The Death Penalty and the Traditional Teaching of the Church


Trent Death Penalty


One aspect of the current debate in Saint Blogs over the death penalty that I find fascinating is the sheer indifference that many anti-death penalty Catholics have to the fact that the Church until 1995 never challenged the right of the State to execute convicted criminals.  Calls for mercy from clerics were never uncommon, but the justice of the death penalty per se, apart from prudential concerns, never entered into the picture.  Steven Long at Thomistica looks at this:


Four Catholic journals–the National Catholic Register,  America, The National Catholic Reporter, and Our Sunday Visitor–have decided to press for the total abolition of the death penalty in the United States in a shared editorial, making only faintly veiled suggestions that it is essentially evil, “abhorrent”.  Their joint editorial may be found, among other places, here. The editorial manifests a wondrously positivistic indifference to, and disregard for, distinctions in doctrine.  That all the Doctors and Fathers of the Church–with the exception of Tertullian who died outside the faith– have taught the essential validity of capital punishment; and that it is the teaching of the Council of Trent that where all the Fathers and Doctors hold one interpretation of Scripture as the proper one, Catholics are to accept it, are two propositions that signify very little in the oppressive culture of mutationist accounts of doctrinal development.  

Wholly unobserved is the high theological note characterizing the profession required of the Waldensians in 1210 in order to re-establish ecclesial communion.  The Waldensians were required to acknowledge among other things the essential justice of the death penalty for grave crime.  Cf. Denzinger, #425—“Concerning secular power we declare that without mortal sin it is possible to exercise a judgment of blood as long as one proceeds to bring punishment not in hatred but in judgment, not incautiously but advisedly.”  Clearly to require this oath for the re-establishment of ecclesial communion at one moment, and then to imply the absolute necessity of the opposite—where what is at stake is not prudential application and limit but the principled possibility of just penalty of death—would constitute not a development of doctrine, but rather a mutation.  Note, again, that the oath required of the Waldensians directly refers to the death penalty in principle and that it indicates that as such it cannot be a malum in se. Nor is it listed as such in Evangelium Vitae, which provides a list of such intrinsic evils from which the death penalty is omitted. 

Are the editors of the journals involved–or the bishops who so commonly describe the death penalty as contrary to human dignity as though it were a malum in se–familiar with the work of the late Eminence Cardinal Avery Dulles on this question?  Or the teaching of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church?  Hundreds of years of Catholic teaching in conformity with the teaching of the Fathers and Doctors has acknowledged that implementing the penalty is a prudential matter and that the penalty is essentially valid.  Pope Piux XII taught that the penalty is valid across cultures.  The wisdom of applying this penalty is essentially a prudential matter.  But as prudential there is no such thing as “de facto abolition” since circumstances change, and–again, contrary to the journals and the new enthusiasm–deterrence is a necessary and essential part of criminal justice.  The reason for this last is that we are not free to impose penalties in this life without considering the common good, and an essential part of this consideration is (contrary to Kant who thought that the justice of the death penalty made its application to be absolutely necessary) the issue of deterrence.  



Go here to read the rest.  Long ends by noting the harm the editorial and the Bishops do, by inviting the Supreme Court to go further down the lawless path that it blazed in Roe v. Wade:


Need one observe that the journals’  appeal for the US Supreme Court further to ignore the US Constitution will have further implications for the deterioration of our legal system?  The founders, who provide for the death penalty in the US Constitution, cannot coherently be thought to have promulgated in that document anything that could warrant the judgment that it is of its nature “abhorrent” or inconsistent with legal justice.  Thus the journals’ insistence that the court once more ignore the Constitution seems to imply a memory lapse that normative reference to that document in its integrity is necessary to several ongoing legal cases of Catholic institutions attempting to preserve their just right to operate as such without being coerced to cooperate in triggering financing for essentially vicious action.  The four journals that published this editorial would have done better to join in a statement defending these endangered institutions.  Certainly urging the US Supreme Court toward further deconstruction of the US Constitution serves neither the just interests of the common good nor the evangelical mission and liberty of the Roman Catholic Church.  

