  the possibility of confession, by which a man expresses his inner conversion; and contrition, the gateway to atonement and expiation, in order to reach an encounter with God’s merciful and healing justice.

Furthermore, capital punishment is frequently taken up by totalitarian regimes and groups of fanatics in order to exterminate  political dissidents, minorities, and any subject labelled as ‘dangerous’ or who may be perceived as a threat to its power or to the achievement of its ends.  As in the first centuries, the Church at the present also suffers the application of this penalty to its new martyrs.

The death penalty is contrary to humanitarian sentiment and to divine mercy which must be the model for human justice.  It involves cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, as well as the anguish prior to the moment of execution.  [It also involves] the terrible wait between the sentence being pronounced and the application of the penalty, a “torture” that, in the name of due process, usually lasts for many years and in the prelude to death often leads to infirmity and insanity.

In some quarters there is a debate about the method of killing, as if it were possible to find ways of “getting it right.” Throughout history a variety of mechanisms of death have been defended as reducing the suffering and agony of the condemned.  But there is no humane way of killing another person.

In reality, not only do there exist means means of suppressing crime without definitively depriving those who commit them of the possibility of redeeming themselves (cf. Evangelium vitae, 27), but there has also developed a greater moral sensibility in relation to the value of human life.  [This] provokes an increasing aversion to the death penalty and support in public opinion for various provisions that lead to its abolition or the suspension of its application (cf. Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church, 405).

On the other hand, life imprisonment, like those that because of their duration imply for the prisoner the impossibility of planning a future of freedom, can  be considered as a sort of covert death penalty, as they not only deprive detainees of their freedom, but they also attempt to deprive them of hope. But even though the penal system can  claim the time of convicted persons, it can never claim their hope.

As I said in my talk last October 23, “the death penalty implies the negation of the love of enemies preached in the Gospels.  All christians and men of good will are obligated not only to fight for the abolition of the death penalty, legal or illegal and in all its forms, bu also for the improvement of the conditions of incarceration out of respect for the human dignity of the persons deprived of their liberty.” [This is not an exact quote. ed.]

My dear friends, I encourage you to continue with your work because the world needs witnesses to the mercy and tenderness of God.  I say goodbye commending you to the Lord Jesus, who during his life on earth did not want harm done to his persecutors in his defense—“Put your sword  back in its sheath (Mt 26:52)—was arrested and unjustly condemned to death, and identifies himself with all [emphasis in original, ed.] those imprisoned, guilty or not: “I was in prison and you visited me” (Mt 25:36).  [May Jesus], who when confronted with the woman caught in adultery did not ask questions about her guilt but rather invited her accusers to examine their own consciences before stoning her (cf. Jn 8:1-11), give you the gift of wisdom, so that your actions taken for the abolition of this cruel punishment be successful and fruitful.


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  • Julia Smucker

    And the moral arc of Catholic social thought keeps moving into an ever fuller application of the consistent ethic of life, which is exactly the right direction.

  • Bravo Pope Francis! Very clear and very clearly from the heart of the Gospel. Nothing ‘wishy washy’ about these remarks.

  • bill bannon

    Unforetunately Pope Francis like Evangelium Vitae and the catechism is saying that the captured murderer is now harmless. But the majority of Catholics know that is untrue. When all three of those organs say that, they are avoiding the reality of murders within prison by lifers in non death penalty states ( Dahmer and Fr. Geoghan were both murdered by lifers in non death penalty states). But further, the NY Times long ago had an article on murders ordered from California prisons out on the streets amounting to 300 murders over I think it was a ten year period….and that’s in the US who only solves 62% of its murders. Catholic Quatemala solves only 5% of murders. So there in that Catholic Central American country, life sentences are protecting you from a tiny number of murderers…5 out of a hundred. God protected Cain from vigilantes but shortly after Cain, that same God gave both Jews and Gentiles a death penalty mandate for murder in Genesis 9:5-6 when that same God was about to start governments in Gen.10:8…Nimrod being the first potentate. Both John Paul and Francis avoid telling readers that as they render the Biblical theme in an abridged fashion. It goes beyond the death penalty. John Paul II was the first Pope I ever read who saw the God mandated death penalties of Deuteronomy as coming not from God but from an unrefined culture ( EV sect.40). Which means I as Catholic can theoretically question every God mandate in the first person imperative in the Old Testament. Pope Benedict is the first Pope in history to state in Verbum Domini 42 that the massacres or herem of e.g. Canaan were not ordered by God even though scripture repeatedly says they were…even as late as Isaiah.
    There’s a problem Houston….if first person imperatives by God in the Old Testament are subject to being pure fiction, why are we reading any imperatives by God….even the ones the last three Popes preferred?

