Is there really a definitive teaching of the Church on capital punishment?

A second response to Professor Edward Feser

Pope Francis speaks during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Nov. 8. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

I appreciate the points raised by Prof. Edward Feser on Pope Francis’ recent statements on capital punishment. If Feser’s premise is true—that “the legitimacy of capital punishment is a matter of Catholic orthodoxy”—then I can understand why he would be concerned about Pope Francis’ recent teachings. If, though, the Magisterium has never set forth the legitimacy of capital punishment in a definitive, infallible way, then all of Prof. Feser’s concerns about undermining the deposit of faith and papal error vanish. In what follows, I will try to explain my position—and that of the Holy Father—in a question and answer format.

Does not Scripture affirm the moral legitimacy of capital punishment? How can a Pope contradict Sacred Scripture?

The Bible provides some passages that support the death penalty but it also contains other passages that argue against it. The death penalty prescribed for various acts in the Pentateuch reflect the judicial code of the ancient Israelites, which was subject to change (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas ST I-II qq. 99–100, 103–105). Moreover, God did not always insist that the death sentence be carried out for crimes that deserved it.

In this regard, St. John Paul II singles out Genesis 4:15 as a sign that even the life of a murderer is sacred and worthy of protection from death. As he writes in Evangelium Vitae, 9:

… God, who is always merciful even when he punishes, “put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him” (Gen 4:15). … Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this. … As Saint Ambrose writes: “God, who preferred the correction rather than the death of a sinner, did not desire that a homicide be punished by the exaction of another act of homicide.”

Contrary to St. John Paul II, Professors Feser and Joseph Bessette argue that Genesis 4:15 “was not meant to be a teaching against capital punishment” (By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed, p. 298). Genesis 4:15, however, shows God’s wish to preserve and protect the life of a murderer before “the creation of organized society” (cf. Howard J. Bromberg, “Pope John Paul II, Vatican II, and Capital Punishment” Ave Maria Law Review 6, no. 1 [2007]: 115). Just as Jesus pointed to God’s original affirmation of the indissolubility of marriage “from the beginning” (Mt 19:4–9), so St. John Paul II sees in Genesis 4:15 God’s original wish to preserve the life of even a murderer.

In their book Professors Feser and Bessette cite Genesis 9:6 a total of 18 times as a biblical proof for the legitimacy of capital punishment, but they provide no papal or magisterial citations of this passage in support of their interpretation. Pope Benedict XVI, however, in his 2012 Post-Synodal Exhortation, Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, n. 26 cites Genesis 9:6 as evidence that God forbids the killing of even those who commit murder:

God wants life, not death. He forbids all killing, even of those who kill (cf. Gen 4:15-16; 9:5-6; Ex 20:13).

Feser and Bessette believe that Romans 13:4 provides the locus classicus of the Christian doctrine on capital punishment. They criticize various episcopal statements on capital punishment for not citing this text or for misunderstanding it. They cite Pope Innocent I referring to Romans 13 in A.D. 405 on the death penalty, but his interpretation is not conclusive. Pius XII, in his Feb. 5, 1955 Address to the Italian Association of Catholic Jurists, cites Rom 13:4, but he does not see it as directly endorsing capital punishment. Instead, he says that this text and other sources “do not refer to the concrete contents of individual juridical prescriptions or rules of actions, but to the essential foundation itself of penal power and its immanent finality’ (non si riferiscono al contenuto concreto di singole prescrizioni giuridiche o regole di azione ma al fondamento stesso essenziale della potestà penale e della sua immanente finalità) [AAS 47 (1955), 81]. So, Benedict XVI interprets Genesis 9:5–6 differently than Feser, and Pius XII understands Rom 13:4 differently as well.

Taken in its entirety, The New Testament provides principles and examples that argue against the application of capital punishment (cf. Christopher D. Marshall, Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment [Eerdmans, 2001], 241). The most notable example, of course, is Jesus’ own intervention to prevent the stoning of the woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:1–11). St. Ambrose—in writing to the magistrate, Studius—points to Jesus’ intervention as a “model to follow” so the guilty can “have hope of correction” (Ambrose, Letter 90). Feser and Bessette, however, try to argue that John 8:1–11 provides no evidence that Jesus was opposed to capital punishment. Moreover, they try to dismiss the citation of John 8:1–11 in documents of the USCCB on criminal justice (2000) and the death penalty (2005).

Contrary to Prof. Feser, the Bible, taken as a whole, does not provide support for capital punishment for today. In 1976 the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace issued a statement, The Church & the Death Penalty, which notes: “The existence of capital punishment in the Old Testament does not of itself justify it for today. None of the passages (Exodus 21:21ff; Ex 22:19, Lv 20:10) usually cited demand that capital punishment be used today. A fortiori, the New Testament does not prescribe it” (Origins, Dec. 9, 1976 Vol. 6:25, 389–391).

Is there not a universal consensus among the Church Fathers in support of the death penalty? How can Pope Francis contradict the universal consensus of the Church Fathers?

There was no universal consensus of the Church Fathers in favor of the death penalty. I agree with Prof. Bromberg (cited above) that the testimony of early Christians as a whole “embodies a strong aversion to the state inflicting death on its subjects” (p. 132). Jesus did not leave his apostles a legal code to follow for the secular sphere. Instead, He provided his words and deeds as an example to follow. In light of this, many Church Fathers such as St. Justin Martyr (c. 100–165), Athenagoras (133–190), Tertullian (160–220), Lactantius (220–320), St. Cyprian (200–258), and St. Ambrose (340–397) spoke out against Christian involvement with the death penalty or urged it not to be used. Professors Feser and Bessette, however, try to downplay these examples by arguing that, although these Church Fathers might have been opposed to capital punishment in practice, they did not oppose it in principle (cf. pages 111–118 of their book).

By way of response, it should be noted that these early Church Fathers were not so much concerned with challenging the power of the Roman Empire to carry out capital punishment as they were with directing Christians to live up to the higher righteousness demanded by Christ. In this, they spoke very much like Pope Francis in that they saw the execution of criminals as contrary to the Gospel. They did not speak out against the death penalty on prudential grounds but on Christian grounds. Tertullian insisted that “the Creator “puts His interdict on every sort of man-killing by that one summary precept, ‘Thou shalt not kill’” (De Spectaculis, 2). St. Cyprian noted that Christians “do not in turn assail their assailants, for it is not lawful for the innocent to kill even the guilty” (Epistle 60 to Cornelius). Lactantius wrote that “there is no exception to this command of God. Killing a human being, whom God willed to be inviolable, is always wrong [occidere hominem sit semper nefas] (Divine Institutions, lib. VI cap. 20). The Council of Elvira (ca. 300–303) required a Christian magistrate “to keep away from the Church during the year of his service as a joint magistrate (duumvir) because he might have to carry out capital sentences” (can. 56). The Canons of the Synod of Rome under Pope Damasus I (r. 366–384) stated that civil servants “who have sentenced to death, given unjust judgments, and carried out judicial torture cannot be immune from sin” (Cap. V, n. 13; PL, 13, 1181f). The ApostolicTradition/ Consitutions (ca. 215–380) stipulated that “a military man in authority must not execute men; if he is ordered he must not carry it out” (16, 9). Even if some of the Church Fathers (e.g. Lactantius) were not always consistent in their opposition to capital punishment, this only shows that there was not a universal consensus in support of the practice.

