Catholic Culture

On the Death Penalty

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Execution squad. Photo by Warren Draper on his blog post on “Catholic Arguments For and Against the Death Penalty” http://www.catholichousehold.com/catholic-arguments-death-penalty/#prettyPhoto

The death penalty is one of those things that could be beneficial. But, without going further at this point, there needs to be something that should be said about how most people, specifically Catholics see the death penalty. In the first place I find the crowd who supports the notion of the death penalty as being intrinsically evil, and hence analogous to birth control and abortion, to close themselves of from legitimate discussion on the use of the death penalty; and on when such capital punishment is indeed just and beneficial to society. On the other hand the same goes with those individuals who believe and support the death penalty as being always and everywhere absolutely beneficial and necessity to society in the same level that food and drink is. (I guess sometimes you just can’t please everyone.) Yet in all seriousness the death penalty needs to be understood as something like a double edged sword. It is something that when wielded by the wrong people in society can be more damaging than it is good and a great bane to society.

That is why the Church’s position (the true position anyway) regarding the death penalty has always been balanced, fair, and does not resort to too much exaggerations, things we always see in many political movements today, and which has sadly bleeded right to the the Church herself.

What does the Catechism Really say?

One of the thing that Catholics both in favor and against support for the death penalty, is that they seem to exaggerate what is already moderate and sensible into something that is either draconian or highly unrealistic. So to begin with, what does the Catechism really say?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2267) states:

2267 The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor. 

“If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person. 

“Today, in fact, given the means at the State’s disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender ‘today … are very rare, if not practically non-existent.'[John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56.]

The first paragraph may offend a good number of Catholics who are opposed to the death penalty by the fact that the Church allows the death penalty (The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty…). It also gives them no reason at all to opine that the Church’s view of morality has somewhat been more humane, and its recent teaching has changed to reflect this view, since the Catechism has been formulated in an era that is coeval with the rise of their notions that the death penalty should be totally banned, since we are more humane. To which I ask them, who is the one here on earth who has been given the power to be the one who will decide as to what is more humane? Us, by the power of our “enlightened knowledge”? If that is not a case of pride of modern man in himself, then I do not know what is. It must be said that if you will strip modern man, you will find a raging, animal-like caveman, whose appetites it would be wont to satisfy, no matter how base it could be.

The second and the third paragraphs may seem to have the effects of negating the first paragraph, and may annoy those that are completely into the idea of executing someone with the slightest suspicion of stealing Grandma Clampett’s Spanish bread. In reality it does not have that sort of power, since it merely says that the Church prefers nonetheless that if possible, bloodless means may be done in lieu of the death penalty if possible. The last sentence of the third paragraph”…’today … are very rare, if not practically non-existent.'[John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56]” is not a sentence that carries any dogmatic weight beyond being an exhortation recommending that the death penalty be applied in a rarest and most special case possible.

The progress of dogmas…is , in reality, nothing but the corruption of dogma.


– (Pope Saint Pius X, Lamentabili Sane)  

Now that we are on the subject of the “progress of dogmas,” perhaps it would be beneficial that we are to look also for far more ancient and “dated” theologians of the Church. For in lieu of the statement by Pope Saint Pius X the Church cannot go from one understanding of a certain dogmatic truth to a completely new understanding. Truth can only be expanded upon but never contradicted.

The Church Fathers on the Death Penalty

It would be most beneficial to our dear readers to read the quotes and extracts from the works of the Fathers. May the works and quotes from the Church Fathers speak for themselves.


“The same divine authority that forbids the killing of a human being establishes certain exceptions, as when God authorizes killing by a general law or when He gives an explicit commission to an individual for a limited time. The agent who executes the killing does not commit homicide; he is an instrument as is the sword with which he cuts. Therefore, it is in no way contrary to the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ to wage war at God’s bidding, or for the representatives of public authority to put criminals to death, according to the law, that is, the will of the most just reason.”

– (St. Augustine, The City of God, Book 1, chapter 21)

“…with Christ that you bear your authority and with Christ that you administer your office of governance. From him you have received the sword, not so much that you may use it, as that you may threaten and deter… You are the image of God and you command God’s truth also to those who are made in God’s image.”

– (St. Gregory Nazianzen, Oratio XVII)

“See to it that Christ is infused into the act of slaying an impious man and that sanctification accompany and be part of your attempt to abolish what is abominable.”

– (St. Ambrose of Milan, St. Ambrose, Cain and Abel, II.7.38)

The Dumb Ox Bellows Forth…

We have Saint Thomas Aquinas defending the death penalty itself, where he writes in his Summa Theologiae that:

Therefore if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good . . . . ST IIa-IIae, q. 64, a. 2.