    • Dante Aligheri

      I’m not certain that Genesis 9:5-6 is advocating the death penalty enforced by human beings. The context of that verse derives from Noahide kosher law – that blood as the principle of life must not be consumed but returned to God as the author of life. Furthermore, it seems to be a descriptive verse, as in “whoever lives by the sword shall die by the sword,” that death engenders death. It would be similar to God’s description of original sin: that man shall struggle to rule over his wife (that is, an evil effect of sin and not a positive command), that human beings will die and return to mortal nature, that they shall strive against nature. The verse states that “I will demand…” – that God will demand in his judgment. So, earlier in Genesis, the murders after Cain multiply with Lamech and a cycle of vengeance. So that becomes judgment on itself as in the “wages of sin is death.” While I will not venture this far, one could say governments are perpetuating this cycle and causing more blood to cry from the soil by the death penalty. But, again, that seems to be going too far.

      Also, if the OT commandments are read closely, most of the offenses committed therein did not demand the death penalty but rather demanded monetary satisfaction in lieu of the death penalty, a ransom. This was standard procedure for Near Eastern law codes like Hammurabi’s [Westbrook, “The Character of Ancient Near Eastern Law,” A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law, pgs. 71-78.]

      Second, Nimrod is hardly a model for proper government. Jewish tradition assigns him as the role of the builder of Babel, idolatrous opponent of the prophet Abraham, and creating the imperial empire which is the anti-Israel in the mythical East, the Tower of Babel standing opposite to Jacob’s true stairway (ziggurat) to heaven at Bethel, under evil spirits opposed to Israel and from which Abraham is redeemed, the mythical forebearer of historical Babylon and the Babylon imagery in Revelations.

      Finally, regarding herem warfare, that does not have to do with the death penalty. If it did, entire cities would have to be annihilated – and not just for civil law offenses but for the religious Noahide laws as well such as eliminating all idolatry as an affront to the One God. Herem was always portrayed as a one time event to purify the Land and prevent idolatry – never an ongoing policy, a policy which failed in the canonical reading. Besides, Maimonides makes it clear that even Canaanite cities were given terms of peace prior to the beginning of hostilities. But, again, that has little to do with the death penalty but with laws of war. Most scholars today believe that Israel itself is a “mixed multitude” of both rural Canaanites and Yahwistic Shasu and Kenites from Arabian Midian, some of whom escaped from Egypt, all bonded by a common oppression under imperial Egypt. The Conquest narratives themselves are far less ‘total war’ than assumed.

      Lastly, and this is probably the most important point, there is major difference between the Old and New Laws. Christians do not practice the law of Torah except for the Decalogue (cf. Michael Barber for this reasoning among the early Christians). The rule of Torah was a pedagogue, but we have been ‘brought out’ like Abraham redeemed from idolatry and the fallen powers after the Cross from the flesh, death, the ruler of this world and the principalities over the Gentile nations, and the Torah into the new Israel of the Spirit. In this, Christians prior to the Reformation, which precisely re-emphasized the literal sense (hence its invocation by the Puritans against Native Americans), had thoroughly allegorized herem warfare into spiritual warfare against the passions (cf. Erasmus’ ‘Peace Protests’ for an example). Even at the height of the First Crusade, it was the Gospel that was invoked and not the Joshua narratives by Pope Urban II to justify warfare as an act of Christ-like love. Herem was never invoked. While Torah is important for us, it cannot take precedence over the commandments of the New Testament; where they conflict, the New Law should take priority.

      • Dante Aligheri

        Just to be clear, after having read this again, I am not trying to whitewash Deuteronomic herem warfare or justify forcible deportation, religious or otherwise, especially given current events. My point was that both Jews, since at least the first century and certainly with the medieval rabbis, and Christians recognized these laws as commonly interpreted as contrary to the will of God and sought to tame them. Certainly Torah should be not applied flatly or literally (as has been done with horrific results – i.e., Peasants’ Revolt-style) – least of all by Christians who under the New Law.

