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)