How and why the death penalty deters murder in contemporary America

Too many churchmen simply ignore the evidence that the death penalty saves lives and promotes public order. Catholic public officials charged with the care of the common good deserve better from their religious leaders.

(Robert Wilson/

Fifteen years ago I was asked to give an empirical overview on the use of capital punishment in the United States at a conference on Catholicism and the death penalty held at a Catholic college. Though I had been devoting three weeks to capital punishment in a course I regularly taught on “Crime and Public Policy” at my own secular liberal arts college and though I was Catholic myself, I had not paid close attention to developments within the Church in the 1990s on the death penalty. I had heard of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae (1995) and knew that there was a new universal catechism for the Church, but I could have told you nothing about the two versions of the catechism (1992 and 1997) and how Evangelium Vitae had led to some subtle changes in the language on capital punishment between the first and second.

It was around the time I was preparing for the conference that one of my students said in class, “Well, I am Catholic, so I am against the death penalty.” This came as a bit of a shock. I had been raised on the venerable Baltimore Catechism and had attended a Jesuit high school and college in the 1960s; so I knew that that the Church taught that the state had the right to impose the death penalty for heinous crimes. I respectfully corrected the student, informing him that the Church had always taught the principled legitimacy of the death penalty. He responded that that was not what he had learned in his own Catholic education. This set me to the task of learning more about whether anything had changed (or could change) in the Church’s teaching.

At the conference my empirical overview was the first formal presentation. After I finished, I sat quietly and learned from the experts in attendance. At the general discussion that ended the conference, I decided to ask a question that had been nagging me the whole time on an issue that none of the speakers had addressed: “If we knew that the death penalty deterred murder, wouldn’t the Church have to support it? Hasn’t the Church always taught that public officials have an obligation to protect the innocent and to promote the common good, as long as they use legitimate means? And hasn’t the Church always taught that the death penalty is a legitimate form of punishment for murder and other heinous crimes?” As Edward Feser and I maintain in our recent book By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment (Ignatius, 2017), that question about deterrence and Church teaching on capital punishment is as pertinent today as it was when I asked it fifteen years ago.

Recent pontificates and deterrence

It is well known that the last three popes have urged the worldwide abolition of the death penalty. None of the three, to the best of my knowledge, has expressly denied that capital punishment deters murder, though they seem to have presumed as much. Consider Pope John Paul II’s treatment of the subject in Evangelium Vitae, the encyclical he issued in 1995. Relatively early in the document, before he turned to his formal treatment of the death penalty, John Paul praised the “growing public opposition to the death penalty,” holding that “[m]odern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform” (Section 27). Certainly the pope was right that we can render convicted murderers harmless in our super-maximum security prisons by isolating them from all direct human contact, an extreme and costly measure that some consider cruel and inhumane in itself. Yet, incapacitating dangerous criminals is not the only purpose that punishment (including capital punishment) serves; for it also promotes justice by giving the offender what he deserves and it deters others from committing similar crimes. Ed Feser and I devote the bulk of our book to the “just deserts” defense of the death penalty; yet here I want to keep the focus on deterrence (which we also cover but at less length).

Though justice and deterrence have always been central considerations in Catholic treatments of the death penalty, John Paul II simply ignored them when he first briefly addressed the topic early in Evangelium Vitae. Yet if the death penalty deters murder, then this would seem to contradict the pope’s assurance that society can be effective in “suppressing crime” without it. When he returned to the death penalty later in EV (Section 56), John Paul broadened the discussion but again failed to mention deterrence. Catholic abolitionists tend to interpret the discussion of the death penalty in Section 56 as simply restating the narrow incapacitation defense in Section 27; but in our book Ed and I show that John Paul reaffirmed the Church’s traditional teaching that, quoting the pope, “[t]he primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is ‘to redress the disorder caused by the offence,’” thereby “defending public order and ensuring people’s safety.” It would follow, then, that if the death penalty is in fact necessary to defend public order and ensure the people’s safety it should be used. Note that John Paul’s formulation of the doctrinal principle, which itself drew on the language of the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, was virtually identical to that in the old Baltimore Catechism, which held that “human life may be lawfully taken . . . [b]y the lawful execution of a criminal, fairly tried and found guilty of a crime punishable by death when the preservation of law and order and the good of the community require such execution.”