        • bill bannon

          I’ll be brief because you really avoided the central problems of my actual post. But that said…likening Gen.9:6 to a prediction about violent life having a karmic result rather than being a mandated death penalty…fails just on the case of David who as a “man of blood” was not allowed to build the temple but he died peacefully not violently but simply in old age like most soldiers, police and criminals do throughout history. Christ’s “he who lives by the sword will die by the sword” refers in its second half to something very spiritual not physical….Peter and Christ did die violently ..Peter after obeying that Christ rebuke of his attempted murder in the ear incident in Gethsemane. Violent people who solve all problems that violent way often die non violently and simply from old age…so the “die by the sword” part must refer to the experience of death even if it outwardly looks peaceful. Christ and all martyrs die violently so why then warn of physical death happening to the violent? All your other points I will not address. I’m familiar with modern scholarship after having the Jesuits 8 years and while I threw out R. Brown’s ” Birth of the Messiah” for exactly the premises you exude, I kept his ” Community of the Beloved Disciple” and the large but later in life
          “Introduction to the New Testament”. Gen.9:5-6 gives God’s reason for the execution of the murderer….he has murdered an image of God…the victim.
          That makes murder a quasi sacrilege and God in both testaments kills individuals only for sacrilege….He kills Uzzah for touching the ark; He kills Achan for stealing at Jericho God dedicated precious metals; He kills the sons of Heli for using the priesthood for carnal gain; He kills Onan for risking the non appearance of Christ ( check the geneology); He kills the 72 descendants of Jechoniah for failing to greet the ark; He kills David’s son for a mix that contains sacrilege but does not kill David; He kills Jezebel and the idolaters thru Jehu; He kills by bears the 42 children Eliseus cursed because (Aquinas here) they insulted the office of prophet; He kills Herod in Acts 12 for blasphemy after killing Ananias and wife in Acts 5 for lying to the Holy Spirit. Then God kills 1.1 million people using Rome as His axe ( Isaiah 10) in 70 AD which Christ foretold giving as reason that Jerusalem had not known the hour of its visitation..and secondly that they were filling up the sins of their ancestors. Why so many young people killed by God in 70 AD? The Sinai Covenant said He punishes down to the third and fourth generation ” those who hate Me”.
          Can I make things lighter for you? Yes. God would not and did not kill the Canaanites as He told Abraham ( Gen.15:16) for four hundred years while He tried to persuade them all that time by lighter punishments which Wisdom 12 reveals in length. That’s why Jerusalem was given even more centuries before God saw their sins as “filled up” in Christ’s words. Check Gen.15:16 for God first revealing this idea of completed or filled up sin which again is in Christ’s mouth. Adios. If a criminal attacks a loved one in your home, are you ready to protect them? Can you kill if necessary? Romans 13:4 was given by God within a very flawed culture on purpose…because even a flawed government which killed Christ unjustly has the duty to execute when that is protective which SCOTUS arrived at as to not passion murders but premeditated murders after 4 years of deterrence study comparisons and it deputes that right to you in self defense in your home here in the US.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      “When all three of those organs say that, they are avoiding the reality of murders within prison by lifers in non death penalty states”

      Back when I was the numbers wonk for the CT anti-death penalty organization, I had an opportunity to look into this. There was no evidence—zip, zero—that there was a problem with prison murder in non-DP states either in absolute terms or in comparison to states with the DP. In fact, there was some evidence that men serving life sentences were less violent than inmates with shorter sentences. They knew they were not going anywhere, and wanted their lives to be as pleasant as possible. Prison wardens who testified on this matter said they did not need the DP as a deterrence, and that other means were sufficient for keeping order in prison.

      ” But further, the NY Times long ago had an article on murders ordered from California prisons out on the streets amounting to 300 murders over I think it was a ten year period”

      I could not find this article—could you provide a reference? I heard this argument in the past, but never found any evidence that it was a real problem. (By a “real problem” I mean one of such scope and magnitude, and so closely connected with prisoners already serving life sentences, as to merit discussing the need for the death penalty to combat it.) The version I heard (including once from a priest who opposed abolition in CT) was that prisoners were using smuggled cell phones to commit all manner of crimes on the outside while behind bars. The solution would seem to be, not the death penalty, but getting the FCC to allow prisons to jam cell phone signals.

      My final point is that St. JP II, Pope Benedict and Pope Francis are generally correct: we can and do protect people via incarceration, and the death penalty plays no role in keeping us safe.

      • bill bannon

        ” The death penalty plays no role in keeping us safe.”

        Then explain to us how China with over one billion people, hundreds of millions of whom are poor, has by UN figures 1 murder per 100,000 people while the US has nearly five times that (4.7 murders per 100,000) with a lethargic death penalty in some states only (rare use plus 10 to 20 years of appeals). Central America averages 31 per 100,000 murders with no death penalties largely. 31 times the rate of China. Northern S.A. is similar in murder rates with no death penalties. You may not like Muslim countries but check the murder rates in those that are not arrested states like Somalia….low murder rates….fast executions which you could restrict to overwhelming evidence as a standard.
        Keep in mind that China had a civil war in the 19th century, the Taiping rebellion, that had 20 million killed….ergo its history is aggressive though not exploratory like the West… ( Boxers Rebellion a bit later) and thus not intrinsically non violent like a few south pacific islands…and not like affluent Luxembourg in Europe. China has drug gangs in the remote by jungle golden triangle but they are kept constrained to be exporters and non expansive within China thanks to their knowing they’ll be killed…pronto. Recently China’s superior court overturned 15% of executions so its not like they desire them with blood lust.

