Tom McKenna on the Death Penalty



“Q. 1276. Under what circumstances may human life be lawfully taken? A. Human life may be lawfully taken: 1. In self-defense, when we are unjustly attacked and have no other means of saving our own lives; 2. In a just war, when the safety or rights of the nation require it; 3. By the lawful execution of a criminal, fairly tried and found guilty of a crime punishable by death when the preservation of law and order and the good of the community require such execution.”

Baltimore Catechism




Long time readers will recognize commenter Tom as my worthy adversary on many a Civil War post here at TAC.  Tom, a prosecutor in real life, has done yeoman’s work for years in defending the traditional teaching of the Church in regard to the death penalty at his blog Seeking Justice.  He has done a series of posts in response to the anti-death penalty editorial of Our Sunday Visitor, the Jesuit rag America, National Catholic Birdcage Liner Reporter and National Catholic Register that are well worth reading.

So it seems that some Catholic papers that few people read, joined by a blog group that few people read, are taking a brave and bold stand for justice in favor of… convicted murderers, and urging abolition of the death penalty.

Where to begin with this crew?  The sanctimony and name-calling directed at those like myself who merely uphold what the Catholic Church has always and everywhere taught about capital punishment?  The shoddy reasoning that simultaneously claims to support the Catholic Catechism (which teaches that capital punishment is morally legitimate but should be used rarely) while claiming at the same time that the death penalty intrinsically violates human rights, and ought not just be used rarely, but abolished altogether?

Or perhaps to point out that when they say it’s “three popes and the current magisterium” against St. Thomas Aquinas and the Church’s traditional teaching on this matter, they are buying into the very “hermeneutic of rupture” between current Catholic teaching and traditional Catholic teaching which they routinely criticize some Traditionalists (scornfully called “Rad-Trads”) for espousing, and which was condemned by Pope Benedict XVI as a faulty view of Vatican II and post conciliar teachings?

Or to remind them when they call us (without apparent irony) “lovers of death” that it was precisely one of those three Popes, the same Benedict, who stated, “There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.” 

But this crew is undeterred by facts, which they resolutely ignore as being inconvenient to their “America is Moloch” meme (such as: the death penalty is very rarely used in the US and only on offenders who could not reasonably be “rendered harmless” by incarceration).  It is undeterred by a religious teaching going back 6,000 years and utterly irreformable, and a principle of the Natural Law itself, that gives societies the right and even duty to protect themselves and to carry out justice by resort to the death penalty.  It is shameless in its lack of actual knowledge of the criminal justice system and penal systems, and what each can reasonably accomplish to “render offenders harmless”.  But from their basement blogging outposts and neatly isolated cubicles in Madison, this questionable alliance of  dissenters, some “conservative” Catholics, some thoroughly liberal, such as those found in the pages of Catholic-in-name-only America and National Catholic Reporter, forge ahead, facts be damned, Church teaching be damned, public safety be damned.

Go here to read his other recent posts on the subject.

More to explorer


  1. I’ve always looked at the death penalty this way:

    Let’s assume that the death penalty may be appropriate in the cases of the most heinous murders. It is therefore rarely applied. Let’s specifically assume that 1% of the murders each year in the United States may be eligible for the death penalty.

    There are now approximately 15,000 murders committed every year in the United States. 1% represents 150 potential death penalty cases per year. 14,850 murders each year would not be eligible for death-penalty consideration; 150 murders would be eligible.

    Only legally-constituted juries should consider the death penalty in such cases and the verdict must be unanimous. In addition, specific and strict rules of evidence and rules of proceeding, more stringent then those applied when determining criminal guilt, should be applied in all death penalty cases.

    On a related note, the 5th Commandment prohibition determinative of the Church’s position related to the death penalty is most accurately rendered as “You shall not take life unjustly” . . . from the Hebrew word ratsach, which is not a prohibition against taking all life, only taking life unjustly. As noted above in the article, Catholic teaching has never prohibited the taking of human life in all instances, as witnessed by self-defense, just war and death penalty exceptions.

    We may, for prudential reasons, consider further restrictions, but requiring those restrictions is not consonant with traditional Catholic notions of justice and fairness. There is nothing unCatholic about supporting the death penalty in very rare (1% of cases) circumstances. What has always been absolutely prohibited is the taking of human life unjustly. Any other characterization of the “Catholic position” is simply inaccurate.