Now, there is no denying that John Paul II did not believe the death penalty was necessary, except in the rarest of cases, to defend public order and ensure the people’s safety, else he could not have lent his powerful voice to the abolition movement. But this conclusion was a prudential judgment, not a doctrinal one, and implicit in this judgment was the presumption that the death penalty does not deter murder. To be clear, the doctrinal principle at issue allows for the serious consideration of deterrence, but the pope’s conclusion that lesser punishments will equally well secure public order and the people’s safety simply presumes away the potential deterrent effect of punishing murderers with death.

Although John Paul II’s immediate successor, Pope Benedict XVI, said relatively little about the death penalty, he did use his office to promote abolition. In November of 2011, he addressed those who had come to Rome to attend a conference on the death penalty and expressed his hope that the group’s efforts would “encourage the political and legislative initiatives being promoted in a growing number of countries to eliminate the death penalty.” Pope Francis has been more forceful (and more frequent) in denouncing capital punishment. Perhaps his fullest treatment of the subject was the letter he wrote in March of 2015 to the International Commission against the Death Penalty. The letter details a long list of critiques: the death penalty “contradicts God’s plan for man and for society”; it punishes for past offenses rather than present dangers; it “fails to conform to any just purpose of punishment”; it denies the opportunity for repentance; and it is subject to the possibility of “judicial error.” As with John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis simply presume away the deterrent effect of the death penalty (as is the case with Francis’s most recent statements). It is clear, then, that our last three popes sincerely believed that abolishing the death penalty will not lead to more murders, but why should Catholics and others agree with them? The possible deterrent effect of the death penalty is a purely empirical issue, and neither popes, nor bishops, nor other clerics have any particular expertise that would qualify them to speak authoritatively on such a highly contested matter.

This view that the death penalty does not reduce murders would have surprised many leading figures in the life of the Church. In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul wrote that rulers are a “terror” to bad conduct and do “not bear the sword in vain.” In his Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, St. Augustine praised the “great and holy men” in ancient Israel who “punished some sins with death” because “the living were struck with a salutary fear.” Augustine specifically defended Moses’ order at the foot of Mt. Sinai to execute the worshippers of the golden calf: “he impressed their minds at the time with a wholesome fear, and gave them a warning for the future, by using the sword in the punishment of a few.” In his Lectures on the Letter to the Romans, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that many men “have no love for virtue and . . . must be compelled to avoid evil by punishments.” Rulers legitimately use the “fear of punishment” to “keep us from evil conduct.” Such punishment may well include the death penalty. “[W]hen a thief is hanged,” Aquinas wrote in Summa Theologiae, “this is not for his own amendment, but for the sake of others, that at least they may be deterred from crime through fear of the punishment.” (Note that the Latin translated here as “thief” is better rendered as “robber” or “bandit.”) And the Roman Catechism of the sixteenth century, the first universal catechism of the Catholic Church, taught that “the just use of [capital punishment] . . . is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder” (presumably because it saves lives through deterrence). Though these examples are all from the Catholic tradition, it is not too strong to say that the deterrent effect of capital punishment was nearly universally accepted in the West until recent decades.

Reasons for death penalty as deterrence

Catholic abolitionists make much of how modern improvements in penal systems protect us from dangerous offenders, but these improvements are irrelevant to deterrence. Punishing some murderers with death either deters others from murder or it does not. It is hard to see how the security methods prison officials use to constrain the freedom of murderers in prison could have any effect at all on the behavior of potential murderers not yet in prison.