        The Times article I think was too old or its title cryptic vis a vis my guessing… to find because I tried online last year and found nothing. But where you have gangs ( not Europe) you have organized hits ordered from prison…via court ordered phone rights and coded words on those calls. In Newark years ago a very young black witness was ordered killed from prison for his testimony. Although the South U.S. recently had an inmate order a friend to kill his wife or girlfriend…so it need not be aryans, bloods or crypts. In one case in Mexico, the hit men left the prison, killed, and returned to prison which I’m sure in some cases is the safest place to be when cartels are disputing an area…safer than a residence with windows during a cartel war.

        God’s method was quick execution in Deuteronomy first by the witnesses then by the community and at the time of Christ that was followed undiscernedly but literally in respect to Christ as a ” dreamer”: John 8:58-59 ” Jesus said to them, ‘ Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born I am. Therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him, but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple.”. Likewise Stephen’s stoners including Saul/Paul were following the quickness enjoined by Deuteronomy. Ananias and Sapphira are killed quickly too after their lying to the Holy Spirit…but by Peter’s words and God’s power which echoed the same thing by God and Moses’ words only against Dathan and Abiram. By contrast California has 20 years appeals average….what was Connecticut? I’m guessing ten years and few gangs like Chicago has.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          “By contrast California has 20 years appeals average….what was Connecticut? I’m guessing ten years and few gangs like Chicago has.”

          The appeals process in CT trickled off into eternity. Since the 1976 Gregg decisions, CT had one execution, Michael Ross, in 2005. Ross was a volunteer, waving all of his (non-mandatory) appeals. There remain 11 men on death row. Their average time there has been 12 years, but several have been there over 20. During this period we saw the rise and fall of a major gang problem in Hartford. Its existence and its elimination had nothing to do with the death penalty.

          As for the rest of your argument: I think you and I have been down this rabbit hole before. Crime rates in authoritarian dictatorships are often low: they are called police states for a reason. Also, crime statistics from China are, in my understanding, unreliable. Extreme poverty, gangs, narco-terrorism, corruption and state violence have more to do with crime in Guatemala than the existence or absence of the death penalty. Bringing it back will not solve their manifold problems. What you have done is a common mistake in the social sciences: you have reduced complex problems to one variable, and are asserting that correlation is causation. I don’t buy it. You consistently ignore the fact that non-DP states, or states with moribund death penalties have lower murder rates than states with the DP, or that the US, which does have the DP, has strikingly higher murder rates than any other comparable country.

        • bill bannon

          The US Supreme Court though examined deterrence studies for all states from 1972 til 1976 and reversed their own cessation of the dp because they found that execution does deter regardless of state…not passion murders but premeditated murders of habitual criminals. I’m sure their analysis was not centered on one aspect. Multiple factors? I brought up in a post, Guatemala’s arrest rate for murder…5%. Execution would only work there if other things were done simultaneously.
          Otherwise, your chances of never being caught in Quatemala are perfect if its done in the countryside….no matter dp or life. Some are done in city when businesses won’t pay protection…it’s not all narco excused. I saw a tv piece on bus drivers being shot in broad daylight in Central America for refusing to pay protection money. That type of thug is too stupid to import and export drugs.
          I’ve been attacked by that type ten times in my lifetime…twice whites…8 times blacks. They’re idiot level. They could do little except shoot inaccurately for the cartels…or do chainsaw murders.
          Non death penalty states? You’d have to ascertain truthfully if they have those minorities which do the non passion, non spousal murders in great numbers. My Irish were once the violence crucifix of NY City a hundred years ago. That still lingers in DUI homicides by Irish because I see it the papers often…in the NY harbor area. The almost totally white nature of New Hampshire means murders are low as in Scandinavia….New Hampshire 1.7 per 100,000….Maine ditto 1.8 per 100,000….not because whites are good but because their historical financial stats right at this moment in history in the northern states argues against their being tempted to non passion murders. They may stick you up far worse in a home improvement contract by padding the bill than a minority ever will in a mugging…thousands versus a hundred….but they need not shoot you like the mugger might. There are many states in the US similar therefore to Scandinavia…..largely white and above survival level in income. Their murder rates are low whether you have dp or not. Southern whites are a whole different story if they are poor.

          • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

            With regards to deterrence: I stand by my assertion. From the Death Penalty Information Center:

            “A report, released on April 18, 2012, by the prestigious National Research Council of the National Academies and based on a review of more than three decades of research, concluded that studies claiming a deterrent effect on murder rates from the death penalty are fundamentally flawed. The report concluded: “The committee concludes that research to date on the effect of capital punishment on homicide is not informative about whether capital punishment decreases, increases, or has no effect on homicide rates. Therefore, the committee recommends that these studies not be used to inform deliberations requiring judgments about the effect of the death penalty on homicide.”

            If you distrust the source, you can find a link to the original report on their site (www.deathpenaltyinfo.org).

