Capital Punishment

Capital Punishment

In late September a large number of Catholic theologians signed a statement arguing that the death penalty should be abolished. They said that two recent executions prompted them to write. Both executions occurred on September 21, 2011. In Georgia, Troy Anthony Davis, an African American man, was put to death for the 1989 murder of Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail. In Texas, Lawrence Brewer was executed for his participation in the racist hate murder of James Byrd in Jasper in 1998.

  “As theologians, scholars, and social justice advocates who participate in the public discussion of Catholic theology, we protest the state-sanctioned killings of both of these men, and we call for the abolition of the death penalty in the US.”

In past centuries, Catholic teaching held that armed force and capital punishment could be used by a legitimate government in order to preserve the common good and resist aggression. Thus, the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC #2266) taught: “The traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty.”

However, in 1997, CCC #2266 was modified. The reference to capital punishment was removed and placed in paragraph #2267, which was changed to include a stronger reference to “non-lethal means.” Paragraph #2267 now reads: “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”

The modified CCC #2267 continues by referring to John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical “The Gospel of Life,” which observed that today the cases in which execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” John Paul II argued that life in prison is more in keeping with human dignity, for it allows the offender the opportunity to repent. That view also appears in the modified paragraph #2267.

In 2005 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops taught that: “The sanction of death, when it is not necessary to protect society, violates respect for human life and dignity. . .Its application is deeply flawed and can be irreversibly wrong, is prone to errors, and is biased by factors such as race, the quality of legal representation, and where the crime was committed. We have other ways to punish criminals and protect society.” The bishops called for abolition of the death penalty on moral grounds.

What is your opinion on this practical question? Do you think that it is obligatory to oppose the use of capital punishment today? Please leave your comment or reply below.

Photo Credit:  PhotoXpress/Iryna Petrenko


About the Author

Dan Kroger, O.F.M., a native of Cincinnati, joined the Franciscans in 1967 and was ordained in 1973. He taught high school and served in rural parishes in the Philippines. Dan earned a Ph.D. in Christian ethics at Notre Dame. He also taught at De La Salle University, Manila, until he was assigned to his present post as publisher/CEO at Franciscan Media in 2006.
  • Brian Gregory

    Catholic bishops are not God and even the Pope does not have the authority to alter the teachings of Sacred Scripture which come from Our divine Lord Jesus Christ (Gal:1.11-12), by the Holy Spirit (2 St. Tim:3.16), so can not be altered to win human approval (Gal:1.10) – even a Pope can not do this. Read: Gal:1.7-10. It is the Scriptures which tell us God commands murderers be executed (Gen:9.6 Rmns:13.1-5 Rev:13.10 St. Mtt:26.52).

    • Dank


      Thanks for taking the time to reply to my blog post on capital punishment.
      Allow me to reassure you that I do not think that the Pope or the bishops are gods.
      In Catholic ethical thought we always look at the Scriptures, too. However, we also look at the Scriptures in terms of their original context, their literary form and so forth.

      What I find is that there is development in our human understanding of the Scriptures and in our traditional ways of thinking. For example, I don’t find many people who want to stone adulters to death, though that is in the Torah. Jesus himself seems to have followed a different mode of interpretation than the religious establishment of his day–the Pharisees and Scribes in particular.

      Yet, the Gospel of Mattnew for example quotes Jesus as saying I have come to fulfill the Law and not destroy it. In Catholic ethics  we think of how Jesus himself saw fulfillment of the Torah at deeper levels than the Jewish leaders imagined. Consider the parable of the Good Samaritan as an example.

      Living our Christian faith means going to that same deeper level. In regard to Capital Punishment I think that in today’s context we really need to recognize that there are mistakes made. Innocent men and women are known to have been executed, lynched etc.

      Keep thinking! and studying!  