As Ed and I show in our book, there are good reasons to believe that the death penalty deters murder in contemporary America. One reason is specific evidence of lives saved by an offender’s fear of death. In one case, an armed robber in California told her parole board that the reason she never used a loaded gun in her robberies was “So I would not panic, kill somebody, and get the death penalty.” This convinced Diane Feinstein, then a member of the parole board and later a U.S. senator, that, as she put it, “the death penalty in place in California in the sixties was in fact a deterrent.” In another case a long-time criminal told a law professor, who had spent years interviewing inmates of maximum security prisons, that the reason he spared the life of a drug dealer in Virginia whom he had tied up and robbed was because he could not tolerate the idea of the electric chair. When the professor asked whether he had faced a similar situation in Washington, DC, which had abolished the death penalty, he admitted that he had: “And I asked him what did he do, and he said, ‘I killed him.’ And I asked him why, and he said, ‘Because I can tolerate what they got waiting for me [in DC for murder] . . . . I just couldn’t tolerate what they had waiting for me in Virginia [for murder].” In the third case, a criminologist reported at a professional conference that two men had tied up and robbed his elderly mother in her home in Westchester County, New York. As they were about to leave, one said to the other, “She has seen us and can identify us, should we kill her?” “No,” answered the other, “we don’t want to risk the death penalty.” They spared the woman.

Examples such as these powerfully refute the claim that the death penalty never deters. Though many large-scale empirical studies have purported to find a substantial deterrent effect (as we detail in our book), others have challenged these findings, and among quantitative social scientists the issue remains unresolved. But this should not surprise us at a time when executions per year (51 between 2000 and 2015) are dwarfed by homicides per year (15,600 during the same period). Even if each execution saved 5-10 lives (a midrange for the studies that reported deterrence), the total number of lives saved would amount to only a few percent of all homicides. It is simply not likely that social scientists could discern such a statistically small effect, especially when year-to-year changes in homicides are driven by a host of social conditions independent of punishment practices: drug use, gang wars, economic conditions, immigration patterns, etc. Yet, even a small deterrent effect (say in the range of 2-3) would have saved several thousand lives from the nation’s 1,465 executions since 1977. And of course if the death penalty does deter, it would save more lives if it were used more often.

As we show in our book, criminals often behave much more rationally than is usually thought. It is well documented, for example, that during plea negotiations with their attorneys and prosecutors, killers will often choose to plead guilty to murder in exchange for a life sentence rather than risk conviction and a death sentence at trial. Also, as part of the “deal” some admit to other unsolved murders or lead authorities to the bodies of victims. Acting rationally, some murderers choose life in prison and cooperation with authorities over the prospect of eventual execution. We also know that only a tiny fraction of those sentenced to death (perhaps 4% or less) “volunteer” for the death penalty by prematurely ending the appeals process (though sometimes after many years of appeals). Thus, nearly all of those sentenced to death would rather live out their lives behind bars than face execution. Even sadistic killers like Jeffrey Dahmer, who murdered sixteen young men and boys in Wisconsin between 1978 and 1991 (and another in Ohio), invested considerable time and effort in planning his abductions and concealing his crimes. For example, he avoided potential abductees who had automobiles because he knew that abandoned cars would likely lead police to suspect foul play and launch an investigation. He also took great pains to dispose of the remains of many of his victims.

Like the rest of us, hardened criminals want to live, and they will often adjust their behavior accordingly. Abolish the death penalty entirely and what incentive does a “lifer” have not to kill while in prison or, if he escapes, while on the run? We should not be reluctant to draw on our own commonsense when thinking about the deterrent effect of capital punishment. After all, this is how men and women have been reaching such judgments for thousands of years.

A deeper kind of deterrence

Though there are sound reasons to believe that some number of criminals in death penalty jurisdictions will desist from murder because they judge that death is too high a price to pay, there is a deeper kind of deterrence, almost always overlooked in discussions of the death penalty, that does not require rational calculation. It is captured in a famous quotation by James Fitzjames Stephen, a prominent 19th-century English judge and lawyer: “Some men probably abstain from murder because they fear that if they committed murder they would be hanged. Hundreds of thousands abstain from it because they regard it with horror. One great reason why they regard it with horror is that murderers are hanged . . . .” As the contemporary sociologist Steven Goldberg puts it, “[If] the death penalty deters, it is likely that it does so through society’s saying that certain acts are so unacceptable that society will kill one who commits them; the individual internalizes the association of the act and the penalty throughout his life, constantly increasing his resistance to committing the act.” As Edward Feser and I argue in our book, most people do not murder others because they know that murder is a great wrong, not because they have calculated the risks of execution. One way they know that murder is a great wrong (following Stephen) is because some murderers suffer death for their crimes. As the computer scientist, social commentator, and Unabomber victim David Gelernter writes, “we execute murderers in order to make a communal proclamation: that murder is intolerable. A deliberate murderer embodies evil so terrible that it defiles the community.” By so unambiguously reinforcing the moral norm against murder, the death penalty makes it less likely that those growing up in such a society would even consider murder in the first place.