The journals publishing the shared editorial achieve an apotheosis of that special mix of enthusiasm, ignorance of doctrine, distinerest in distinction, and willingness to speak with “abhorrent” rhetoric to prove their wholeheartedness, which are part of the legacy of the sixties.  When in doubt, always amp up the rhetoric and suggest that those who differ with you are guilty of being bloodthirsty.  That is the true path of dialogue.  “All we are saying, is give doctrinal antinomianism a chance.”  But: it has had its destructive chance, and we are still reeling from the damage.  The misbegotten application of categories of speech appropriate in regard to the murder of innocents to the vastly different application of just penalty for grave evil, is symptomatic of a society that can garner more support to spare the guilty than to save the innocent.  The crowd still wants Barrabas.

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  1. “Need one observe that the journals’ appeal for the US Supreme Court further to ignore the US Constitution will have further implications for the deterioration of our legal system?”

    The Bishops have become consequentialists. They look to circumventing properly formed laws to achieve a (presumed) good. Though this will not be the first time. Look at how they applauded Obama’s Executive Amnesty in contravention of duly established immigration laws.

  2. Peace and justice!
    They’ve spent the past 52 years effectively ignoring abortion (45 million innocents killed).

    Now, they have their bloomers in a bunch over capital punishment (a couple thousand predators punished).


    Let’s commence emphasizing cruel and unusual crimes and the advancing the human dignity and value of the murder/rape victim.

  3. Not even a couple of thousand, T. Shaw, a mere 39 executed this year, as against over 14,000 murders.

    Yet you’d think listening to certain folks that we were having orgies in the blood of thousands of mostly innocent executed prisoners.

    Facts get in the way of their self-aggrandizing dramatics.

  4. I agree with you about the death penalty. As you said in an earlier post, “prudential” concerns are one thing. Even just arguing certain places on Eartg dont need it anymore because of how conditions have changed is one thing. But given the world our Church spent its earliest days in (no one could exactly support our prison system) the death penalty does not seem to be wrong in principle.

  5. Steve Martin: “The murderers live… and the victim’s families die a little bit…everyday.”
    The victim is dead, in rigor mortis. It is presumption to believe that the victim is in heaven and the murderer has done her a favor by killing her.
    Atheism believes that the victim had no soul and is beyond any legal human rights. The state does not have the authentic power to remove such inquiry from our human rights, disenfranchising the individual citizen from his day in a court of law.
    Any bill or legislation that would remove a citizen’s freedom to attain to the courts is unconstitutional. A blanket prohibition removes any individual circumstances in each case and cannot be allowed to stand.
    In capital punishment, each case must be tried on its own merits and facts. Prohibiting such inquiry and trial is unconstitutional, as it violates the First Amendment rights of the deceased being represented by the state. The murderer must run jeopardy of life. Other wise the trial is tainted by unequal Justice.
    The Catholic Church too must refrain from interjecting itself in state matters: Render unto Caesar…

  6. Canon lawyer Ed Peters, citing the piece by Steven Long, also addressed the Gang of 4 (plus Patheos) editorial:
    “… Worse, though, than the four journals editorial itself—which for the most part only repackages and recycles prudential arguments against the death penalty as if they were arguments in principle—have been some of the “pile-ons” published in its wake, with Patheos administering an especially condescending tongue-lashing to Catholics who, tsk-tsk, can’t understand that opposition to the death penalty is demanded “for the simplest of reasons” and then walks Catholic troglodyte death-penalty enthusiasts through four reasons why they are (supposedly) so utterly and embarrassingly wrong, beginning each reason with “We are Catholic”.
    “Like, you know, I’m not.
    “As a Catholic squarely in line with the Catholic tradition that, as Long accurately if turgidly sets out, supports the just administration of the death penalty for capital crimes, I have grown used to having my motives for such support reduced to: my thirst for vengeance, my disdain for mercy, my obliviousness to Christ’s salvific will, my despair about conversion, and my contempt for compassion. I apparently do not understand that the death penalty does not bring murder victims back to life (gee, whodathunkit?) but that’s not to worry, because my support for the death penalty can be excused (and then dismissed) on purely demographic grounds (I am, after all, white, male, middle-aged, and usually vote conservative, so who cares what a heartless jerk like me thinks about anything?) …”