With regard to popes of the patristic period, it is true that Pope Innocent I (r. 401–407), in a letter to the Bishop of Toulouse, gives permission for civil officials to carry out judicial tortures or capital punishment. However, he also states: “About these things we read nothing definitive from the forefathers” (Epistula VI, c. 3, n. 8). This statement is significant because it shows that nothing had been handed down in the deposit of faith on the issues of judicial torture or capital punishment. The judgment of Innocent I, therefore, was not definitive. In fact, his successor, Pope St. Nicholas I (r. 858–867), in his responses to the Bulgarians (Nov. 13, 866), condemns judicial torture (Denz.-H, 648). On the subject of capital punishment, Pope St. Nicholas tells the Bulgarians: “….without hesitation and in every possible circumstance, save the life of the body and soul of each individual. You should save from death not only the innocent but also criminals, because Christ has saved you from the death of the soul” (Epistula 97, cap. 25). Here we see a Pope appealing to Christian principles—not prudential ones—to argue against the death penalty. Feser’s claim of a unanimous consent of the Church Fathers on capital punishment is mistaken. His claim of a 2,000 year old Catholic tradition in support of the death penalty is overblown.

Didn’t Pope Innocent III in the Middle Ages require support for the death penalty in a profession of faith, and didn’t the Roman Catechism of St. Pius V solemnly affirm the moral legitimacy of capital punishment? Isn’t the legitimacy of the death penalty an infallible doctrine of the Catholic Church?

The original profession of faith drawn up by Pope Innocent III in 1208 made no reference to capital punishment (see note to Denz.-H, 795). The following article, however, was added in 1210:

In regard to the secular power, we affirm (asserimus) that it can exercise a judgment of blood without mortal sin, provided that in carrying out the punishment it proceeds not out of hatred, but judiciously, not in a precipitous manner, but with caution (Denz.-H, 795).

The Waldensians had challenged a practice thought to be sometimes necessary for preserving the social order. Innocent III wanted to assure public officials that they could carry out capital sentences without mortal sin under certain conditions. The profession of faith was directed to a particular group and not to the universal Church. It, therefore, does not qualify as a definitive, infallible pronouncement. In the universal profession of faith of Lateran IV (1215)—which was directed at the Albigensians and the Waldensians—nothing is said about accepting the moral legitimacy of the death penalty (cf. Denz.-H, 800–802). In a disciplinary canon of Lateran IV, clergy are forbidden “to pronounce a sentence involving the shedding of blood, or carry out a punishment involving the same, or be present when such a punishment is carried out” (canon 18). This reveals a definite uneasiness about the practice of capital punishment because clergy are forbidden to be involved with it.

The Roman Catechism of 1566 looks upon capital punishment as an exception to the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” This exception was made because the practice was thought necessary for public security and the suppression of violence at that time. If such conditions are no longer present, the reasons for the exception to “Thou shalt not kill” no longer apply. Catechisms, in themselves, are not expressions of solemn infallible authority. They only carry the doctrinal weight that the teachings they present already possess (see Cardinals Ratzinger and Schönborn, Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church [Ignatius Press, 1994], 25–27). Since nothing definitive had been taught by the magisterium on the death penalty at the time of the Roman Catechism, there is nothing definitive about the subject in it.

Other papal statements on the death penalty by Leo X (1520) and Pius XII (r.1939–1958) do not qualify as infallible pronouncements. The argument that the moral legitimacy of capital punishment has been taught by the universal ordinary magisterium is not convincing. According to Lumen Gentium, 25, all of the bishops in communion with the Roman Pontiff would need to manifest universal agreement that the legitimacy of capital punishment must be definitively held by all Catholics. Until recent decades most Catholic bishops did not issue statements on the death penalty. The episcopal statements that have been issued since the 1990s express strong opposition to the practice (cf. Bromberg, op. cit. pp. 125–127). In n. 64 of the Relatio Finalis of the 2105 Synod of Bishops, the bishops express their firm rejection of the death penalty, and Pope Francis incorporates this firm rejection in n. 83 of his 2016 post-synodal exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. There are over 5,000 Catholic bishops in the world today. I think very few, if any, would hold to Prof. Feser’s thesis that the acceptance of the moral legitimacy of the death penalty is a requirement for Catholic orthodoxy.

The Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace in 1976 stated that “The Church has never directly addressed the question of the state’s right to exercise the death penalty” (Origins Dec. 9, 1976, 391). The Commission also stated that “the Church has never condemned its use by the state,” and “the Church has condemned the denial of that right” (probably in reference to the 1210 profession of faith for the Waldensians). Nothing in the 1976 document of the Pontifical Commission, however, indicates a definitive, infallible judgment of the Church in favor of the legitimacy of capital punishment. The way was open for legitimate development.

Didn’t Cardinal Ratzinger in 2004 say Catholics could hold to a variety of opinions on the death penalty?

The 2004 memorandum of Cardinal Ratzinger was on the subject of worthiness to receive Holy Communion and not on the death penalty per se. It was sent to Cardinal McCarrick as guidance for the USCCB. Its publication was due to a leak, and it does not appear on the Vatican website in the list of CDF documents or in the AAS. Prof. Feser and others have inflated the importance of this leaked memo, and they have misinterpreted it. The “legitimate diversity of opinion” on applying the death penalty would need to be understood within the context of Evangelium Vitae, 56 and the CCC, 2267, which teach that recourse to the death penalty is licit if it “is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” There might be a legitimate diversity of opinions over what might be the cases in which the death penalty is “the only possible way” of defending human lives. This is what Cardinal Ratzinger meant. He did not intend to give a carte-blanche for all opinions on the death penalty. The recent teachings of Pope Francis on capital punishment—which are already included in the AAS 106 [2014] 842–843 and the AAS 107 [2015], 362–365—carry more weight.

Do Catholics need to accept what Pope Francis teaches on the death penalty?

Pope Francis has not definitively and infallibly condemned the death penalty, but he has taught that “today the death penalty is inadmissible” (Hoy dia la pena de muerte es inadmisible; AAS 107 [2105], 363). He has also taught that it is “per se contrary to the Gospel” (Address of Oct. 11, 2017). He has not yet condemned capital punishment as intrinsically immoral, but his mind and will on the subject are sufficiently clear in various expressions of his ordinary papal magisterium. Papal speeches or allocutions are expressions of the ordinary papal magisterium, especially when they appear in the AAS. (cf. Msgr. Joseph C. Fenton, “The Doctrinal Authority of Papal Allocutions” American Ecclesiastical Review Vol. 134 [1956] 109–117). Catholics are obliged to adhere to teachings of the ordinary papal magisterium “with religious assent, which though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it” (CCC, 892; cf. Lumen Gentium, 25).

Does not Pope Francis’ position on the death penalty mean that prior popes who accepted capital punishment (e.g. Innocent I, Innocent III, Leo X, and Pius XII) were wrong?

Answer: This is an artificial and simplistic way of understanding the matter. These prior popes were making judgments based on the conditions of their times and the state of doctrinal development in which they lived. Their perspectives were acceptable during their times, but they would not be acceptable now in light of recent Catholic teachings.

What if a Catholic has difficulty accepting what Pope Francis teaches on the death penalty?

Such a Catholic has the right to make known these difficulties to the competent authorities, but always with a sincere desire to overcome his or her difficulties. I would suggest a careful reading of the 1990 CDF document, Donum Veritatis, especially n. 31, which gives this advice:

Faced with a proposition to which he feels he cannot give his intellectual assent, the theologian nevertheless has the duty to remain open to a deeper examination of the question. For a loyal spirit, animated by love for the Church, such a situation can certainly prove a difficult trial. It can be a call to suffer for the truth, in silence and prayer, but with the certainty, that if the truth really is at stake, it will ultimately prevail.

About Robert Fastiggi 2 Articles

Dr. Robert Fastiggi is Professor of Systematic Theology, at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. He has served as the executive editor of the 2009-2013 supplements to the New Catholic Encyclopedia and the co-editor of the English translation of the 43rd edition of the Denzinger-Hünermann compendium published by Ignatius Press in 2012.