Here justice and deterrence of this deeper sort meet. The most brutal murderers deserve to pay for their crimes with their lives. When we execute them, we reaffirm the utter immorality of murder. In so doing, we inculcate moral norms that would keep even wayward souls from considering killing a fellow human being. As the Roman Catechism of 1566 put it, “Of these remedies [for combatting murder] the most efficacious is to form a just conception of the wickedness of murder.” There is no more effective means of doing so than to execute the murderer.

In the face of such powerful reasons for believing that the death penalty deters murder, opponents often point out that murder rates are lower in abolitionist Europe than in the United States, and lower in some American states without the death penalty than in others with it. But social scientists no longer put much stock in such simple comparisons. All recognize that a myriad of factors affect murder rates. Around the world, there are 42 nations with a murder rate lower than one per 100,000 residents, but another 47 nations with a murder rate higher than 10. No one argues that the better part of these large differences can be explained by how these nations punish murder. Moreover, at least some of the American states that have dropped capital punishment have done so because they did not have much of a murder problem to begin with. For example, when North Dakota abolished the death penalty for all murders in 1973, its murder rate was less than one-tenth of the national average. So it is not surprising that some states without the death penalty today may have lower murder rates than those that have retained it, especially with so many other factors in play.

Papal presumption?

Yet, as previously noted, our recent anti-capital punishment popes have not insisted that the death penalty fails to deter murder, but have simply presumed that it does not. Ironically, both John Paul II and Francis have cited God’s sparing the life of the murderer Cain as evidence that God was opposed to the death penalty (despite God’s endorsement of the death penalty in the covenant with Noah, just a few chapters later in Genesis). Yet, when Cain cries out that if he is sent wandering upon the earth “whoever finds me will slay me,” God reassures him, “Not so! If any one slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” Apparently, God believed that the threat of severe punishment would keep Cain quite safe from potential killers. Later, the Mosaic Law expressly recognized the deterrent effect of capital punishment when it mandated that anyone who falsely accused another of a capital crime should himself suffer death: “And the rest shall hear, and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you” (Deut 19:20).

The Catholic Church has always taught that capital punishment is justified if necessary to defend public order and ensure the people’s safety. This was the teaching of the Baltimore Catechism (used throughout the nation for much of the twentieth century); of Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae (1995); and of the current Catechism of the Catholic Church (1997). Too many churchmen simply ignore the evidence that the death penalty saves lives and promotes public order. Catholic public officials charged with the care of the common good deserve better from their religious leaders.

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About Joseph M. Bessette 3 Articles
Joseph M. Bessette is Alice Tweed Tuohy Professor of Government and Ethics at Claremont McKenna College.


  1. A serious commitment to the sanctity of human life may well compel, rather than forbid, capital punishment. Capital punishment has a strong claim to being not merely morally permissible, but morally obligatory—above all from the standpoint of those who wish to protect life. From study below.

    Cass R. Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule, “Is Capital Punishment Morally Required? The Relevance of Life-Life Tradeoffs,” AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies, March 2005. See link below for summary of AEI-Brookings Death Penalty Study.

  2. I must admit that after reading this column, I am somewhat confused. I was brought up to believe “an eye for an eye”, but my mother was a pacifist and couldn’t kill an ant. Capital punishment was never discussed by our Nuns. However, in the 50s and 60s there were few murders.

    If the church favors the death penalty, why do they suppress a priest from revealing the horrible confessional admission of a murderer? I believe that, regardless of church law, a priest has the duty to expose that criminal to the judicial system and protect society from further murders.

    • You believe wrong.

      You might as well whine that Christ should immediately expose the criminal to the judicial system, since the priest is acting in the person of Christ in the confessional.

      You mention that in the 50s and 60s there were fewer murders; and the death penalty was in force then. Which supports the author’s argument admirably.