      Dan K

  • Pingback: Capital Punishment | American Catholic Blog |

  • Anonymous

    REBUTTAL: “A Catholic Call to Abolish the Death Penalty”by Tobias Winright at Catholic Moral Theology blogFrom: Dudley SharpMr. Winright has admitted that his source for some his information was the Death Penalty Information Center, a well known anti death penalty group. The best that can be hoped for is that Prof. Winright, simply and blindly, repeated the nonsense from DPIC, without fact checking. 1) Troy Davis’ many claims were “smoke and mirrors”, as detailed by the federal judge, in the 2010 decision, concluding Davis was not innocent. The evidence for his guilt was overwhelming, as are the many deceptions of the Save Troy Davis Campaign (1).2) The Anti Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act does not and cannot create “the legal conditions for executing a man whose guilt was not established­ beyond reasonable doubt.”. 3) Many studies find that there is no disparity by race of either the victim or defendant in death penalty cases. In addition, white murderers are twice as likely to be executed as are black murderers, with whites being executed more quickly (2).4) It is untrue that “Since 1973, 138 persons have been exonerated from death row. . ..”. Several reviews, inclusive of one by the NY Times, find that from 25-40 actual innocents have been “identified­d and released” from death row during that time, or 0.4% of those sent to death row. The evidence supports that innocents are more at risk without the death penalty (3)5) For 2000 years the Catholic Church taught that the death penalty respects human life and dignity and is a just, appropriate­e and, sometimes, mandatory sanction for murder. The Church’s recent change is based upon an inaccurate­, secular prudential judgement, finding prison security a sufficient “defense of society” that use of the death penalty is all but unnecessary­ay. Forgiveness­ and love incorporate­e justice, inclusive of the death penalty, as detailed by Church teaching and reason (4).
    FOOTNOTES upon request or1) Troy Davis & The Innocent Frauds of the anti death penalty lobby
    Dudley Sharp, sharpjfa@aol.comThe Troy Davis campaign, like many before it (1), is a simple, blatant fraud, easily uncovered by the most basic of fact checking (1).The 2010 federal court innocence hearing found:” . . . Mr. Davis is not innocent: the evidence produced at the hearing on the merits of Mr. Davis’s claim of actual innocence and a complete review of the record in this case does not require the reversal of the jury’s judgment that Troy Anthony Davis murdered City of Savannah Police Officer Mark Allen MacPhail on August 19, 1989.” (2)”Ultimately, while Mr. Davis’s new evidence casts some additional, minimal doubt on his conviction, it is largely smoke and mirrors.” (2)”As a body, this evidence does not change the balance of proof that was presented at Mr. Davis’s trial.”(2)”The vast majority of the evidence at trial remains intact, and the new evidence is largely not credible or lacking in probative value.” (2)None of this came as a surprise to anyone who actually followed the case, in contrast to the Save Troy Davis folks who were, willingly, duped.1) a) “Troy Davis: Worldwide anti death penalty deceptions, rightly, failed”, “Troy Davis fairly convicted, not ‘railroaded’ ” “Innocence Hearing”, ordered by the US Supreme Court, US DISTRICT COURT, in the SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF GEORGIA, SAVANNAH DIV.,RE TROY ANTHONY DAVIS, CASE NO. CV409-130
    2) Rebuttal to the death penalty racism claimsDudley Sharpa) “Death Penalty Sentencing: No Systemic Bias” “The Death Penalty and Racism The Times Have Changed”, Washington Post reporter Charles Lane, The American Interest, Nov/Dec 2010, SMOKE AND MIRRORS ON RACE AND THE DEATH PENALTY
    BY KENT SCHEIDEGGER Race, Sentencing and the death penalty. more . . . 3) The 130 (now 138) death row “innocents” scam a) “Death Penalty Support: Christian and secular Scholars”

    b) Christianity and the death penalty

    c) Catholic and other Christian References: Support for the Death Penalty,

    much more upon request

  • Betty

    I am everything for life, but when someone kills another person, and is sent away and given the death by a jury, I am torn, because, I lived with a murder of someone special in my life, and if this person had not taken their life, I wonder if they would be alive today. I struggle with the church’s view on this one. Until it has happened to you or someone you know well, how can you really forgive this person who did this to you and your family. I think about this more each day and I am sure there are others that would like to know that the person who did this to another human being is getting the sentence they deserve. 

  • Patrick Hayes

    As one of the signatories to the statement of Catholic theologians opposing the death penalty in the United States, I simply wish to reassert that there are good theological reasons for its demise in the 21st century.  One finds mixed views in the tradition on the justification of the death penalty, but it needs to be pointed out–as much here as on so many other issues–that theological points of view change.  At this stage, the preponderant weight of theological opinion, including the counsel provided by Pope John Paul’s Evangelium Vitae, leans toward the banning of the death penalty.  The statement that I signed urged fellow Catholics–especially bishops–to make this reality known and to work with policy makers to legislate accordingly.  Patrick Hayes, Ph.D.

  • Vickidowds

    God gives us life, and in my view the freedom He gives us is so great- that He does not take it away. He waits for it to run it’s course. Who are we to take someone’s life? To give them chances to turn back to God? Or even in their sinful ways be a source of inspiration and redemption for another soul?  What do we know with our limited perceptions to take a life we did not create? I find executions an act of anger and revenge from society. Then would not we not be judged by the same hateful terms?