  2. This is one of those issues where I almost always find myself on the side of the people who have nominally different views. As I’ve said, I’m opposed to the death penalty, but the logic of folks like Tom is always sounder and more rooted in facts than those who want to pretend that to be a Catholic means you must oppose the death penalty. There is absolutely no way one can square 2,000 years of Church teaching with an absolutely prohibitionist stance. To insist that the absolute prohibitionist stance squares with Church teaching is as daft as insisting that it would be permissible, say, for divorced Catholics to take holy Communion.

  3. I have been looking at the death penalty from underneath the torrent. The state, through the prosecutor, must restore equal Justice to the victim and vindicate him. The victim did not deserve the death penalty inflicted on him. The murderer, who has not expired with grief over his murder of an innocent person, is living outside of equal Justice required to be counted as part of the human race. The murderer has become an outlaw. It is the murderer’s equal Justice, employed through power of attorney by the executioner that brings the murderer to his forfeited Justice and his end and vindicates the victim.
    So, Catholics do not have to support the death penalty. Catholics must support equal Justice. The criminal’s non-compliance with equal Justice will bring him to a bad end, where he meets equal Justice on the scaffold.

  4. I am a Conservative Catholic. I oppose the power of the State to execute criminals. I have no sympathy for brutal criminals and if they get themselves executed by the State then I feel they earned it(most of the time). It should be obvious to any sentient Catholic that the State(speaking of the US) is growing ever more oppressive and is outright inimical to the Catholic Church. That totalitarian States will abuse their power over the lives of citizens has been amply proved beyond any necessity of discussion. In the bygone era of the gallows the State did not have resources for lifetime imprisonment. Now we do and it is less expensive incidentally to keep them confined for life than to execute them, just another incidence of government incompetence. Rather than terminate a life created by God for heinous crimes, it is preferable to punish them with a lifetime of servile labor while providing them with only religious instruction or religious books. No TV or movies or entertainments. One may hope that honest toil and religious instruction may one day bring these souls to an epiphany. That our government would maliciously or incompetently use its power over life to suppress its opponents is not unlikely in my opinion. Even the terrorists who murder us should rather be confined to a lifetime of humble servitude rather than glorified in martyrdom.
    The state is not God and has no legitimate power to take the lives of its citizens. Think about what you are asking as Christian power fades from our body politic. You are authorizing demonic force to your own peril perhaps.

  5. If ever I am swayed to change my mind on the death penalty from being opposed to being in favor, it will almost entirely be due to the arguments put forth by its opponents. See Shawn Marshall at 10:20 above.

  6. and it is less expensive incidentally to keep them confined for life than to execute them,

    The people who are doing the accounting are lying to you. Twenty-four hour care is always and everywhere very expensive. The problem here is the absurd procedural larding which has attended the administration of capital sentences (imposed by our scuzzy appellate judiciary). In a sane legal order, the death sentence would be imposed when certain statutory criteria were met, but the appellate judiciary does not allow that because…we said so.

    The other objection you get to capital sentencing, retailed by John Grisham though not endorsed by him, is that courts are untrustworthy. The remedy to a corrupt and incompetent court system (and there appear to be an ample supply in Texas and Oklahoma) is to repair the court system. Public prosecutors who trade in perjured testimony need to be disbarred, jailed, and to lose their house and pension. Per Glenn Reynolds, the comprehensive immunity prosecutors and judges enjoy is an invention of those officials. We need to strip them of it.

  7. Fear of the atrocious State is all too well founded today Shawn. At the same time, I “still believe” the the clear teaching of the Baltimore catechism.
    The snag or catch is that those still worthy teachings were predicated on a certain moral identity in the community. We could once think of jail as a place and time for rehab because we all had certain religious based motives about what would constitute rehabilitation: acceptance of social moral standards, change of behavior etc. Now in prison the religious / philosophical reading provided would be antithetical to our communitarian purpose ( if we still had one).