65 Comments

  1. I agree with Prof Fastiggi in principal, that the death penalty has not been defined as irreplaceable doctrine and that it is simplistic to argue that to propose a ban is in contradiction to binding doctrine of previous pontiffs. The issue is more a human, civil law matter where it should remain as implied by John Paul II who was against the death penalty but cited exception. The salient issue of the Pontiff’s proposal for a ban has more to do with softening the sense that doctrine is unchangeable using a changeable issue as a ploy. It fits in with his determination to effect real doctrinal change from the Eucharist, theology regarding substantiation and the Mass, communion for D&R, to leveling of differences between Catholicism and Protestant denominations [Half jokingly not entirely I wonder if the bust of Luther now in the Vatican is the Abomination of Desolation predicted by Daniel and The Apostle].

    • I actually feel sorry for Fastiggi and those who agree with him in his soft Hegelian historicism which brought us Haring’s “moral” theology and Amoris Leatitia’s ambiguous “spreading of heresy” as the Filial Correction stated.

      As one who loves Edward Feser’s philosophical blog, it is easy to predict that Fastiggi is like Mark Shea going to be spanked.

      He will be taught very respectfully that he is wrong and why in detail by a Bishop Sheen of our time.

      I can’t wait to see Feser’s response. I’ll be fun and informative.

      • Having heard argument by Professors Fastiggi and Feser, my conclusions are as follows.

        The fundamental rule of the divine law of homicide, as given to Adam, is that the wilful taking of a human life without authorisation of divine law is always always, intrinsically and gravely immoral. This law is a proposition both of reason and of revelation, and is held by all with infallible certitude.

        Authorisation for the imposition of capital punishment on criminals must therefore be found in divine positive law if it is to be found at all; for unless there is certainty that the proposition is of divine law, then the same has not been promulgated by God and is therefore not a law at all.

        The teaching of the Church that the state has at least in principle a lawful power to impose the death penalty is thus plainly false and indefensible unless it is a truth at least de fide divina. Genesis 9:6 is sufficient to establish it as such for murder and for crimes of comparable gravity. If, as Professor Fastiggi submitted on 24 October, the proposition is, at its highest, no more than sententia communis, then this would be sufficient to establish the Church’s traditional teaching as plainly false and evil from the beginning. His submission, then, proves too much and is fatal to his case.

        Given the express authorisation of capital punishment at Genesis 9:6 and of our Lord’s express confirmation of the entire Torah at Matthew 5:18, it is impossible to entertain the proposition that the death penalty is contrary to the Gospel unless one could point to any subsequent declaration of His, expressly referencing Genesis 9:6 and revoking the power it confers.

        In his Encyclical Letter Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II raised to the level of de fide divina et catholica the Church’s teaching that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral. There is no doubt that the Pope was assisted by the Holy Spirit in the exercise of his infallible Magisterium. There is no doubt that the words ‘direct and voluntary’, ‘killing’ and human being are divinely revealed and irreformable elements of this teaching. In the light of the above, the inclusion of the word ‘innocent’ is no mere prudential measure delimiting what is certainly of divine law from what is uncertain. Its inclusion is necessary to the inerrancy of the teaching.

        Thus, Professor Feser’s argument succeeds, and Professor Fastiggi’s fails. Evangelium Vitae is authority for the proposition that the condemnation of the death penalty as contrary to the Gospel, or else is always and intrinsically immoral, is heresy.

    • Or should I say, remember the Obama, a president who granted clemency to many evil persons. A future socialist-democrat president could be predicted to do the same thing, much like Pilate did to the murderer Barabbus. One wonders how many accusers/victims Barabbus sought revenge on. So, although security conditions of prisons have improved to being “maximum”, we still can foresee Pilates and Obamas granting clemency and thus putting the public or an accuser’s/victim’s safety at grave risk. (A relevant example of this is Bergdahl the deserter, and Obama trading 5 Taliban for him. The 5 Taliban tried to return to terror, and one wonders how many women or little boys they have violated. If Fastiggi was on the receiving end of the Taliban 5, he may think differently of the book of Genesis.)

      Also, you have to maintain the safety and dignity of other prisoners. Prisoners are not completely protected from other prisoners. Imagine being imprisoned with a homosexual rapist murderer, or, say you are an imprisoned active Catholic in a mostly Muslim terrorist prison. Lets say your crime was tax evasion. You may wish at that time that Pope St. Pius V was still reigning and that Pope Francis the First would get a prescription for verbal Lomotil as a means to stop his non-magisterial, impulsive, and fluid statements on what should be solid doctrine.

  2. As I pointed out before, one can contest whether the teaching of the liceity of capital punishment is part of Sacred Tradition.

    But a mere assertion of something does not make it of the “ordinary papal magisterium” if it is not grounded in Sacred Tradition. This is still ultramontanism.

    “He has not yet condemned capital punishment as intrinsically immoral, but his mind and will on the subject are sufficiently clear in various expressions of his ordinary papal magisterium. Papal speeches or allocutions are expressions of the ordinary papal magisterium, especially when they appear in the AAS. (cf. Msgr. Joseph C. Fenton, “The Doctrinal Authority of Papal Allocutions” American Ecclesiastical Review Vol. 134 [1956] 109–117). Catholics are obliged to adhere to teachings of the ordinary papal magisterium “with religious assent, which though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it” (CCC, 892; cf. Lumen Gentium, 25).”

  3. Contradictory & illogical in some ways. There is a mixing of the questions of using the penalty in practice and its intrinsic legitimacy/whether it is intrinsically evil, sometimes using recent Church teaching on the first to argue for the second; but these are distinct issues. A non sequitur: because bishops did not happen to issue any statements on the issue, ergo this shows lack of agreement? And it seems more reasonable they didn’t issue statements precisely because it was universally held, so there was no reason to challenge it; one could argue the latter is generally the Church’s modus operandi. If prior magisterial teaching was all wrong and Francis has not made any infallible statements, then Francis might also easily be wrong, so how/why would we be bound to cast aside prior teaching & accept his statements? Simply because it is the latest in time? And very weak in skirting around the fact that prior magisterium would now be wrong by just choosing not to label it as such & calling it simplistic. Fastiggi thus also still fails to address the fact the Church will have formally taught that a (potential) intrinsic evil was okay, for all of its history, regardless of whether this was ever taught infallibly. That is unprecedented and much more than mere development or conditioning, etc., but a complete reversal. Real development must include the ability to accept prior teaching in its substance. Some of the basis for death penalty’s legitimacy may also be of natural law, thus being infallible regardless of any such formal expression.

  4. Pope Benedict XVI, however, in his 2012 Post-Synodal Exhortation, Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, n. 26 cites Genesis 9:6 as evidence that God forbids the killing of even those who commit murder:

    God wants life, not death. He forbids all killing, even of those who kill (cf. Gen 4:15-16; 9:5-6; Ex 20:13).

    REALLY – this is an argument of substance….how come the Lord commands for many types of sins in His First Covenant through Moses, that capital punishment, or just killing, is to be done according to His Omniscent and Holy Will?

    For example, Leviticus 20:1 ,The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the sons of Israel, any man of the sons of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn in Israel who gives any his children to Molech shall be put to death, the people of the land shall stone him with stones..” Should all this and all the similar verses of Sacred Scriptures be removed – perhaps de fide divina somewhere it is Taught that these are metaphorical verses and the People of God never carried them out literally???

    You say the authors did not provide Church references to demonstrate their premises, BUT it seems you have omitted all the Sacred Inspired Scriptures where the Lord says to give witness to His Holiness through capital punishment….just wondering???

    also:

    Leviticus 20:13 NAB
    “If a man lies with a male as with a women, both of them shall be put to death for their abominable deed; they have forfeited their lives.”