            Your point about the intelligence (or lack thereof) or racial ethnic background of criminals is really beside the point and more than a bit stereotyped. They do nothing to advance your argument that the death penalty is necessary (or even desirable) to keep people safe.

  • I am in favour of “retributive justice,” right up to the point of delivering “capital punishment,” but, at that point, I stop, because it is both the deification of the State, as well as the coercing of individual consciences into cooperating with the “deification of the State.”
    Once upon a time, I was opposed to capital punishment because I thought that it foreclosed forever the possibility of repentance for a convicted criminal, until a Calvinist acquaintance suggested to me that, if a convicted murderer would ever, in any future life, repent, God would most certainly give him the grace to repent in the closing days of his life. I could not argue against that, but, later in life, I have come to understand that the real damage that capital punishment does is to society in general, not to the condemned, and that it does no good to claim that some abstract entity called “the State” can legitimately enact such a punishment, which belongs properly to God, because it is irretrievable.
    Perhaps I can explain the seeming paradox of my support for “retributive justice,” and my opposition to the death penalty by citing my non-support of state-decreed “rehabilitation.” I don’t believe that a convicted criminal should be furloughed from his prison sentence because some board has met with him and determined that he has been “rehabilitated.” I agree that justice–AND respect for the choice the criminal made to break the law–require that the full sentence be served. There is no way that some “board” can peer into a human being’s soul and know that he has been spiritually and mentally transformed, through undergoing his punishment, into someone who could never offend again.
    However, by the same token, no jury, “twelve good men and true,” can “play God” by applying a sentence that is permanent. No punishment should be “permanent.” Only God has the right to decree punishments that are eternal and which cannot be modified. It is a dodge to claim that “the State” may do what individuals may not, because, in order to inflict capital punishment on a human being, individuals must be drafted into the sentencing, and, worst of all, the executions of other human beings. I believe that the damage that is done by capital punishment to the most impressionable, particularly children, who may be rendered susceptible to an inclination to use violence as a solution to personal problems, is inestimable. I also do not believe that “closure” for survivors is actually effected by the enactment of an execution. I remember watching, with grim fascination, the trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem. As someone who is one-fourth Jewish, I loathed the man and rejoiced in his destruction. On the summer morning that I learnt he had been hanged in Jerusalem, I built tiny scaffolds and hanged my toy soldiers. When the day was over, I was sick to my stomach and felt that I had been invaded by some destructive, alien force. I certainly did not feel good about myself or about what had been done in Jerusalem.
    In place of “capital punishment,” I would inflict a life sentence without any possibility of parole, accompanied by a requirement to “do penance” on every single anniversary of the victim’s life–in front of the survivors, if they would consent to it, and if they could bring themselves to forgive the perpetrator. This would be a punishment that would certainly be “retributive” but also respectful of the sacredness of life, and of the limitations of one man’s ability to peer into the soul of another. It would also leave open, with a proper respect for those limitations, the possibility of correction of error and the acknowledgment of human fallability in enacting justice.
    Capital punishment, rather than being the enactment of human justice, is actually the deification of the State, and it is not compatible with the message of the Gospels, no matter what were the erroneous proclamations of the Church of previous epochs.
    One thing that this issue fully reveals, on top of everything else, is that true Catholic orthodoxy is premised upon what Newman called “the development of doctrine.” We are supposedly not fundamentalists or Biblical literalists, because we are supposedly led TOWARD the “Truth” by a “Holy Spirit” through the time-space continuum in which we are constrained to live. This is acknowledged and proclaimed by Christ Himself, in the so-called “Petrine Commission, when He said “What you shall bind on earth, I shall bind in heaven, and what you shall loose on earth, I shall loose in heaven.” The Church of the past was in error over capital punishment, and the Church of Saint John Paul II has arrived at a fuller understanding of what must be the Christian attitude toward legalized murder.

  • Agellius

    “It does not render justice to the victims, but rather fosters vengeance.”

    In that case, why doesn’t grounding my son for disobedience also constitute vengeance — even if only a mild vengeance — rather than justice?

    “By the application of the death penalty the convict is denied the possibility of repenting or making amends for the harm caused; the possibility of confession, by which a man expresses his inner conversion; and contrition, the gateway to atonement and expiation, in order to reach an encounter with God’s merciful and healing justice.”

    How does the death penalty deprive one of the possibility of repenting or confession?? On the contrary, I have always understood that it’s preferable to die expectedly rather than unexpectedly, so that you have the opportunity to prepare yourself for death beforehand. Isn’t it people who die suddenly and unexpectedly that lack the opportunity for repentance and confession?