  • Dank

    The comments concerning capital punishment reflect some of the anxiety and division which is found among Catholics and all Christians. Thanks to each of you for expressing your views.
    This is no small matter. Each of us must examine our own position and not simply go along with the majority or accept things as they are. Afterall, if people did not raise questions and work to make changes in society, we would still have slavery and people arguing it was biblically based.


  • Pingback: Capital Punishment — Healing Reflections for the Soul()

  • ariana

    If someone has murdered another person, I don’t think they should receive the death penalty, because to me that is the easy way out. I believe they should suffer in jail. If they are killed then thats it the end and they aren’t really punished for anything. It may be seen as them trying to change their life, but who cares they aren’t going anywhere and they will never see freedom again.

  • Smartuckus

    The teaching of the Church from the earliest centuries, as represented in the writings of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica, IIa IIae, Q. 64, A. 2), and St. Alphonsus Liguori (all Doctors of the Church), as well as in the Encyclical Casti Conubii of Pope Pius XI, is that society has the authority to inflict punishments upon its members, and even to deprive a criminal of his life, for the necessity of the common good:  (1) primarily, to vindicate the moral order and expiate the crime, (2) secondarily, to defend itself, (3) to deter other would-be offenders, and (4) to reform the criminal or deter future crime.
    St. Thomas Aquinas equated a dangerous criminal to an infected limb thereby making it “praiseworthy and healthful” to kill the criminal in order to spare the spread of infection and safeguard the common good.  Catholics cannot go wrong in following the Church’s Universal Doctor and Chief Theologian.
    Pope Pius XII, in an address (“Ce Premier Congress”) on the moral limits of medical research and treatment to the First international Congress of Histopathology of the Nervous System, held in Rome on September 13, 1952, contrasted the right to life with the benefit of life in the case of a justly condemned criminal:  “Even when there is question of a person condemned to
    death, the state does not take away the “right” of the individual to life.  It is then reserved to the public authority to deprive the condemned person of the “benefit” of life in expiation for his guilt, after he himself, by his crime, has already deprived himself of his right to life.  (Acta Apostolicae Sedis XLIV (1952), p. 787)
    The dogmatic Council of Trent decreed:  “[well founded is] the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty.”
    It should be noted that to vindicate the moral order means not the taking of vengeance upon the criminal, but imposing upon the criminal some act or loss or suffering as a form of compensation to right the balance of justice.  Of such “vindictive” punishment, Pope Pius XII stated:  “It would be incorrect to reject completely, and as a matter of principle the function of vindictive punishment.  While man is on earth, such punishment both can and should help toward his eternal salvation, provided he himself raises no obstacles to its salutary efficacy” (Discourse of December 5, 1954, Acta Apostolicae Sedis, XLVI, p. 67).
    Given these purposes, an execution may take place if the following conditions are met:  (a) the guilt of the prisoner is certain; (b) the crime is of major gravity; (c) the penalty is to be inflicted, after due process, by state authority, not by private individuals or by lynching, and (d) the prisoner is given the opportunity to make his peace with God.
    Given these criteria, Catholics may differ in their prudential judgments as to whether a particular society needs to employ capital punishment for its own protection.  To say that it is wrong per se or never justified is contrary to the traditional teaching of the Church.  A Catholic may not add his prudential judgments to the list of Church doctrines and enjoin them as obligatory.  However, the state may always choose to commute the deserved penalty.
    It should be noted that heinous criminals are not innocent persons (like unborn children), but are objectively guilty in natural law of grave crimes against the common weal.  As Pope Pius XII explained it: “Even in the question of the execution of a man condemned to death, the state does not dispose of the individual’s right to life.  It then falls to the public authority to deprive the condemned man of the good of life in expiation of his fault after he, by his crime, has already deprived himself of his right to life.”
    Our Lord Himself confirms this power of capital punishment in the interview with Pilate before His crucifixion:
    “Pilate therefore saith to him:  Speakest thou not to me?  Knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and I have power to release thee?  Jesus answered:  Thou shouldst not have any power against me, UNLESS IT WERE GIVEN THEE FROM ABOVE…. (John 19:10-11)
    He also seems to speak of the appropriateness of capital punishment in another passage:  “But he that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone be hanged about his neck and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).
    The principle is also represented in the words of St. Dismas, the Good Thief on the cross beside Christ, who was being crucified for his crimes He says to his fellow criminal on the other side of Christ:
    “Dost not even thou fear God, seeing that thou art under the same
    sentence?  AND WE INDEED JUSTLY, FOR WE ARE RECEIVING WHAT OUR DEEDS DESERVED, but this man has done nothing wrong.”(Luke 23:40-41).

    The perennial teaching of the Church found in the sources above would seem to eliminate any possibility of mere opinion, even that of a modern pope.