    2 Chronicles 15:12-13 NAB
    They entered into a covenant to seek the Lord, the God of their fathers, with all their heart and soul; and everyone who would not seek the Lord, the God of Israel, was to be put to death, whether small or great, whether man or woman.

    Exodus 22:17 NAB
    You should not let a sorceress live.

    Leviticus 20:27 NAB
    A man or a woman who acts as a medium or fortuneteller shall be put to death by stoning; they have no one but themselves to blame for their death.

  5. The claim of historical contingency to the truth of Sacred Doctrine in Prof. Fastiggi’s second to last question is offensive to pious ears. No appeal to development can serve as an answer, since as Dei filius solemnly declares, true development can only be “in the same doctrine, the same sense, and the same understanding.”

    Moreover, Pope Francis is not making historically contingent claims . He is claiming it is “per se contrary to the Gospel”. The only historical circumstances he introduced were by way explaining that the Church had been blinded by a love of power that prevented Her from seeing the issue rightly. Otherwise, Prof. Fastiggi should explain when exactly it “became” per se contrary to the Gospel. And why if it “became” contrary, what is to prevent it “becoming” per se in accordance to the Gospel later?

    To acknowledge that capital punishment was ever in principle legitimate is to say it is still in principle legitimate, and always will be (something Pope Pius XII affirmed explicitly).

    Likewise, to say it is “per se contrary to the Gospel” now is to say it was always “per se contrary to the Gospel”.

    Prof. Fastiggi argues that it was legitimate but then became evil, which is bald historicism, and repugnant to both faith and reason.

    • excellent refutation. the issue is not really whether it was ever defined infallibly. it would be a bizarre, irrational precedent for the Church to have consistently taught in her ordinary magisterium that something is intrinsically just, then historical circumstances or what would essentially be a new revelation- which is impossible- now declare it to be intrinsically evil.

      • See my long comment above. In his Encyclical Letter Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II raised to the level of de fide divina et catholica the Church’s teaching that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral.

        The word ‘innocent’ is necessary to the inerrancy of the teaching and thus belongs to its irreformable content binding on pain of heresy.

    • If over 20 centuries the Church misunderstood what Scripture has to say about it, then how can we believe that the Church interprets Scripture correctly on any other matter, or even believe that the Church is correct in establishing the canon of Scripture?

  6. Fastiggi doubles down and desperately wants to avoid the ever-growing elephant in the room. He is on a shaky foundation in claiming, technically, the death penalty has never been “officially” defined and, in doing so, tortures the concept of “Ordinary Magisterium.”

    Intrinsically evil. So, the pope says.

    If so, Fastiggi and his adherents fail to answer the question(s)…

    Where was the Church in the preceding nineteen centuries not knowing this intrinsic truth until this moment on a practice of life and death?

    If the death penalty is declared “intrinsically evil” what does Fastiggi and company says to its countless victims on behalf of the Church? It was in “development?”

    “Sorry”, we didn’t know then and were complicit in our silence but now the Holy Spirit has enlightened us and we are righteous in having the infallible truth, however lately.

  7. Fastiggi does not fully address with the catechism of Pius V actually says with respect to the death penalty.

    The catechism recognizes that the death penalty is part of retributive justice, and not just for the protection of society.

    It doesn’t knowledge the protection of society as an important component of it, but that is not the only component.

    Retributive Justice is also a component.

  8. The sad fact seems to be that the Catholic Church in the United States does not have much influence in our culture of death in these matters, where is murder is legal for the execution of approved groups of human beings, who are conveniently defined as not being human. Does the Holy Father have authority to forbid Catholic from doing murder for any person, whatsoever, including in the execution of criminals. He does have the power and bind and loose and every pope to make this binding upon the Church, regardless of what other popes have taught? Can he uses this power in the circumstances in which he finds himself? Do not look to the Catholics in the congress or the judiciary to obey him if he forbids it. Sad.

  9. The author seems to suggest that CCC 2267 is incorrect in stating that the death penalty is licit in certain circumstances. One wonders what other errors might be contained in the Catholic Catechism in the author’s opinion, and what authority, if any, the Catholic Catechism actually has.

    • I would argue that CCC 2267 is indeed incorrect, but not because it states: “…the Church does not exclude recourse to the the death penalty.” But rather what it goes on to say next: “…if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”

      What??

      To my knowledge the Church has never taught this, at least not before JPII came along and inserted his personal opinion in the CCC. The Church has traditionally taught that the death penalty is also a matter of retributive justice, no matter if other methods can be used to defend human lives against the oppressor. CCC 2266 states: “….Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense….”

      CCC FAIL.

      • In the case where a criminal is no longer and won’t become a threat to innocent people, the Church isn’t going to advocate the death penalty. (Although they certainly need to consider the opinion of the widows of prison guards murdered by criminals in prison who didn’t get the death penalty, and were deemed insufficient threats to society to be put to death.)

        Sending someone to eternal Hell fire is proportionate to the gravity of what offense? Such decisions should be left to God whenever possible.

        The Church is in the business of saving souls. It will always prefer that one has the chance to repent, to be punished “without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself,” as CCC 2267 puts it.

        In worldly terms, there are punishments worse than death, so “redressing the disorder introduced by the offense” doesn’t have to mean killing the offender.

    • Great point. Here is the language Mike V refers to:

      Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the 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 Church has always taught that there is such a thing as a legitimate death penalty. Too late to change that now.

      Here is the Catechism of the Council of Trent on the subject:

      Again, this prohibition [Thou shalt not kill] does not apply to the civil magistrate, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which he punishes the guilty and protects the innocent. The use of the civil sword, when wielded by the hand of justice, 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, and to the attainment of this end the punishments inflicted by the civil magistrate, who is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend, giving security to life by repressing outrage and violence.

      Here we see the same idea that is in the current Catechism: the point of the death penalty is to protect innocent human lives.

      That idea has been preserved in the official teaching of the Church by the Holy Spirit. Don’t fight it. Nobody wins a fight against the Holy Spirit.

    • Another thought, Mike V:

      There are no errors in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The USCCB, in answering a question about whether the teaching of the Catechism can be disregarded:

      No. The Catechism is part of the Church’s ordinary teaching authority. Pope John Paul II placed his apostolic authority behind it. Its doctrinal authority is proper to the papal Magisterium. In Fidei Depositum John Paul II termed the Catechism a “sure norm for teaching the faith” and “a sure and authentic reference text.”

      See:

      Frequently Asked Questions about the Catechism of the Catholic Church

  10. Prof. Fatiggi’s essay is incoherent, as so many commenters above have so ably explained.

    Prof. Fastiggi suggests we must change the teaching of an apostle, held for 2000 years, pleading that St. Paul’s reference to the sword is not a reference to death by the sword.

    Prof. Fastiggi recites a series of (possibly) contradictory opinions of popes and saints and theologians, and then claims that such (possible) contradictions prove that the Church has NOT been definitive for the 2000 years before the dawn of 2013, and now, in the light of 2013, the death penalty IS DEFINITIVELY EVIL, or as PF stated “contrary to the Gospel.”

    Which is an utterly empty appeal by “team 2013,” who are at the same time insisting that we ignore the very command of Jesus in his Godpel, and abandon the moral and sacramental theology of marriage and Holy Communion, because “there weren’t any tape recorders.”

    • Imagine for a moment that, for the past 2 thousand years, the Church had constantly taught, albeit not defititively, that the killing of children in the womb is in principle morally licit.

      Would that not bespeak a massive breakdown in the Magisterium in what concerns the clear insight of reason into the natural law of homicide.