  7. To be concise about the new not developmental position: it is rooted both in the catechism and in EV in the idea that perfect prisons protect you from murderers. That only addresses caught murderers which in Guatemala are 5% of murderers since that Catholic country clears-solves only 5% of murders. Perfect prisons ( see tiny Monaco) cannot protect you from uncaught murderers….95% in Guatemala….0% in Momaco.
    The further rebuttal:
    A. Large countries with multi cultural populations and large gang culture will never have perfect prisons…not even the US can afford them. The two largest Catholic countries are Brazil and Mexico and their prisons are nightmares. The Pope and the CDF did not look beyond the pristine prisons of Austria, Monaco. Malta, and Luxembourg….in short. the position is very Euro based but the majority of Catholics are in high murder rate northern Latin America.
    B. The CDF and the Pope during the 1990’s should have petitioned the US Supreme Court who had already done deterrence studies between 1972-1976 which made them conclude that executions deter not passion murders but premeditated murders. Neither the Pope nor the CDF have given educated readers any indication as to their having done deterrence research at all.
    C. While John Paul and Benedict were conservatives on sexual matters, they were liberal on Biblical issues with John Paul II being the first Pope to say that the OT death penalties were from an unrefined culture ( sect.40 of EV) rather than from God as scripture indicates. And Benedict was the first Pope in history to insinuate and really say that the herem of the OT were not from God either ( Verbum Domini sect.42). That’s a king size problem vis a vis the new death penalty regression. Regressions are not new. Killing heretics after Pope Innocent IV’s Ad Exstirpandum in 1253 was an opposite regression that lasted centuries. John Paul apologized for it and just began a new one that will get murder victims killed instead of heretics.

  8. For those who need high positioned sincere dissent, they will have to access the 2007 Ave Maria Law Review online for a fee cited by Dudley Sharp at “Inebriate Me” at Patheos.
    A CDF consultor ( the people who shape the catechism) dissented. From D. Sharp’s post (with the footnote) apparently regarding the idea: yes execution if no other way possible:

    2) This by Kevin L. Flannery S.J., Consultor of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, appointed by Saint Pope John Paul II:

    “The most reasonable conclusion to draw from this discussion is that, once again, the Catechism is simply wrong from an historical point of view. Traditional Catholic teaching did not contain the restriction enunciated by Pope John Paul II” (5)

    “Capital Punishment and the Law”, Ave Maria Law Review, 2007 (30 pp), by Kevin L. Flannery S.J., Consultor of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (since 2002) and Ordinary Professor of Ancient Philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian University(Rome); and Mary Ann Remick Senior Visiting Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture (University of Notre Dame.

  9. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
    In his book on Hell, Father F.X. Schouppe, S.J. relates the following: “Natural reason confirms the dogma of hell. An atheist was once boasting that he did not believe in hell. Among his hearers, there was a sensible young man, modest, but who thought that he ought to shut the silly speaker’s mouth. He put to him a single question: “Sir,” he said, “the kings of the earth have prisons to punish their wicked subjects; how can God, the King of the Universe, be without a prison for those who outrage His majesty?” The atheist of course had not a word to answer. The appeal was presented to the light of his own reason, which proclaims that, if kings have prisons, God must likewise have a hell.” – See more at: Stories of hell in lives of saints
    People can incur the eternal punishment which is hell and which Revelation refers to as the second death (recall that because of Adam, we suffer the first death). It seems very reasonable to me that some crimes incur capital punishment. 1 Peter 2:13-14 (RSVCE): Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution,[a] whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right.