  8. Shawn Marshall: “That totalitarian States will abuse their power over the lives of citizens has been amply proved beyond any necessity of discussion.”
    Totalitarian states are not given power. Totalitarian states take power, usurp, plagiarize, and abuse power. The duty of the state is to serve Justice. “We, the people…” are guilty for not preventing the homicide, not being the victim, and not evangelizing the criminal. The guilt we bear carries over into capital punishment but is not the defining factor of executing the murderer. The final and defining factor of the execution of capital punishment, which is the temporal punishment due to the act of taking another person’s life and his human rights is the releasing of the victim’s life from the murderer and even perhaps exorcising the murderer’s demon. Forcing the murderer to relinquish the victim’s life and vindicating the victim from the imposed death penalty is equal Justice for all persons, the duty of the state. The state acts through the power of attorney of equal Justice (forfeited) of the condemned murderer.

  9. I fail this test.

    I’ve read your exhortation’s and sound wisdom. The CCC explains it perfectly, and yet my heart is troubled with the argument. Because I am to uphold and witness the Gospel message with my life I will adhere to the Holy Faith and accept the teachings.

    The conflict within my heart is murder and severity of murder vs. rehabilitation.
    In some cases the murderer is hopeless for any rehab to take hold and give light in the darkness, and my thoughts go to life imprisonment.

    Having participated in prisoners conversions for a short 14 years I’ve been privileged to see Jesus’ healing work, hence my difficulty with our judicial system making this final call.

    As I mentioned, I fail this test.

  10. btw…In this ministry we always find that the incarcerated can not imagine two things. 1.) There loveable. 2.) There forgivable.

    In leaving the ninety nine our Lord shows value in the one.

    Which one is the question.

  11. “Federal prosecutors say hundreds of murders have been orchestrated by inmates inside maximum-security prisons. The Corrections Department says there’s little it can do to stop the killings ordered my inmates who have nothing to lose and nothing but time ” (on their hands). “Operation Black Widow, a three-year, $5 million, local, state, and federal investigation began in Santa Rosa and culminated in the 25-count indictment of a total of 12 men and one woman on federal charges of murder, robbery, conspiracy and drug-related crimes.” “Murder from the inside out” Sunday half page article in The Orange County Register newspaper April 29, 2001.

    Don’t let the facts get in your way, Popes and bishops of the Catholic Church, my Church, in your efforts to side with another Democrat political prudential judgment issue you have re-named “pro-life” that enables Catholics to comfortably remain in the pro-abortion Democratic Party. Being a Democrat is more important than just being Catholic – it gives you such a warm feeling of morally superior to those in the other party.

    Hmmmm, the Democratic Party “consistent ethic of life” history – pro-slavery, fighting a war to keep it legal, after losing the war starting the KKK and creating Jim Crow Laws preventing blacks from having the rights won for them; support of eugenics to keep the white race pure and support of Planned Parenthood caring it out with birth control and abortions; a lower percentage of Congress Members supporting the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act than the other Congressional party; the whole out support of Roe v. Wade and abortion-on-demand, and now pro same-sex marriage, anti-God (D convention 2012), anti-Catholic Church (birth control) and anti-First Amendment Rights. Yeah, Catholic Democrats sure do have the right to feel morally superior to those in that other party – the party formed to free the slaves and fought a war and won.

    It is amazing how Satan works, isn’t it – Church going Catholics, including the clergy, are the largest single group in the Democratic Party and give the Democratic Party the electoral power to keep the wholesale murder of God’s greatest gift – life, now heading for 43 years and over 57,000,000 innocent victims, and now they are attacking his second greatest gift – the sanctity of marriage.

  12. This talk on the cruelness of the death penalty all started with Pope Francis saying the death penalty should be abolished, instead of repeating what the CCC says. If we had a pope that cared one wit about Catholic teachings we would not be having this discussion.

  13. And the same bleeding heart liberals that want to abolish the death penalty for the most worthless hardened criminals, with no hope of rehabilitation, see absolutely nothing wrong with the wholesale murder of 55,000,000 children. How arrogant and hypocritical is that.

  14. D Black.

    The liberals blindness to the slaughter of millions is perverted. How they boast of being champions for the poor marginalized and forgotten, yet they view unwanted pregnancies as a nasty illness. Something that should be paid for or covered for by insurance or national healthcare programs. This so-called War on Women spin is as ludicrous as Hilter’s final solution.

    Please excuse my veering off topic.

    The Holy Church would be better served if it focused on the War on the Christians the War on the unborn and the War on religious freedom vs. death penality opinions.