  11. Prof. Fastiggi’s discussion of the Ratzinger letter to the US Bishops, which we know from Fr. Neuhaus was not faithfully transmitted by McCarrick, shows the desperately incoherent behavior needed to prop up the “progressive-church” menu of beliefs.

    When it serves one passing thought of Prof. F’s essay, we are to firmly believe Joseph Ratzinger. But when it undermines another passing thought, we are to discount Joseph Ratzinger. And we all must act like cattle and pretend that McCarrick and Prof. F and other members of Ivereigh’s “team Bergoglio” can make an appeal to the authority of Pope Francis, after McCarrick abused trust itself, and abused his authority, in the matter of the Ratzinger letter, and willfully denied the US Bishops “the whole truth” by withholding Ratzinger’s letter, and only reporting the part that McCarrick wanted them to hear.

  12. The natural law forbids as gravely evil the wilful taking of human life without God’s authorisation. God has, by revelation, authorised the judicial exrecution of criminals. Thus, the judicial execution of criminals does not offend the consciences of good men as does the wilful killing of the innocent.

  13. I simply do not get the motivation to spend so much time on this and other social policy issues at a time when the Church’s internal problems are so severe.

    • Hmmm…You are correct.
      How about the priests and bishops simply offer the Holy Mass reverently, administer the Holy Sacraments and preach the Holy Gospel faithfully? Is that not enough to do each day?
      Maybe….clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, comfort the widow and her children….and leave it at that.
      The judicial execution of prisoners is a hyper-serious decision, but at times necessary. Get over it.
      Dwelling on this issue is a huge distractor from what is really important in the plan for salvation.
      The bishop of Rome knows this. But he prefers earthly things…like praising Luther and his rebellion.

    • Because what this is about and what the whole liberal agenda is pushing for is the idea that teachings of Jesus can indeed change. Ya see God doesn’t change but how we interpret His teachings does change because you know times have changed and uh we got to keep up with the times.

      This is a proving ground for what is ahead. We see how the teaching of Jesus on marriage took a hit at the last Synod. Want to take a guess what’s next with the Synod on the ‘family’?

  14. Good point Joe, especially if one was properly concerned with those bigger issues.

    But this points to ZGr. Morello’s comment – the whole death penalty issue is just a lever to get people to accept 1 doctrinal change by PF, so that he can have his precedent, and chsnge a whole bunch of others. It’s the way of Herr Kasper.

  15. Cardinal Avery Dulles was an opponent of capital punishment, yet as a matter of principle, he clearly acknowledged it as permitted under Catholic moral theology. Cardinal Dulles is well regarded as a Catholic moral theologian.
    https://www.firstthings.com/article/2001/04/catholicism-amp-capital-punishment

    Whether or not there are “bloodless means” to protect society is open to question and therefore a matter of prudential judgment. Considering that there are hundreds of thousands of felonious assaults occurring in prisons in the U.S. every year, it is clear that prolonged incarceration does little to ensure that society can be protected by such means alone. Unless of course one wishes to exclude incarcerated inmates and prison guards from one’s definition of “society”.

    • I knew the late Cardinal Dulles He was a very fine man and theologian, and I was honored to be one of the pre-publication reviewers of his book, “Magisterium: Teacher and Guardian of the Faith” (Sapientia Press, 2007). In fact, the good Cardinal even made some changes based on my recommendations (see p. viii). Unfortunately, Cardinal Dulles’ 2001 First Things article on capital punishment was not one of his strongest contributions. There are some serious omissions in his survey of the Scriptural and Patristic data. He brings out some good insights on the purposes of punishment, but his claim that St. John Paul’s position against the use of capital punishment is merely “prudential” is open to question. Both Aquinas (ST II-II, q. 47 a. 3 ad 1) and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) understand prudence as the virtue by which “we apply moral principles to particular cases” (CCC, 1806). With regard to capital punishment we need to ask what principles are invoked to discern if and when the death penalty may be used. St. John Paul II and the CCC affirm the principle that non-lethal means of punishment are “more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.” This is a principle not a prudential judgment, and it supports the other principle articulated by John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae [EV], 56, viz., that it is not licit (neque … licere) to impose the death penalty “except in cases of absolute necessity (nisi absoluta instante necessitate), namely when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.” Now both EV, 56 and the CCC, 2267 do invoke prudential elements (e.g. “the concrete conditions of the common good”), but a twofold principle is laid out that is meant to inform any prudential judgment regarding the death penalty: 1) that non-lethal means of punishment better correspond to human dignity; and 2) that recourse to the death penalty is not licit except in cases of absolute necessity: namely, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Just as the CCC, 2309 lays out very strict principles to follow when deciding whether “legitimate defense by military force” is advisable so too EV, 56 and the CCC, 2267 lay out very strict conditions for deciding when (if ever) the death penalty may be used (and such cases are very rare if not practically non-existent today). Pope Francis is now invoking principles dervided from the Gospel to argue that today the death penalty is inadmissible. His statement that capital punishment is “per se contrary to the Gospel” need not mean that it is intrinsically evil. Divorce, after all is contrary to the Gospel, but the Church tolerates civil divorce is some cases (see CCC 2383); and God also permitted divorce and remarriage in the Old Testament. Polygamy is contrary to the Gospel, but it likewise was tolerated in the OT, and St. Thomas Aquinas thought that polygamy was against the natural law in one way (with regard to marital fidelity) but not against it in another way (with regard to procreation; see ST Suppl. q. 65 a. 1). In any case, under Pope Francis, the claim that papal statements against capital punishment are merely “prudential” seems virtually impossible to sustain. We’ll need to see whether Pope Francis orders a revision of the CCC’s treament of capital punishment and what type of wording is used. One thing, though, is clear: Pope Francis is firmly opposed to capital punishment, and he wants all Christians and people of good will to work towards its abolition. This is now the manifest mind and will of the Roman Pontiff, and Catholics, I believe, should give religious assent to this position (cf. Lumen Gentium, 25 and CCC, 892).

      • Dr., given that the current position of the Church, as reflected in the Catechism, is that as a practical matter capital punishment may only be used when absolutely necessary because there is no other way to prevent the offender from killing innocents, could you please answer the question how Catholic teaching concerning self-defense, military action, or police action to prevent the killing of innocents by an attacker can stand if Pope Francis is right that killing another human being is always wrong, always against the Gospel, and the taking of a human life is within the sole province of God alone? I realize that you have no obligation to engage me, but you have done so in the comments to related articles, and your answer has essentially been” “Because they’re different”. Well, that does not cut it. They are not different in principle. One who acts in self-defense kills to protect the innocent. The military kills to protect the innocent from invaders who may kill, rape or enslave them. The police kill to protect themselves or innocents from imminent harm or death. Under the justification given by Pope Francis the principle involved is exactly the same The only way to maintain the teaching that permits self-defense, military action and police action if capital punishment is impermissible even to protect innocents from death, is to accept that it is okay for the Church’s teaching to be incoherent.

        • If you read Pope Francis’ letter on capital punishment of March 20, 2015 you’ll find your answer. There the Holy Father makes it clear that capital punishment involves the willful killing of someone for a past crime who no longer poses a threat. If you can’t see the difference between this type of intentional killing and killing in self-defense then I don’t think I can help you.

          • So frustrating.

            Let’s look at it this way then. Do you think Pope Francis still supports the death penalty in cases where it is the only realistic option to prevent the criminal from wreaking further havoc? If so then the death penalty is not “always wrong”.

            I propose the following hypotheticals.