  10. OFF TOPIC – I am taking a class in the Church were in one of the instructors is a social justice warrior. She claims that in the US there is no reason for there to be poor. I am looking for supporting information/documents/research on why the regulated “Free Market” used in the US and other Western nations is the most moral (prudential) way to distribute wealth. I have the Catechism (2401-2463) but it lays only a foundation upon which decisions are to be made and can be used by each side to support their position. Thank you for any help you can provide.

  11. As I have posted before:
    The best way to stop capital punishment is to stop committing capital crimes. Stop murdering the innocent, raping women, sodomizing young children, etc. Just stop it. For all those prayers offered up at Mass to bring about a cessation of Capital Punishment, not once have I heard a prayer to convert the lost to the saving power of Jesus Christ. Not once have I heard a prayer to end criminal activity.
    Another thing: why do we have all this angst to show mercy to the unrepentant murderer on death roll who while incarcerated still control murderous thugs of gangs out on the streets, but we offer no prayers of justice for their victims? It is time to stop this backwards way of looking at things. Romans 13:1-7 gives the State the power of the sword. You don’t want that power used against you? You can’t do the time? Then don’t do the crime.
    PS, I write that having visited prisoners for 12 Step Meetings at the State Penitentiary in Fishkill, NY. My 12 Step Sponsor at the time told me that the only difference between those criminals and me is that I never got caught. And yes, I darn well know that I deserve the death penalty which Jesus Christ received in my stead.

  12. With the abolition of the death penalty, the unalienable Right to Life will be abolished and in its place, there will be the state and the state’s opinion of some alienable Right to Life at the pleasure of the state and now the Church. (This has caused human sacrifice)
    Mr. Patrick Archbold is correct in his assessment of the power being surrendered, actually taken, by the state. “We, the people” must realize that it is “We, the people”, in concert, who are endowed with the unalienable Right to Life. The state does not confer an unalienable Right to Life. The Catholic Church does not endow the unalienable Right to Life. Therefore, not the state, nor the Church may dismiss or alter any unalienable Right to Life.

  13. I am looking for supporting information/documents/research on why the regulated “Free Market” used in the US and other Western nations is the most moral (prudential) way to distribute wealth.–Catholic Attorney

    Easy. The alternative to the Free Market is some form of Slave Market and the Church opposes slavery.

    For much more rigorous discussion that includes reference to Church documents, I recommend starting with the Acton Institute. Free market ideas started with the Schoolmen who, centuries before that Scot Adam Smith came along, convincingly argued that (to put it into modern terms) the just price of a good is its market-clearing price, whatever that may be between willing buyers and willing sellers. The Schoolmen’s ideas of natural liberty also pre-dated John Locke.

    I suspect that Locke learned of these ideas during his stay among the Dutch, but I cannot yet prove that. Circumstantial evidence exists. Most Dutch traders were Catholic and most of Spain’s sea trade with Europe was carried by the Dutch (even during the long war for Dutch independence from Spain) so the economic and political ideas of Catholic scholars in Salamanca and Madrid could certainly have traveled to Holland and become influential among businessmen there.

  14. I’m something of a fan of the Austrian School, so maybe the Mises Institute? Also, Hayek’s Road to Serfdom is must-read on the deleterious affects of planners and their “good intentions.”
    Not that you’re going to get far with a dyed-in-the-wool SJW. But I suppose you could always revert to Acts and point out that if the Apostles couldn’t make socialism work, nobody can.

  15. Catholic Attorney-
    She claims that in the US there is no reason for there to be poor.

    First thing, ask her to define “poor.”
    If it’s “has less than someone else,” then that’s based off of envy.
    If it’s some other form, such as “going hungry and homeless,” point out that most of the folks who are actually poor in that sense aren’t abused by the free market, they are sick— usually mentally ill, addicted to drugs or under the care of someone who is either.
    The statistics about “Americans facing hunger” include “food insecurity” and not getting to eat as much as you want of whatever you want– I’d love to have beef every night, but chicken is what we can afford. There’s also the problem that my kids, who do not go hungry at all, would surely say that they don’t get to eat as all they want of what they want. There aren’t that many costco muffins on earth. 😀
    Another tactic you might use is to ask her if she’s calling Jesus a liar. “The poor you will always have with you.”