    • As I wrote above, Agellius, the damage done by the death penalty is to the community, not to the guilty person–and especially to those members of the community who might be susceptible either to the temptation to resort to violence as a solution to problems, OR to “worship of the State.” And that “damage” is severe, just as I knew it to be, in my own skin, many years ago. I think that the recent popes have been more mindful of the effect of this legalized form of murder on the human community than they have been regarding the convicted felon, for whose threat to society they have provided an “out” by stating that, in certain extremely unusual circumstances, there may be an execution. “Grounding your son” is comparing apples to oranges, because, in the case of your son, if you found out that he simply made a mistake, or was not willfully disobedient, you could retract the punishment and apologize. When an innocent is executed, there is no possibility of modifying the sentence and THAT is “playing God”!

      • Regulus

        But Dismas, that’s the beauty of the death penalty: yes, it punishes the community too! But that’s a good thing. Society created the monster, so society is hurt too. Especially, the family of the executed must suffer for “it takes a village” and they failed in their duty to socialize a non-antisocial subject. So the punishment is perfectly logically just: the punishment for becoming attached to a monster is to suffer the grief of losing that monster. It is perfect “restorative justice” as the death of the criminal literally acts as a sort of “contrapasso” that “undoes” the social damage represented by the existence of the criminal in the first place. They are the symptom of a sickness in society, yes, but by removing the tumor, society is more cured.

        • Truly, this must be the sickest thing I have ever read at Vox Nova!

        • Regulus

          Persons, subjects, are social beings. Our personalities and selfhoods are social constructs. Sometimes, clearly, society creates a monster. Creates a disirdered personality. They are, indeed, a symptom of structural issues in society. But, once created, sometimes the only way to eliminate the structural defect is to eliminate the particular nexus or node in the network that represents and manifests the defect.

          Society is a web, yes, and we are all nodes. Sometimes…the web gets tangled. A particular node becomes a hopeless knot, manifesting as a product the surrounding society’s twisted tortion. But, sometimes, there is no way to untangle that preserves the node. Sometimes, the only way to untangle the knot is to cut it out. By cutting out the knot, enough tension is released that the surrounding threads are able to reconnect and stitch themselves back together in a less knotty fashion.

        • Regulus

          You may think that’s awful, but I’ll add it’s absolutely analogous to an experience common to all mankind: that sometimes only death brings closure.

          I can think of so many cases:

          The husband chained to an awful wife who resists his attempts at annulment until, one day, she dies…and he’s free to remarry.

          The pining lover who can never obtain his object, but once she dies he is able in some measure to get closure and move on.

          The son who doesn’t feel like he can come out as gay to his family until the grandmother is dead, and the passing of that generation brings liberation.

          The estranged brothers who do not reconcile until their father dies because the balance of interpersonal politics in the family simply don’t allow for that sort of reallignment until he’s out of the picture.

          The debtors who are freed by the death of their debt-holder.

          The reconfiguration in national or church politics than cannot occur until certain figures or whole generations pass by the “biological solution.” (Many a peace treaty has only been secured by the death of the old King).

          I’m not saying the State has a right to step in and kill innocent people in these cases. That’s not my point. My point was they are analogous to the same sort of dynamic the death penalty allows because the nature of the interpersonal network is often shaped by a person’s mere existence, imprisoned or not. Death often brings closure and frees up space for social/interpersonal realignments impossible while certain figures still live.

          • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

            A significant weakness in your thesis is that many, many victims’ family members have testified that an execution does not bring closure: they wake up the next morning and their loved one is still dead and they can’t “move on” because they did not get the “peace” and “closure” the prosecutor and people like you promised them the execution would bring.

        • @Regulus:

          What irony…your weary litany of problems solved by death. But you failed to notice that your solution of allowing a death penalty is more aligned to the ‘active nature’ of abortion and euthanasia; rather than your category of ‘passively welcoming’ liberation in the fact of problem people naturally dying off.

          Even so, in every example conversion is unfulfilled and every opportunity for repentance is missed. Could any stance be more opposed to the message of the gospel?

        • Regulus

          Once again: asking the State to consider things like the Gospel is naive. The State isn’t there to orchestrate or facilitate occasions of extraordinary grace.

          It deals with nature, ordinary nature…and in the ordinary course of things, sometimes the father does humanly speaking need to die for the brothers to reconcile.

          And on a rare occasion there’s a miracle of grace and somehow they all reconcile with him still living. Sure. But the state doesn’t have to consider the possibility of miracles. One can’t make decisions that way.

          I never said, David, that it would be the victims who get closure by the death of the criminal. I said it was merely an analogy. The closure in question is on the level of society as a whole, very diffuse and abstract, yet very real.

          John Wayne Gacy being dead brings ME closure in the sense of that story being over, like a good finale to a TV series in which poetic justice is done and the lose ends are wrapped up. There’s nothing more nagging and frustrating than, say, a TV show or series of books that just sort of peters out rather than wrapping everything up. This is why twenty years later they’re bringing back Twin Peaks and the X-Files.

          It behooves society to create a sense that this sort of justice and finality is more than just a conceit of fiction.