            1. After a nuclear war or a worldwide epidemic, society has completely broken down. There is no way for a “state” (if one even exists) to effectively incarcerate anyone. A psychopath has been marauding through a small town murdering and raping its inhabitants at will. Thankfully, he is apprehended. But there is no realistic way to incarcerate. Must they let him go, to continue his rampage?

            2. Small village in the Amazon. Same problem of a psychopathic murderer killing people at will. Again, he is apprehended. But again, they have no jails and no one to guard them; they live in huts and spend their days scratching out a living. Must they let him go to kill again?

            If what you say is true (i.e. that what pope Francis really means is that the death penalty is not permitted UNLESS absolutely necessary to protect the innocent) then he is really not saying anything other than what the current Catechism says. But if he is saying (as I read him) that the death penalty is never permissible, under any circumstances, and for any reason, then we would have to say that in either of the two scenarios presented above, the criminal would have to be set free to kill again.

            Does not the current Catechism posit that, as a practical matter, the only time the death penalty is permissible is when it is the only viable option to prevent the person from harming others? If so then how are the two situations presented above any different from self defense, military action or police action? Is it because you don’t really believe a circumstance could ever arise in the future where the imposing death penalty may in fact really be the only viable option to prevent the criminal from committing future harm? Or is it because you the prospective harm is not quite “imminent” enough to justify the death penalty?

          • In the two hypothetical cases you mention, it would be licit to kill a disturbed person who is in the act of threatening the lives of others. Every effort, though, must be made to restrain such people from causing lethal harm to others. Killing should only be the last resort to stop a person who is actually attacking or threatening to kill pthers. It seems that you need to come up with these apocalyptic hypothetical cases because you do not wish to follow the Holy Father’s teachings on the death penalty.

            Here are Pope Francis’ words from his March 20, 2015 letter, which make sense to me:

            “In certain circumstances, when hostilities are underway, a measured reaction is necessary in order to prevent the aggressor from causing harm, and the need to neutralize the aggressor may result in his elimination; it is a case of legitimate defence (cf. Evangelium Vitae, n. 55). Nevertheless, the prerequisites of legitimate personal defence are not applicable in the social sphere without the risk of distortion. In fact, when the death penalty is applied, people are killed not for current acts of aggression, but for offences committed in the past. Moreover, it is applied to people whose capacity to cause harm is not current, but has already been neutralized, and who are deprived of their freedom.

            Today capital punishment is unacceptable, however serious the condemned’s crime may have been. It is an offence to the inviolability of life and to the dignity of the human person which contradicts God’s plan for man and for society and his merciful justice, and it fails to conform to any just purpose of punishment. It does not render justice to the victims, but rather foments revenge.”
            In certain circumstances, when hostilities are underway, a measured reaction is necessary in order to prevent the aggressor from causing harm, and the need to neutralize the aggressor may result in his elimination; it is a case of legitimate defence (cf. Evangelium Vitae, n. 55). Nevertheless, the prerequisites of legitimate personal defence are not applicable in the social sphere without the risk of distortion. In fact, when the death penalty is applied, people are killed not for current acts of aggression, but for offences committed in the past. Moreover, it is applied to people whose capacity to cause harm is not current, but has already been neutralized, and who are deprived of their freedom.

            Today capital punishment is unacceptable, however serious the condemned’s crime may have been. It is an offence to the inviolability of life and to the dignity of the human person which contradicts God’s plan for man and for society and his merciful justice, and it fails to conform to any just purpose of punishment. It does not render justice to the victims, but rather foments revenge.

          • As BVXI points out, Prof. Fastiggi has a significant problem. I pointed this out in the original CWR article by Fesser:

            ““He is, though, using his ordinary papal Magisterium to teach that the intentional killing of a criminal who no longer poses a threat is against the Gospel.”

            This seems at odds with this which seems to rule out the killing of a criminal even if he remains a threat:

            “Francis argues that capital punishment ‘is contrary to the meaning of humanitas and divine mercy.’ He also states that the death penalty ‘implies the denial of the love of enemies preached in the Gospel.’”

            Nothing new in the former however which you now seem to endorse in contrast to you second statement quoted above. For you most recent position was in the revised Catechism of the Church under JP II.

            The problem with this fact is that the death penalty is not considered an intrinsic evil in the Catechism. Using the traditional understanding of the moral act as consisting of the object, intention and circumstances, the Catechism only ruled that current circumstances do not justify the death penalty. The moral object of protecting of society through the death of the convict is not intrinsically evil and consistent with the teaching of the Church. Of course Fesser and Bessette in their book lay waste to that prudential judgment.

            But the granting of that point (namely, that the death penalty in its object is not intrinsically evil) you render superfluous your extensive argument about the interpretation of Scripture and past judgments of the Church, theologians etc. as not being infallible. Because you endorse their continuous teaching that the death penalty is not in its object objectively evil, your criticism, particularly of their contradicting the clearly prudential judgment of JP II in the matter, rings quite hollow.”

          • Thank you for your last reply. Perhaps we are making progress toward a mutual understanding. If I may follow up, here are some questions that your comments bring to mind:

            1. My apocalyptic hypotheticals are not made up simply because I do not wish to agree with our Holy Father. They are posited to make a point: the current circumstances of society (particularly in the West) which permit indefinite incarceration of dangerous criminals may not always persist. The point is that perhaps it may not be prudent to make a blanket (irreversible?) doctrinal pronouncement that the death penalty is never legitimate based on current societal conditions when those conditions may change.

            2. You concede that it would be “licit to kill a disturbed person who is in the act” of harming others. I don’t believe that by this statement, you concede that the death penalty may, in fact, be licit in some circumstances. What I take you to mean is that this situation does not really involve what we call the “death penalty.” It sounds like your definition of the “death penalty” is limited to circumstances where a) the state has someone in custody who has committed a serious crime – say murder; and b) the state has the ability to protect the innocent by incarcerating that person. If we assume that to be the definition of the death penalty, then I think we agree that its use would be illegitimate.

            3. We agree that it would be legitimate for the state to kill someone who is “in the act” of harming others (if absolutely necessary to prevent the harm). That sounds more like police action than the “death penalty” or an “execution.”

            4. The unresolved difference between us seems to be in the middle area between executing someone who has been apprehended and is no threat and killing someone who is “in the act” of harming others. And this is where I question he wisdom of making a blanket statement that the death penalty is “always wrong” or “always against the Gospel” etc. Here, we really are (it seems) disputing what falls under the definition of the “death penalty” versus “police action” to protect the innocent.

            5. Two further questions arise in my mind:

            a) How limited must the ability of the “state” (which could theoretically be as limited as a small village or community) to take other remedial action (e.g., incarceration) before it becomes legitimate to take the offender’s life for the protection of others? Must it devote all of its resources to incarcerating the individual even if that means other important things don’t get done? Again, in the instance of a small, autonomous village, must the hunters and gatherers stop looking for food, risking starvation, in order to keep the criminal alive and incarcerated (say, by guarding him 24/7)? Again, this hypothetical is an extreme scenario but I would posit one that could exist somewhere in the world to day, most certainly has existed in the past, and could theoretically be more common in the future.

            b) How certain and how proximate must be the likely harm to others be before the state may take the offender’s life? Is the state limited to “in the act” situations as your reply seems to suggest, or is there any room for judgment about the likelihood of future harm? What is a multiple offender who has killed again and again after being released?

            My point is simply this: the current Catechism seems to appropriately address all these issues. There does not seem to be a pressing need to change the Church’s teaching on the death penalty. It seems imprudent to me to lay down a blanket prohibition since the Church has explicitly acknowledged that the death penalty maybe legitimately in the past (overturning this, in my view, risks the credibility of the Church) and since it is possible that societal conditions may exist somewhere in the world – either now or in the future – that would make such a blanket rule both practically untenable and highly unlikely to be accepted.