  16. There’s also that the “free market” is how one describes a state where those involved are allowed to have private property.
    This article might help on that angle:
    and you might also look into the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on property.
    You probably should get her to define “free market,” too; she might be using the one that boils down to “other people are able to do something I don’t like,” or the strawman one that says “slavery should be legal.”

  17. I’m an anti-death penalty Catholic, although I believe that most Catholics who interpret the Catechism as you do do so in good faith. I have several problems with the death penalty. First, I think it imposes an intolerable and cruel punishment on the innocent; namely, the family members (especially) the children of the condemned. Secondly, we have no way (now or ever, I think) of ensuring that every condemned person is guilty. The possibility that even one innocent person could be executed for a crime he didn’t commit is reason enough to abolish the practice.

  18. Claire,
    If you are correct then God was unjust twice. He gave the ancient people of God over thirty three death penalties for sins not just crimes and His system of justice simply entailed the testimony of two or three witnesses. What if the two witnesses bore false witness in order to get that person’s land?
    Number two is much later in the NT when God inspires Romans 13:4 ( ” not without reason does the state carry the sword ( machaira…used to execute James in Acts 12:2) for it is God’s minister an avenger to execute wrath on him who has done evil.”). God inspired that
    within an empire and government which had just judged and killed Christ unjustly.
    So if you are correct, God was incorrect twice.

  19. “Secondly, we have no way (now or ever, I think) of ensuring that every condemned person is guilty. The possibility that even one innocent person could be executed for a crime he didn’t commit is reason enough to abolish the practice.”

    Though I would ask the same standard from the anti-death penalty crowd. That is, you must guarantee that no person in prison will ever commit an act of violence towards an innocent prisoner. Never. Ever. If you cannot do this, then the death penalty should remain.

  20. By the “harm to their family” theory, every murderer you could have executed, but did not, is an even greater wrong.
    Say, the families of those four cops who got gunned down in Lakewood, while they had coffee and a chat before duty.
    He’d been granted mercy by Huckabee, and was supposed to be in jail at the time of his murder…illustrating exactly the problem.

  21. Claire I agree with you about the death of an unjustly convicted person. In some cases there is no doubt at all, but other times even after the governor has been petitioned, an unjust and hence immoral decision is made. I would like to know if there is some better way to safeguard against that.

  22. :
    “‘From the time of the publication of his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), Pope St. John Paul II urged Catholics to re-examine the use of the death penalty — teaching that its use today should be “very rare if not practically nonexistent.’ His successors Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis consistently have taught the same.”

    What is so disturbing about this new “teaching” started by JPII is that it is based solely on his own OPINION. No evidence was ever presented to support his OPINION. Nor am I aware of anyone other than me asking the bishops to show evidence that CP is no longer necessary for the protection of the innocent public because of the high technology in prison systems today. (Of course this excludes 3rd world countries from having to comply, don’t you know, they don’t have the money or the technology to conform. So, their killing of capital offenders is OK based on the new opinion of Church teaching)