          I guess what I mean is that it’s about catharsis. On the catharsis applies to society as a whole not to any specific individuals. We all own these stories, these tragedies. We all deserve to see the catharsis. And as you know, in a tragedy, that always means death.

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  • Regulus

    I’m in favor of the admissibility of capital punishment in theory, but arguments for the death penalty based on pragmatic concerns such as Bill Bannon offers are only half the story.

    Yes, deterrence is huge…though studies are ambivalent on its effects. And, yes, imprisonment does NOT render someone harmless. Murder happens IN prison by lifers, it is orchestrated on the outside by mobsters on the inside, and people do escape and kill people (see Ronnie Gardner…)

    But the most important part of capital punishment has nothing to do with practical concerns. The death penalty is needed in society for the same reason blood Sacrifice is native to the human psyche (indeed, the fundamental anthropological fact). It’s about a deep mimetic mechanism that only a sacrifice of life disrupts.

    Yes, as Christians we can say Christ was the final sacrifice…but guess what? The State is never really Christian. To hold civil temporal society to the standards of the Kingdom is to immanentize the eschaton. Secular society still operates according to the anthropological logic of sacrifice, and there is a deep connection between, for example, Europe’s decadence and demographic collapse and their “humane” elimination of the death penalty.

    Deification of the State, as Dismas discusses, is the most distasteful thing about the death penalty. But even Christ recognized Pilate’s power over Him, given from above. Christians should reject the World, period, but should not try to make the inherently corrupt internal logic of the World conform to Christian consciousness. That’s just naive and inevitably corrupts us rather than correcting the World, in the end.

    The Christian’s attitude should be indifference to a State which uses its natural authority to execute, not enthusiasm for the idea of one which doesn’t.

    • I find your comment so ugly, so distasteful that I can barely bring myself to respond to it; however, I would ask you one simple question, in light of what you have said: do you believe that a population of people in which absolutely EVERYONE would refuse to perform an execution would be a “sinful,” or, rather, “decadent” society, as you contemptuously refer to modern Europe?

    • trellis smith

      I am sorry but I find this abhorrent reasoning not the least that it accords without question a right of the State to kill. Christ’s recognition of Rome’s power had nothing to do with acquiescence or justification of its capital use which renders unto Caesar what is God’s

      • Regulus

        Sorry, but 1900 years of tradition tell us: the death penalty is within the rights of the State. Indeed, it is in the *nature* of a State: killing is what States do.

        This is why Christians should take the Amish attitude towards the State in general: not disobedience, but total indifference and having as little to do with it as possible. Yes, render unto Caesar: if they want our money, they can have it, like a bad ex can have the dog if they want it.

        A society in which everyone refused to kill, Dismas, would not be a State. It might still be a community, but not a State. States which refuse to use capital punishment are either non-States or, more likely, are simply refraining accidentally but not essentially. Does anyone doubt States such as Europe could execute if they wanted to? Of course they could, they just happen to not go so far right now, or only go so far in other cases such as defensive wars, etc.

        And it is a difference of “so far,” which is to say a difference in degree not nature. Taking a life is simply the extreme asymptote on a continuum of force which is the essence of the State’s existence.

        The Christian State is an evil utopian dream. The State exists in a pre-redemption state of raw fallen nature. Christians, therefore, should turn up our noses to it and strive to live detached as possible from it. But trying to either overthrow or reform the Beast is sheer folly, and the progressives will see it soon enough.

    • Sorry, but 1900 years of tradition tell us: the death penalty is within the rights of the State. Indeed, it is in the *nature* of a State: killing is what States do.

      Yes, I remember this same argument as justification for state torture a few posts ago. Whatever your opinion of the ‘rights and nature’ of a State are, it is not so disassociated from the Christian domain as you allege. In every sphere of life, from the kitchen in the home to the kitchen of the White House we are called to evangelize the message of ‘repent and believe the good news’. Christians (and all peoples) live in families, which in turn form societies, cultures and governments. Your rejection of the Church’s mission to evangelize the culture is a loss for the whole world in some sense, but a loss for you personally most of all.

      Your interest in Rene Girard’s Mimetic Theory is noted, but it doesn’t follow that its manifestations or its ‘anthropological logic of sacrifice’ is a license for State killing.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Well said, Tau Sign.

        • The well-intentioned person who wades into the mire thinking “I can fix and reform it, maybe tame the beast, make it do some good”…always winds up corrupted themselves.

          Regulus, I want you to get and read a book by Aldous Huxley called Grey Eminence. Huxley was no weak-minded “progressive,” but this book of his contains a formula for a religious person’s efforts to “tame the beast,” and Huxley’s model for this is Saint Benedict, who “obliterated” his ego, after many years of penance and spiritual contemplation, and then went back into his world and did, indeed, “tame the beast.”

