Catholics and Capital Punishment

A look at the Catholic tradition on this hot-button issue, from the Old Testament to Evangelium Vitae

The topic of capital punishment has become, in recent decades, a contentious and increasingly confusing one among Catholics. Some Catholics insist the Church has finally—and authoritatively—renounced the death penalty. Some argue further that the death penalty is no different than abortion or euthanasia, and that supporting any of these acts rends the “seamless garment” of Church teaching regarding the dignity and value of life. And not a few go so far as to say that no one deserves the death penalty, for it is cruel and unusual punishment not fit to be supported by Christians.

What, then, to do with Scripture, which does not reject the death penalty, but accepts it—in the New and Old Testaments—as legitimate and necessary? Rulers, St. Paul told the Romans, “are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.” The one who exercises proper political authority is a servant of God who works for the good of citizens. “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:3, 4). The Church teaches that the State, wielding an authority granted by divine law and grounded in natural law, is able to punish those who violate laws and inflict damage on society. “It is the role of the state,” remarks the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “to defend and promote the common good of civil society, its citizens, and intermediate bodies” (par. 1910).

Pope Pius XII, in an address given September 14, 1952, made a significant remark that is often quoted in debates about capital punishment:

Even when it is a question of the execution of a condemned man, the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. In this case it is reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned person of the enjoyment of life in expiation of his crime when, by his crime, he has already disposed himself of his right to live. (“The Moral Limits of Medical Research and Treatment,” an address given to the First International Congress on the Histopathology of the Nervous System, par. 33)

The State, in other words, can carry out due punishment as an instrument of God, yet a murderer is worthy of strong punishment regardless of whether or not he is caught, tried, and convicted. As philosopher Michael Pakaluk has noted, if only two people were left on earth, and one killed the other, the murderer would still merit death for his action. Why? Because authentic justice is rooted in objective truth about good and evil.

Three basic forms of justice

Justice is traditionally defined as giving to each his proper due. In the Catholic moral tradition there are three basic forms of justice, each addressing a basic relationship within society. These are commutative justice, distributive justice, and communal, or legal, justice. Commutative justice, the Catechism explains, “regulates exchanges between persons and between institutions in accordance with a strict respect for their rights.” This has to do primarily the relationship between individuals. Distributive justice “regulates what the community owes its citizens in proportion to their contributions and needs.” This has to do with how the social whole relates to individuals. And the third, communal justice, “concerns what the citizen owes in fairness to the community,” that is, what is due to the social whole on the part of each person (pars. 2411-12).

A grave crime, such as murder, is a direct violation of communal, or legal, justice. Such an act requires a response—an act of retributive justice—on the part of society. Moral theologian Dr. Mark Lowery, in his book, Living the Good Life: What Every Catholic Needs to Know About Moral Issues (Servant, 2003), writes, “First, the State has the duty to exercise retributive justice. Most people today confuse retributive justice with vengeance.” He observes that while vengeance is the passion that desires revenge—“to get back” at another person—retributive justice is an objective “balancing of the scales” of justice (p. 194). Guilt requires punishment in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. Traditionally, Christianity (and other religions) has regarded death as the proportionate punishment for the willful taking of innocent life.

This understanding of retribution and justice is expounded in the Catechism in a paragraph worth reading in its entirety:

The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people’s rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and the duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people’s safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party. (par. 2266)

The late Cardinal Avery Dulles wrote an important essay, “Catholicism & Capital Punishment” (First Things, April 2001), in which he stated—echoing the Catechism—“The purpose of punishment in secular courts is fourfold: the rehabilitation of the criminal, the protection of society from the criminal, the deterrence of other potential criminals, and retributive justice.” He then emphasized this key point: “Just retribution, which seeks to establish the right order of things, should not be confused with vindictiveness, which is reprehensible.”

Pope John Paul II and capital punishment

Which brings us to Pope John Paul II, whose remarks on the death penalty in his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae—“The Gospel of Life” (March 1995)—have been instrumental in bringing about a serious reexamination of the issue.

John Paul II, in the opening paragraphs of Evangelium Vitae, wrote of a “climate of widespread moral uncertainty” and observed that “we are confronted by an even larger reality, which can be described as a veritable structure of sin. This reality is characterized by the emergence of a culture which denies solidarity and in many cases takes the form of a veritable ‘culture of death’” (par. 12). He especially pinpointed (drawing on Gaudium et Spes, the Vatican II document on the Church and the modern world) murder, genocide, abortion, and euthanasia as core evils of this culture, lamenting that not only are the unborn and aging under deadly attack, but “conscience itself, darkened as it were by such widespread conditioning, is finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish between good and evil in what concerns the basic value of human life” (par. 4).

This is significant because John Paul II’s argument is not that the death penalty is objectively evil (like abortion, euthanasia, murder, etc.). Rather, modern, liberal societies have largely rejected objective truth, a commitment to protecting human dignity, an appreciation of natural law, and even a traditional understanding of the State. This makes it nearly impossible to carry out the death penalty in a manner properly attuned to justice and exhibiting moral rectitude. He wrote:

Faced with the progressive weakening in individual consciences and in society of the sense of the absolute and grave moral illicitness of the direct taking of all innocent human life, especially at its beginning and at its end, the Church’s Magisterium has spoken out with increasing frequency in defense of the sacredness and inviolability of human life. (EV, par. 57)

How can the State that ignores the clear voice of natural law regarding the killing of unborn babies go about executing criminals when such an act of retributive justice is itself squarely rooted in natural law? There is a sort of moral schizophrenia at work here. “If the State,” argues Lowery, “has the right from God to use the death penalty, it certainly does not have the duty. When to use and not to use is a prudential decision. … Pope John Paul II, without repudiating the traditional Catholic position [regarding the death penalty], argues similarly that in a ‘culture of death’ we must find other means, bloodless means, of retributive justice” (pp. 200, 201).

Thus, John Paul II asserted that modern societies have the material means to contain and punish criminals without resorting to the death penalty. He readily acknowledged, in keeping with traditional Catholic teaching, that, “Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime.” But he argued there is not a need to “go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent” (EV, par. 57; see CCC 2267).

A delicate and challenging balance

Has the Church, then, condemned the death penalty? Does she view capital punishment as the moral equal to abortion? In short, “No, she has not.” The Catechism states, “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” (CCC, par. 2267). Contrast that with what it says about abortion, which is an objective moral evil that is, in every situation, “gravely contrary to the moral law” (par. 2271).

In 1980, the Catholic bishops of the United States issued a statement on capital punishment. “Catholic teaching,” they stated, “has accepted the principle that the state has the right to take the life of a person guilty of an extremely serious crime, and that the state may take appropriate measures to protect itself and its citizens from grave harm.” They then wrote, “nevertheless, the question for judgment and decision today is whether capital punishment is justifiable under present circumstances.” That question is still open for discussion and debate, in part because of the complexity of “present circumstances.”

One difficulty, for example, is that convicted murderers sometimes get released after serving time in prison; in certain cases, they commit murder or violent crime after their release. In such cases, has the State properly fulfilled its obligation to protect its citizens from harm? Has society effectively defended innocent lives in such situations? Is this a matter of lacking means, or of lacking the will to rightly employ the means available?

These and other challenging questions cannot, of course, be taken lightly or answered glibly. They cannot be addressed in haste or out of vindictive anger. Catholics of good will should always consider these matters of life and death with a basic grounding in Church teaching about natural law, justice, the role of the State, and the respect due to every life.

[Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared in a slightly different form in The Catholic Answer magazine.]

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About Carl E. Olson 1234 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.