  15. Philip: “The conflict within my heart is murder and severity of murder vs. rehabilitation. In some cases the murderer is hopeless for any rehab to take hold and give light in the darkness, and my thoughts go to life imprisonment.”
    God was sad, so, He sent His Son. They killed His Son and they still refused to accept repentance. And God continued to be sad.
    Jesus paid no mind to the ignorant thief. Even death on the cross did not bring the bad thief to repentance.
    Capital one homicide is when an individual plots, plans, lays in wait for and executes another human being. We do not know if the condemned murderer becomes a death bed convert on the scaffold.
    It is the duty of the state to repair equal Justice, and respect man’s free will.

  16. D Black,
    John Paul II sought abolition way before Francis and yes abolition contradicts their own rare use idea in ccc
    2267. Rare use? Mexico needs so many executions that it would make China look like Sweden if it carried them out.
    It’s hopeless because it’s deeper than the death penalty…it’s a gathering pan pacifism in high clergy….subconsciously motivated in Popes in the new media world to impress the Euro Union, the Nonel Prize jury, and all those educated liberal Europeans who left the Church because of its past use of violence. Popes now practice the higher biblical criticism that previous Popes like Leo XIII warned of…and no highly published Catholic authors like George Weigel even whisper it. John Paul II tells you softly in section 40 of Evangelium Vitae that he doesn’t believe the Levitical and Deuteronomy death penalties were really from God but from an unrefined culture even though Scripture has them being ordered by God. He can pick and choose what he believes…biblical cafeteria-ism…and he knows no Catholic author who is paying for kids’ college will criticize him or they’ll get few publishers.
    Pope Benedict did the same thing on OT violence issues. Pope Benedict in section 42 of Verbum Domini even goes to the modernist extreme of insinuating that the massacres ( really herem ) of the OT were sins and scholars with training in historical-literary context will prove it ( they won’t because 70 AD, the worst God involved massacre, was not ancient…the genre was history not fiction). Here’s Benedict talking of the herem in sect.42:
    “This can be explained by the historical context, yet it can cause the modern reader to be taken aback, especially if he or she fails to take account of the many “dark” deeds carried out down the centuries, and also in our own day.”
    So the herem of Canaan were like the bombing of Dresden…not from God though Wisdom 12 spends a whole chapter saying they were from God ONLY after God punished the idolaters in small degrees for 400 years firstly….and they would not repent.
    He goes further on all kinds of violence being anathema to the prophets as though they were
    Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan back in the day:
    ” In the Old Testament, the preaching of the prophets vigorously challenged every kind of injustice and violence, whether collective or individual, and thus became God’s way of training his people in preparation for the Gospel.”
    Really? I only recall them denouncing the rich Jews violence against poor Jews over land grabs. Let’s look at the prophets…Elijah killed 552 men and maybe 952 if the Carmel incident had a missing verse. Jehu, a prophet- king, killed decades of Baal worshippers. Samuel killed Agag because Saul failed to. Eliseus got 42 children killed by bears via a curse. Jeremiah warned the Chaldeans to perfectly fight against the Moabites…Jeremiah 48:10 “Cursed be he that doeth the work of Jehovah negligently; and cursed be he that keepeth back his sword from blood.”
    But Pope Benedict was allowed to make up OT history in sect.42 because we apparently are sinfully polite and don’t know the Bible as Jerome did. Christ said, “and the scriptures cannot be broken”. That’s never quoted in modern Catholic circles. Benedict was dead wrong….the herem were ordered by God as scripture says and the prophets did not challenge every kind of violence. One of the prophets contradicts Benedict on both prophets/violence and herem in Isaiah 23:11…” The LORD has issued orders concerning Canaan to destroy its strongholds.”. We have drifted so far from the early Fathers’ relationship to scripture that Popes no longer know the OT….or worse, think they know the real OT which was never written.

  17. Mexico needs so many executions that it would make China look like Sweden if it carried them out.

    I suspect like disorderly loci in America, Mexico needs celerity of punishment before it needs severity of punishment. The experience of New York – which got better results than most states with investing comparatively more in the police census and comparatively less in the prison census is relevant here.

  18. Here Art is a Shiite real sinful execution of Sunni prisoners that progressives should be worried about because hundreds of them are probably going on from the Shiites in revenge wherein they assume all Sunnis in these small towns would freely help ISIS even without coercion. Notice the photographer is not worried about being shot too because he is hezzbolah…even though he is not obeying their demand of his camera.
    Push up to around 4:15 to skip past much inactivity.