          And I share the opinion of Tausign that yours is a Stoical attitude toward the death penalty, and not a Christian, “incarnational” one at all. I think you are actually misreading Rene Girard, as well.

        • Regulus

          Christianity’s attitude towards politics IS stoical. The martyrs suffer under the power of the State to kill. They don’t protest the State’s power to kill. IF somehow a Christian got in a position of power, of course they personally would be merciful and change the system as much as they could (abolishing the gladiatorial games, etc). But no true Christian would seek such power deliberately, and even once obtained would not try to be a revolutionary utopian pushing the envelope beyond what a given culture was ready to accept.

      • Regulus

        I’m not saying its a license.

        I’m saying the State doesn’t care, by nature, whether it has moral license or not. Do you think The World operates according to a concern for God’s law? No. It operates according to nothing other than the Will to Power.

        Is this right or good? Of course not! It just IS. Therefore, the Christian’s attitude towards the whole thing should be a detached contempt.

        Your “evangelize the White House” nonsense is nothing but the culture-wars politicization of religion. Do you ever notice that the Hasidic jews and the amish aren’t big culture warriors? That’s a good thing! They have the correct religious stance towards the world.

        Your attitude is nothing other than the progressive twin of conservative kulturkampf.

        • trellis smith

          Sorry but 1900 years of tradition is just a piss poor argument and not a true conservative position which must be argued from principle not a stultifying fallacy of “this is the ways things are”. A true libertarian/conservative position opposes granting unwarranted powers to the state. Nor are you correct that Tausign presents the counterargument as a liberal/progressive pole in a dialectical farce.
          Obviously, the religiosity you advance is merely political quietism more akin to stoicism than catholic incarnational thought and teaching. But even a quietist cannot escape sullying himself when roused to condemn the State that unjustly kills a human being. A religious person who remains indifferent is as contemptible as the priest in the parable of the Good Samaritan. So we are not called to the “correct” religious stance or to even be “religious” but to bind the wounds of our neighbor.

        • Regulus

          It is the cross which is the condemnation of the world, not some sort of lobbying effort or shrill protest.

          All your “condemnation” does nothing.

          I never said the Christian is indifferent to evil, I said they are indifferent to the world. The reason for indifference to the world is disgust at the evil it represents.

          There are too many stories for this to be worth arguing. The well-intentioned person who wades into the mire thinking “I can fix and reform it, maybe tame the beast, make it do some good”…always winds up corrupted themselves.

          The Christian response to the Nazis, for example, is hiding Jews and dying alongside them. It isn’t, say, Von Speer’s, Churchill’s, or Roosevelt’s. You can’t call a response quietist merely because it refuses to make war.

          But go ahead, wage war on the death penalty all you want.

          • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

            “Anyone who views Pope Francis as calling for a watered-down or unrigorous version of Catholicism should read this book. ”

            I have and I will. I helped get rid of it in CT, and God willing I will live to see it abolished in the US.

        • trellis smith

          To wage war like Churchill et al is a straw man argument and the rest of your response is full of false dichotomies. Resistance to Nazism and the Nazi state was a political act, hence the internal consistency of your argument fails as to what Christians do is not political and indifferent to the injustices of the State.
          There are wondrous positive examples of Christian inspired reform movements,( Wilberforce comes to mind) that move into the political sphere and affect change. That they are corruptible means little except to the extremists of “le plus pire”.

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  • trellis smith

    Also God sent his son not to condemn the world but to save it.. So to say that the cross is the condemnation of the world is really the antithesis of its true meaning as the sine qua non of the world’s redemption.

    • Regulus

      Nonsense. He came to redeem His Church. The World will no more be redeemed than the Flesh or the Devil. All three are the Enemies of Christians. This is solid doctrine.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Not at all: “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” Romans 8:20-22.

        • Regulus

          That’s not what “The World” means in traditional theology and you know it.

          The World is better known as “Babylon” in the Book of Revelations, and the smoke of her burning shall rise up forever.

      • trellis smith

        Well Regulus, John 3:17 maybe nonsense to you it is nevertheless the understanding of the church and your understanding of incarnational theology where “in my flesh I shall see God” is deficient at best but really seems just another garden variety heresy.

  • Ronald King

    ” the Christian’s attitude towards the whole thing should be a detached contempt” It is impossible to have contempt for something or someone and be detached. Contempt is toxic if it is not transformed into something creative and healing.

    • Mark VA


      What you wrote (“Contempt is toxic if it is not transformed into something creative and healing”) is true. This transformation was, for example, the essence of the of the Civil Rights Movement in our country, of the Solidarity movement, and of the Indian Independence Movement, lead by Mahatma Ghandi.

      Thus, I find the argument advanced by Regulus (quietism) as lacking in historical support.

      I think Pope John Paul II said it well (The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae)):

      “[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. “

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