Ad Te Levávi Ánimam Meam

To Thee have I lifted up my soul (Introit – 1st Sunday of Advent)

The Catholic Church And The Death Penalty

Posted by james0235 on January 11, 2008

It has become almost popular lately for some people, usually faithful Catholics, to declare that the Catholic Church is “against the death penalty”. These people treat the death penalty almost as if it were intrinsically evil. And this is just not the case.

It is perfectly acceptable for a Catholic to be a supporter of the death penalty just as it is perfectly acceptable for a Catholic to be against it. However, even if one is against the death penalty it is not permissible to say that the death penalty itself is evil. The way that it is applied by a given government or in a given case may be evil. But, the death penalty itself is not intrinsically evil.

“Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. 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.”

(Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, 2004 A.D., letter to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, #3 )

The Church has a long history of approving of the death penalty. Most people probably don’t realize that it was legal (but never invoked) in the Vatican City State until it was abolished in 1969 by Pope Paul VI. And, here are just a few quotes from Popes and Saints on the matter:

“The same divine law which forbids the killing of a human being allows 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. Since the agent of authority is but a sword in the hand, and is not responsible for the killing, 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 the State’s authority to put criminals to death, according to law or the rule of rational justice.”

(St. Augustine, City of God, Book 1, Chapter 21)

“The fate of the wicked being open to conversion so long as they live does not preclude their being open also to the just punishment of death. Indeed the danger threatening the community from their life is greater and more certain than the good expected by their conversion. Besides, in the hour of death, they have every facility for turning to God by repentance. And if they are so obstinate that even in the hour of death their heart will not go back upon its wickedness, a fairly probable reckoning may be made that they never would have returned to a better mind.”

(St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles , Book III, 147)

“They deserve not only to be severed from the Church by excommunication, but also severed from the world through death

(St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica , Pt. II-II, Q. 11, Art. 3).

“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”

(Pope Innocent III, 1210 A.D.)

“Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder. The end of the Commandment is the preservation and security of human life. Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing outrage and violence. Hence these words of David: In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land, that I might cut off all the workers of iniquity from the city of the Lord.”

(Catechism of the Council of Trent, Part III , ordered by the Fathers of the Council of Trent under the authority of Pope Pius IV and published in 1566 by St Charles Boromeo under the authority of Pope St. Pius V)

“It is lawful to kill when fighting in a just war; when carrying out by order of the Supreme Authority a sentence of death in punishment of a crime; and, finally, in cases of necessary and lawful defense of one’s own life against an unjust aggressor.”

(Catechism of Pope St. Pius X , 1905 A.D.)

“When it is a question of the execution of a man condemned to death it is then reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned of the benefit of life, in expiation of his fault, when already, by his fault, he has dispossessed himself of the right to live.”

(Pope Pius XII, Papal Address to the First International Congress on the Histopathology of the Nervous System, #33 , Sept 14, 1952)

4 Responses to “The Catholic Church And The Death Penalty”

  1. Martin Fuller said

    At Mass this morning the priest said that the Catholic Church was against the death penalty, and John Paul was also. I belived as a Catholic that I was free (without sin) to believe or not. Well I approach father after mass and asked if I was missing something, that I respected if John Paul was against it but that he accepted that we as Catholics were free to make up our own mines, and asked him to teach me if I was wrong. He simply refired me to the Catechism, I said I read it and I still felt free to believe. He said I was wrong. So thank you for a better perspective, not modern opinion.

    • Bruce Murray said

      In the prayers of the faithful tonight, we were asked to pray for an end to abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty, all in a single petition. That amounted to saying, God, please stop the killing of the innocent prenatal child, and please stop the killing of defenseless sick people, but don’t take justice against killers. I was dazzled by the contradiction.

      As a practical matter (as framed in the Catechism), every application of the death penalty saves 15-18 innocent lives. To date, there is no other known way to deter 15-18 murders, so even by the pragmatic standard raised in the Catechism, applying the death penalty for murder protects the innocent.

      As a matter of divine justice, we have the consistent testimony in the Bible, including in the gospels where Jesus says that Pilate wouldn’t have the power to execute unless it were given him by God, and where the thief on the cross says he is punished justly because he is getting what his deeds deserve. We have a continuous record of Catholic tradition including Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and several popes affirming the justice of the death penalty for murder. Even Pope Benedict allowed that Catholics are free to support capital justice for murderers.

      It seems that some recent church leaders are playing a Protestant game of imposing modern sensibility over the apostolic tradition. How can we affirm Catholic tradition on all the other moral issues if we throw out the wisdom handed down over the centuries on the death penalty?

  2. Augustine Dallis said

    here i go again, forever finding mundane topics to scan about. though this one was a somewhat a lot attention-grabbing than what I am normally used to

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