            What we need, it seems to me (and I am a nobody) it to get the world’s governments to accept the current teaching of the Church on the death penalty. If we could do that, then the death penalty would be practically non-existent. I believe it will be more difficult – not less – to get secular governments to accept a blanket “never.”

  16. “This is now the manifest mind and will of the Roman Pontiff, and Catholics, I believe, should give religious assent to this position (cf. Lumen Gentium, 25 and CCC, 892).”

    I was once told a story by a young lady. She mentioned how her father opposed her choice of profession. She wanted to honor and obey her father and went to a priest for guidance. He told her that to properly honor him, she should use the gifts God gave her according to her reason. Doing this would truly honor her father.

    Catholics, while being shepherded by clergy, are not sheep. The laity is called to use their gifts for the good of the Church and the ordering of society. That includes discerning the truth and acting in accord with it. This honors Francis and, more importantly, the Father. Particularly in judgments by the Holy Father that are not in accord with the Truth – such as with Francis’ stance ond the death penalty.

    There is nothing either in the truly prudential arguments of JP II nor the corruption of Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium of Francis that binds me. The Holy Spirit calls for me to truly honor the Father and the Holy Fathers by exercising my reason in accord with Truth. That Truth has been taught consistently by the Church and will remain after this time has passed. That includes, as others have pointed out, that this will be a wedge issue to change other teachings. An no Professor, there will be no firm ground to stand upon once the death penalty is overturned. There are plenty who will use your arguments equally well against marriage, the family etc.

    In the end, this is not a development nor even a binding prudential judgment that calls upon my assent. It is the wisdom of the Devil seeking to destroy the Church. Too bad so many naively believe in it.

  17. Professor Fastiggi,
    We know it is almost certain this pope will “order” a revision to the CCC on the treatment of capital punishment.
    His M/O is ordering things to be revised ever so subtly in order that they can be interpreted ever so broadly. Simply look to his actions at the end of his last synod.
    We know PF will be ordering things changed to his last breath. It’s all on his very earthly agenda which has nothing to do with bringing souls to Christ through Holy Mother Church.

  18. In the two hypothetical cases you mention, it would be licit to kill a disturbed person who is in the act of threatening the lives of others. Every effort, though, must be made to restrain such people from causing lethal harm to others. Killing should only be the last resort to stop a person who is actually attacking or threatening to kill others. It seems that you need to come up with these apocalyptic hypothetical cases because you do not wish to follow the Holy Father’s teachings on the death penalty.

    Here are Pope Francis’ words from his March 20, 2015 letter, which make sense to me:

    “In certain circumstances, when hostilities are underway, a measured reaction is necessary in order to prevent the aggressor from causing harm, and the need to neutralize the aggressor may result in his elimination; it is a case of legitimate defence (cf. Evangelium Vitae, n. 55). Nevertheless, the prerequisites of legitimate personal defence are not applicable in the social sphere without the risk of distortion. In fact, when the death penalty is applied, people are killed not for current acts of aggression, but for offences committed in the past. Moreover, it is applied to people whose capacity to cause harm is not current, but has already been neutralized, and who are deprived of their freedom.

    Today capital punishment is unacceptable, however serious the condemned’s crime may have been. It is an offence to the inviolability of life and to the dignity of the human person which contradicts God’s plan for man and for society and his merciful justice, and it fails to conform to any just purpose of punishment. It does not render justice to the victims, but rather foments revenge.”

    • “Here are Pope Francis’ words from his March 20, 2015 letter, which make sense to me:…’it is applied to people whose capacity to cause harm is not current, but has already been neutralized, and who are deprived of their freedom.'”

      But it makes no sense to God. This because, as others have pointed out, many criminals continue to commit heinous crimes in prison. Their ability to harm has not been neutralized. Thus the prudential judgment of Francis is not in accord with reality and is therefore not binding on any Catholic’s conscience.

  19. This is how the catechism explained by spirago and clarke puts it 1899; 1923:

    The officers of justice, in as far as they stand in the place of God, have the right to sentence evil-doers to capital punishment. St. Paul says the higher powers bear not the sword in vain, but as avengers to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil (Rom. xiii. 4). The authority of the magistrate is God’s authority; when he condemns a criminal, it is not he who condemns him, but God, just as the sword is not answerable for the blow it strikes, but the hand is that wields the sword. Yet the judge must not act arbitrarily; he must only sentence the criminal to death when the welfare of society demands it. Human society is a body of which each individual is a member; and as a diseased limb has to be amputated in order to save the body, so criminals must be executed to save society. As a matter of course the culprit’s guilt must be proved; better let the guilty go free than condemn the innocent. It is an error to suppose that the Church advocates capital punishment on the principle of retaliation; an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. This is a principle of Judaism, not of Christianity. The Church does not like to see blood shed, she desires that every sinner should have time to amend. SHE PERMITS, BUT DOES NOT APPROVE CAPITAL PUNISHMENT.

  20. “These prior popes were making judgments based on the conditions of their times and the state of doctrinal development in which they lived. Their perspectives were acceptable during their times, but they would not be acceptable now in light of recent Catholic teachings.”

    How do we keep any moral teaching of the Church from being up for grabs based on that line of reasoning? For example,

    “These prior popes were making judgments about sodomy based on the conditions of their times and the state of doctrinal development in which they lived. Their perspectives on sodomy were acceptable during their times, but they would not be acceptable now in light of recent Catholic teachings.”

    • You unfortunately are falling into the fallacy of composition. Just because one more teaching is subject to revision does not mean that all are. Besides, there were early Church Fathers who opposed executing criminals. Even the 9th century Pope St. Nicholas I urged it not to be used. I don’t think you would find any Church Fathers or prior popes defending sodomy. The claim of a monolithic 2,000 year Catholic tradition on the death penalty does not really stand up to careful scrutiny.

      • Fastiggi Is still doubling-down,

        Cannot answer why the Church NOW has the definitive answer on capital punishment via the “intrinsic evil” musings of a pope.

        Who knows how many lives may have not been “lost” had the Church had that DEFINITIVE answer and not just a few bishops objecting, but the declarative finality of a pope.

        No, the Church did not have that much influence on nation-states back in the day but considerably more than today.

        It doesn’t matter on a very technical definition of “doctrine”. On life and death, the Holy Spirit failed to nudge the Church on the truth of capital punishment through the midst of time.

        Effectively, the Church, if not taught, but surely stood for error.

        Looking at my present Catechism of the Catholic Church, it contradicts you.

        But the new Catechism will now say a definitive “no” ala “intrinsic evil” from a rare “yes.”

        Better late than never, eh Fastiggi?

          • Though the author undermines his own argument here:

            “…True, in later centuries, under a Christian empire, the greatest of the Church Fathers acknowledged that the state had the right or power to sentence men to death; yet they repeatedly entreated the authorities to refrain from doing so, and lavishly praised them when they did refrain, because they still believed the use of capital punishment to be wrong in principle for Christians.”

            The greatest of the Church Fathers argued that the state had the right to do something immoral. More likely the Fathers understood it was not wrong in principle but that perhaps mercy should be shown.

          • And this:

            “The general view of the early Church Fathers was essentially that of Ambrose: the Sermon on the Mount’s prohibitions of retaliation are absolutely binding on Christians, in both the private and the public spheres, for on the cross Christ at once perfected the refusal of violence and exhausted the Law’s wrath.”

            This appears to prohibit any form of self-defense, police action and just war. It is clearly contrary to reason and thus why the greatest of the Church Fathers developed doctrine to be in accord with Faith and reason.

          • Actually, reading through the linked article it is more an emotional screed than a rational dispositive argument.