  19. Mary De Voe.

    Feelings are never a good substitute for Church teachings are they? Duh.

    Have a good week.

    The poor thief refused the graces. So too the hardened killer. A merciful God gives sufficient graces to control ones behavior, however if one doesn’t participate in His graces he has made his choice.

    The community shouldn’t be at risk.

    Feelings got in my way of reason.

  20. Philip: I have felt the strength of your prayers and the graces bestowed upon me. I feel like you are pulling me into heaven by the seat of my pants and my belt strap. I am looking forward to seeing you in heaven.
    P.S. You may need the help of a couple of Guardian Angels.

  21. Mary De Voe.

    ….may need the help of a couple of guardian angels?? No “may” about it Mary. That statement should read “will” need the help ect.

    When I picture my guardian I see the scars of a battle savvy warrior. I believe I caused him so much grief and neglect when I did my impression of Frank Sanatra’s “My way.” I picture him in less grief these days…however that too can be deceiving so it’s best just to pray and help neighbor.

    As far as helping you into heaven I can not say anything except this; “Eloquent sermons and work divorced from prayer bear no fruit. The knees, not the intellect or the pen, give efficacy to action….so prayer before and after every activity.” St. Maximilian Kolbe.

    When it comes to intellect I’m the bench warmer in the World Series. 🙂
    It’s ok because the art of prayer is my work and as an apprentice I don’t look back…I just try to keep my hand on the plow and inch by inch move forward.

    It’s always interesting to hear / read the posts from scholarly faith filled Catholics.
    I’m very humbled.
    You and your friends are inspiring.

  22. Neither Pope Francis, the Supreme Court or the United Nations can, nor may run surety for a capital one murderer, since the murderer has free will to do as he pleases and it has pleased him to kill an innocent person. What will Pope Francis promise, that he will control a capital one murderer’s free will? How So? How is it that these murderers may be included in our midst to run double jeopardy of life to all innocent people? How will Pope Francis save us from being killed? and how does Pope Francis deny the murderer’s free will and the murderer’s soul without losing his own immortal soul???

  23. Many comments in supposed rebuttal to my remarks are specious at best.
    Justice is NOT served by killing criminals. Justice belongs to God. God gave His Son to man to show us the Way. The established Church and the government scourged Him with whips to the point of death and hanged Him on a cross.
    He was criminally executed. Was justice served?
    Almost all commenters ignored or minimized the caveat of giving the power over life to an oppressive State which is already so inimical to our Catholic Faith that it engages in outright intimidation and unconstitutional persecution. Sometimes when I become a little discouraged, I no longer wonder at the ability of fellow Christians to load children into cattle cars.

  24. Go right ahead, Shawn Marshall. Become a prison guard. It is not an easy life for you or your family. Your children will be more likely to become delinquents and your marriage more likely to break down. But you can make the sacrifice, better someone who has a superior understanding of the superiority of imprisonment to the alternative than someone just doing a guard’s job for the money alone.

    Or you could minister to prison guards and their families. By doing so you would be serving the innocent victims of the incarcerated because the damage those convicted criminals do to the lives of innocent others continues on while they are incarcerated.

  25. Shawn Marshall: “Rather than terminate a life created by God for heinous crimes, it is preferable to punish them with a lifetime of servile labor while providing them with only religious instruction or religious books. No TV or movies or entertainments.”
    How are you going to keep the murderer from enjoying his crime? especially the rape and murder of innocent children?

  26. Is it constitutional to disavow the Right to Life for a person who is a citizen deceased? Last will and testaments have been abrogated. Human rights cannot be abrogated, especially for those murder victims who cannot speak for themselves. Abrogating the victim’s right to speak under oath in a court of law is unconstitutional. Therefore, abolishing the death penalty and disallowing the state to assume the murdered victim’s right to speak is unconstitutional. Every person must be enabled by the state to enjoy his constitutional human rights. If even one person is denied, all persons are denied. Each and every capital one homicide must be tried on a case by case basis. It is not true that there cannot be absolute certainty in a death penalty case.

    God respected the free will of Lucifer even as Lucifer tried to kill God by replacing God with himself.

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