    Well, as it so happens on Sunday April 29, 2001 an article on page “News 24” of The Orange County Register blows to pieces this new Catholic opinion-based teaching; or it should have, but the California Catholic Conference decided to dismiss the article I sent to them by way of Diocese of Orange representative who attend a discussion of the bishops support for a ballot measure to end CP in CA a couple years ago. The article headline was “Murder from the inside out” and dealt with a 3 year, $5,000,000, local, state and federal investigation of the newest high tech prison in California which resulted in federal prosecutors saying “…hundreds of murders (have been orchestrated) from inside maximum-security prisons. The Corrections Department says there is little it can do to stop the killings ordered by inmates who have nothing to lose and nothing but time (on their hands). A “25-count indictment of a total of 12 men and 1 woman on federal charges of murder, robbery, conspiracy and drug-related crimes” Eight of the 12 men were serving in a “prison within a prison.” They “live alone in antiseptic cells that are painted white with a glass wall so that guards can always see inside. Meals are brought to the cells and they are allowed outside only one hour a day, alone, to exercise in small concrete yard.” In other words, these are prisoners housed in solitary confinement in the highest tech modern prison in CA, from which they orchestrated “murders, robbery, and conspiracy and drug-related crimes.”

    So much for the Church’s attempt to be “holier than thou” in order to be consistent with Cardinal Bernardin’s “consistent ethic of life” which killed the original real, absolutely no doubt, pro-life movement’s opposition to abortion and the need to get a Right-to-Life Constitutional Amendment passed to save the unborn.

    It is getting difficult to defend the Catholic Church as the “one, true, Church” when her bishops are tying themselves up in knots over ending capital punishment claiming it is “pro-life.” They started doing this in the mid 1980s in response to a conflict Catholic Democrats were having with the Church’s teaching on abortion and her seeking a Right to Life Constitutional Amendment. Catholic Democrats, which included the clergy, were they arguing that they “were pro-life, too” concerning these other issues which included capital punishment. The bishops adopted Cardinal Bernardin’s “consistent ethic of life” concept of “pro-life” enabling Catholic Democrats to justify their remaining in the pro-abortion Democratic Party. Interestingly, the bishops never looked at the Democrat Party’s “consistent ethic of life” stretching back to the days of slavery and the Civil War, and after losing the war their creating the KKK and then passing Jim Crow Laws (Selma AL were all Democrat government leaders). And don’t forget the Democrat Congress Members OPPOSED the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act in a higher percentage than the other party. To that we can add the party of pro-abortion, and now of same-sex marriage. Yeah, let’s all come together in the Catholic “consistent ethic of life” so the Democrat Party can continue to be an electoral power…that’s the ticket. How many Catholics still endorse the pro-abortion party, and that includes the clergy, with their names and support? Half of them after 42 years of Roe v Wade and abortion-on-demand being the law of the land.

    I’ll support the effort to end CP when the Pope and bishops find a way to exonerate the mortal sins of all those innocent people who have been murdered all these years with no chance of making a perfect contrition. Only 3% of convicted capital offenders receive the death penalty, and nothing causes one to repent sooner, if one is going to, than knowing the date and time your going to die, something their victims never had a chance of knowing. And those who administer the death sentence from the prosecutors, jurors and judges to those pulling the lever or administering the drugs will never commit a sin in carrying out their duty. They never have committed a sin and never will in doing so. It is a crying shame what the Church leaders have done to try to appease those Catholics that love being Democrats; being Catholic is not enough for them. But understanding the motive behind the bishops actions certainly helps explain the subtitle to the biography of “Cardinal Bernardin – Easing conflicts – and battling for the soul of American Catholicism” written by his 30-year long friend, Eugene Kennedy, Cardinal Bernardin lived 8 years after its publication, and never refuted a word in it; not even the telling comment, “Not only would this move gain greater support from Catholics and others but it would keep the pro-life movement from falling completely under the control of the right wing conservatives who were becoming its dominant sponsors.” And what is the “move” he is talking about? The adding of Democrat political social justice issues under the name of pro-life and calling it “The consistent ethic of life.”

  23. It is getting difficult to defend the Catholic Church as the “one, true, Church” when her bishops are tying themselves up in knots over ending capital punishment claiming it is “pro-life.”

    It’s hardly news that the Catholic Church is full of sinners.
    If this is what the ill look like with treatment, imagine what we’d be like without!
    (…actually, you don’t have to imagine, you can check out the nastier bits of videos from the middle east, although I wouldn’t suggest it; talk about your first world problems)

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