      • “You unfortunately are falling into the fallacy of composition. Just because one more teaching is subject to revision does not mean that all are.”

        I was in a diaconate program at one point in my life. One of our teachers worked on the Catechism of the Catholic Church. He said there were very few definitive teachings.

        This is just the tip of the iceberg. Yes, more is to come.

        “The claim of a monolithic 2,000 year Catholic tradition on the death penalty does not really stand up to careful scrutiny.”

        From the comments, your claim does not stand up to simple scrutiny. This because it is untenable. The death penalty is apparent even to natural reason – it is completely consistent with natural law. Thus, as Faith and Reason may not contradict, your position fails again.

        • Natural law is the law of right reason. To kill a human being who is not posing any present threat does not seem reasonable. This is why St. John Paul II in 1999 called the death penalty cruel and unnecessary. He called it cruel because it is not necessary in the present U.S. context (he was speaking in St. Louis). Was St. John Paul II violating right reason?

          • Right reason however dictates that one can kill a guilty person who does pose a threat. The argument, which you fail to engage, is that there are prisoners who continue to commit heinous crimes in prison. The current penal system is not capable of protecting society in all circumstances and with complete certainty.

            JP II made an error of prudential judgment – something completely possible for a pontiff as infallibility does not extend to particular judgments.

            Thus the death penalty remains valid.

      • “Just because one more teaching is subject to revision does not mean that all are.”

        Are you deranged?

        “Yes, indeed, the Church has always taught the Truth, and Truth is unchanging. Well, except for this one truth that is now being changed. But don’t worry, because it’s only this one thing. Unless of course I decide that another truth really isn’t, and can be changed.”

        What a viciously cruel thing to do: sowing distress and doubt and confusion.

        And in any event we a know full well that the Modernists will with ferocious glee use this “one exception” as their excuse to try to institute change after change after change in an effort to destroy the Church. May God help us.

        • I am neither deranged nor a Modernist. Yes, the Church always teaches the truth, but some aspects of the truth take time to know with certitude. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception was infallibly defined in 1854. It was always true, but even Doctors of the Church such as St. Bernard of Clairvux and St. Thomas Aquinas denied it. St. John Paul II and Vatican II (Gaudium et spes, 27) condemned torture as offensive to human dignity. Pope St. Nicholas I also condemned judicial torture in 866, but Popes Gregory IX and Innocent IV gave approval to it in the 13th century for the Inquisition. Some teachings of the Church are subject to development and change, but others are not. In saying this I am only being honest in terms of Catholic history. Please don’t call me deranged or a Modernist. I trust in the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the Church’s Magisterium.

          • I didn’t say you were a Modernist; I pointed out that Modernists would use openings like the one you are trying to create to wreak havoc with the Church.

            I also didn’t actually accuse you of being deranged, merely asked if you were, since the track you are taking seems pretty much guaranteed to undermine the Church’s credibility and authority. I’m being generous enough to assume that it’s out of cluelessness rather than malice.

            Your arguments aren’t in any way convincing. Those “developments” to which you refer were never flat contradictions of what had been taught before. This is. The death penalty has been and remains a matter of prudential judgment.

            You wrote, “Tertullian insisted that “the Creator “puts His interdict on every sort of man-killing by that one summary precept, ‘Thou shalt not kill’” (De Spectaculis, 2). St. Cyprian noted that Christians “do not in turn assail their assailants, for it is not lawful for the innocent to kill even the guilty” (Epistle 60 to Cornelius). Lactantius wrote that “there is no exception to this command of God. Killing a human being, whom God willed to be inviolable, is always wrong [occidere hominem sit semper nefas] (Divine Institutions, lib. VI cap. 20).”

            BXVI brought up the matter of war and self defense, or stopping someone who is in the process of attacking a person. You basically flicked your hand disdainfully and said, “Oh, that’s different.” No: those are all exceptions to “can’t kill even the guilty.” They’ve been recognized as that. So there are exceptions; and where there are exceptions, prudential judgment comes into play.

            “To kill a human being who is not posing any present threat does not seem reasonable,” you said, but Phillip pointed out that just because a person is in jail does not mean that he is not posing a threat. Again: a matter of judgment. (And that’s not even addressing the matter of retributive justice).

            I can just imagine your next argument: “Oh, no, there’s no prudential judgment allowed, you can’t kill anybody even in defense of your country, of someone being attacked, no, no, no, never never,” and citing the same quotations.

  21. Jesus was legally tried, convicted and sentenced to capital punishment on the cross. Christians believe it was God’s plan that His son should die for mankind’s sins, then rise from death to prove that redemption is possible for all sinners. Does this not make it clear that God approves of the death penalty?

    • The CCC, 312 refers to the crucifixion of Jesus “as the greatest moral evil ever committed” because it is the “rejection and murder of God’s only Son, caused by the sins of all men.” God cannot do evil. The crucifixion of Jesus brought redemption out of an evil act. God, the Father willed the good of redemption out of the sacrifice of the Cross, but He merely permitted the evil of those who conspired to crucify Jesus.

      • Calling the legal action of a civil government “moral evil” offers a logical excuse for violating any laws individuals don’t wish to obey.

      • It was evil because Christ was innocent. It was not evil because it was capital punishment. Our Lord was the innocent Lamb Who suffered and died to restore our relationship with God, and He laid down His life voluntarily, which means that He cooperated with the violation against His Law of killing an innocent man. Seriously, I am no fan of the death penalty, but your arguments are disturbingly weak and ignore entire passages of Scripture where God positively commands the death penalty be done by His people. Remember the ban on the Amalekites? Saul lost God’s favor because he failed to carry it out as commanded. David later did what was commanded, which increased his favor with God. Mark that: David was rewarded for carrying out a Divine command of capital punishment on an entire people. If it were intrinsically evil, God could never command it, let alone reward the one who did it.

        • In my article I made it clear that Pope Francis has not yet taught that the death penalty is intrinsically evil. He has, though, stated that it is against the Gospel. I believe he is right because it is more in keeping with the Gospel not to kill than to kill when there is no necessity. All the popes since St. John Paul II have urged Catholics to work for an end to capital punishment. So it doesn’t matter whether you find my arguments weak or strong. As Catholics we are called to give religious submission of will and intellect to what the Roman Pontiffs teach even when they are not speaking ex cathedra. This is the clear teaching of Vatican II in Lumen gentium, 25, which builds upon what Pius XII teaches in Humani Generis in 1950. I find it sad that I am attacked by Catholics for trying to follow Pope Francis and the overwhelming majority of bishops today on the death penalty.

          • “I find it sad that I am attacked by Catholics for trying to follow Pope Francis and the overwhelming majority of bishops today”

            And there is your problem: You are a historic snob; new is better, according to you. The overwhelming majority of popes and bishops did not consider capital punishment intrinsically evil or against the Gospel. You can’t have your cake and eat it too: “You must follow the Pope and the Bishops, but you must ignore the Popes and the Bishops down through the centuries.”

        • You are correct that the evil of Jesus’ execution was do to the fact that He was innocent. This, though, says nothing about whether the death penalty in itself is just or unjust. We need to judge the Old Testament in light of the New Testament. Jesus’ protection of the woman caught in adultery from being stoned argues against the death penalty because none of us (except for Jesus and the Blessed Mother) can say we are without sin to cast the first stone. If you find my arguments “disturbingly weak” perhaps you might like to read what Prof. Hart, a Scripture and Patristics scholar thinks of the arguments of Professors Feser and Bessette:
          :https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/christians-death-penalty

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Is there really a definitive teaching of the Church on capital punishment? -
  2. MONDAY CATHOLICA EDITION – Big Pulpit
  3. Yes, traditional Church teaching on capital punishment is definitive – Catholic World Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.


*