It is permissible to kill a criminal if this is necessary for the welfare of the whole community. However, this right belongs only to the one entrusted with the care of the whole community — just as a doctor may cut off an infected limb, since he has been entrusted with the care of the health of the whole body. ST IIa-IIae, q. 64, a. 3.

The Catechism of the Council of Trent

Admittedly, there are times also that the modern Catechism of the Catholic Church does not contain much of the things that were discussed at length that its predecessor, The Roman Catechism, did. Here is an excerpt:

“The power of life and death is permitted to certain civil magistrates because theirs is the responsibility under law to punish the guilty and protect the innocent. Far from being guilty of breaking this commandment [Thou shalt not kill], such an execution of justice is precisely an act of obedience to it. For the purpose of the law is to protect and foster human life. This purpose is fulfilled when the legitimate authority of the State is exercised by taking the guilty lives of those who have taken innocent lives. In the Psalms we find a vindication of this right: “Morning by morning I will destroy all the wicked in the land, cutting off all evildoers from the city of the Lord” (Ps. 101:8). (Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent, 1566, Part III, 5, n. 4)

The Sacred Scriptures

Of course, the sayings of all of the saints enumerated above has a firm foundation in Sacred Scripture, as Catholic theology should be firmly grounded in that rock which is the Word of God.

If then I am a wrongdoer, and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death.” (Acts 25:11)

“Let every soul be subject to higher powers. For there is no power but from God: and those that are ordained of God. Therefore, he that resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of God. And they that resist purchase to themselves damnation. For princes are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good: and thou shalt have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to thee, for good. But if thou do that which is evil, fear: for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is God’s minister: an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil” (Romans 13:1-4).

 Since the Scriptures already supported the Death Penalty, it must be noted that there are verses that those who completely reject the Death Penalty may cite to prove their case. Here we cite two of them:

Revenge not yourselves, my dearly beloved; but give place unto wrath, for it is written: Revenge is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord. (Romans 12:19)

Then Jesus saith to him: Put up again thy sword into its place: for all that take the sword shall perish with the sword. (Matthew 26:52)

Regarding these two verses, there is a general theme in which those who are on the wrong side of the coin regarding the Church’s teaching on the death penalty hold on to, and that is they are confusing the act of killing a malefactor for the sake of revenge, not for the sake of the common good of the people (see the quote from the Angelic Doctor). The act of the death penalty is not for revenge but for the attaining of the common good of the people, which the malefactor being out to death is endangering. This is not to say that the Church disregards completely the soul of the malefactor. Rather, the Church approves of the death penalty when there are criminals endangering the common good of the society in order that the criminal too may be saved, not from being put to death of course, but from his own inclinations that may lead him to the eternal fire, which is eternal death. Hence the reason why the Church always allows the criminal to repent in Confession before execution, or in olden times when heretics were put to death by the government, by recanting publicly his heresy.

Saint Thomas Aquinas says:

“The fact that the evil ones, as long as they live, can be corrected from their errors does not prohibit that they may be justly executed, for the danger which threatens from their way of life is greater and more certain than the good which may be expected from their improvement.They also have at that critical point of death the opportunity to be converted to God through repentance. And if they are so obstinate that even at the point of death their heart does not draw back from malice, it is possible to make a quite probable judgment that they would never come away from evil.”

– (Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, chapter 146)

 A Final Note Regarding How the Death Penalty Should Be Applied

Since my aims here may seem to annoy everyone I may as well annoy those too that support the death penalty. I would do so by saying that the death penalty should only be applied for the common good of society, and only for the most heinous of crimes that man in his fallen nature may dare to commit. These sorts of crimes need not be named, since it would make such a horrible a list.

It should also be stated that when it comes to governments where corruption and other sorts of defects are rampant, have as their obligation to try and clean up their own dirtied face before it seeks to proceed in applying the death penalty. The solution for the ending of a higher crime rate in countries is by the example of its public figures and personalities, especially in the government and within the Church Hierarchy itself.

In the end, we are living in a fallen world, and prayers and Masses make a lot of difference as well in order to alleviate a bit the world, which has fallen into quite a slump.

But, thank the Lord that we have a heaven to wait for, providing we be always free from sin, and we strive to have a saintly life, no matter how hard it is.

RECOMMENDED READING (Online, External Links):

GETTING IT WRONG ABOUT THE DEATH PENALTY – http://www.onepeterfive.com/getting-it-wrong-about-the-death-penalty/

CHURCH FATHERS AND CAPITAL PUNISHMENT – http://lexchristianorum.blogspot.com/2012/03/church-fathers-and-capital-punishment_03.html

THE THOMISTIC VIEW ON CAPITAL PUNISHMENT – http://www.aquinasonline.com/Questions/cappunsh.html

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