  3. Sir,

    The article in your edition of the 4th of January, by Joseph M. Bessette, about the death penalty was most interesting and well written. He states Catholic traditional teaching over the years and rejects political correctness.

    Evelyn Waugh made a good contribution to the subject in a BBC interview in November 1953. An interviewer stated that “although” Waugh was a Catholic he was in favour of the death penalty. Waugh said that he was and it was very kind. The rest of us do not know the hour or day of our death but the death penalty enables a person to know exactly when he is going to die, and gives him time to repent, a great spiritual benefit. Catholics pray that they do not have a “sudden and unprovided death”. “But,” said one of the interviewers, “supposing I said that you had to carry out the hanging what would you say?” Waugh did not wait a second but gave the amusing and devastating reply, “I should think it rather odd that with all the unemployed people, the hanging had to be carried out by a middle-aged novelist.” The interviewer went on, ”But you would be willing to carry out the hanging?” “Yes”, said Waugh. The interviewer persisted: “Would you like it?” “Not in the least,” Replied Waugh.

    Yours etc.,

    G.E. Hester,

    Lancashire, England.

  4. In the modern nation-state, with its lack of true political community, people are mostly strangers to one another, so capital punishment may be more necessary as a deterrent than in a properly-scaled political community in which people are linked together and are familiar to one another. Also, forms of rehabilitation are more likely to be effective in the latter than in the former.

    But this isn’t about punishment and effective deterrence. It’s about imposing a creed upon a people and ensuring that the “princes of the Church” have some say over the state. Bad strategy for dealing with the state.

  5. Given the fact that the government often gets things wrong, and we know that innocent people have been convicted of crimes they did not commit, isn’t it dangerous to allow the State to impose permanent, irreversible sentences in the form of death? Moreover, isn’t the death penalty the ultimate form of “big government” in that it actually gives the State the power to kill its citizens? Why give the State that power when other means of defense and punishment are available? Finally, I would suggest that the death penalty is not a detrant considering the USA has one of the highest per capita murder rates in the developed world.

      • I’ll have to read the book I guess, but until other inequities in our justice system are addressed I don’t see how it’s possible to levy the ultimate punishment fairly. Plea deals, over worked public defenders, socio-economic and racial factors coupled with natural mistakes that human beings can make all conspire to make capital punishment and inherently risky policy. My objection to capital punishment is not one of principle but one of practicality and conservative concern. Our justice is so flawed and uneven that I don’t see how capital punishment can be administered in a Just manner. Until those issues are addressed I’d prefer not to give the government the power to kill its citizens; surely that’s a good baseline policy for any democracy.

        • Andrew, you say “we know that innocent people have been convicted of crimes they did not commit, isn’t it dangerous to allow the State to impose permanent, irreversible sentences in the form of death?

          The danger is indeed there. As Bessette and Feser show in the book, in modern days the danger is small, but not completely eliminated. What they also show is that the danger that comes from not using the death penalty exceeds the danger of using it.

          You say “Moreover, isn’t the death penalty the ultimate form of “big government”“. Virtually all death sentences are levied by the states, not the federal government. This is not an example of the feds arrogating to themselves a power that belongs to the lower-down political authority.

          “Why give the State that power when other means of defense and punishment are available? ” You need to go back and actually read the article above, Joe Bessette actually answers that clearly: other forms of punishment do not deter adequately. And, besides, no other form of punishment comes even close to serving justice, which is the BASIC reason for punishment to begin with.

          but until other inequities in our justice system are addressed I don’t see how it’s possible to levy the ultimate punishment fairly.” The answer to injustices in the system is not to make the system LESS just by refusing to use the just punishment that the worst criminals deserve, but to make it more just in all the ways it is defective. Making it more just by using the just punishment will have a snowball effect of helping, in the long run, to make the rest of the system more just – as long as officials continue to reform the rest as well.

    • Deterrence is absolutely true relative to that individual to whom the death penalty is applied. There are not “many” other “solutions”. Life without parole sometimes isn’t. The flip side of the coin must be acknowledged in the “government making mistakes” argument.

    • Andrew:

      Your points are, precisely, opposite the facts.

      Possibly, we may have executed an innocent as recently as the 1930s.

      Since 1973:

      Some 16,000 innocents have been murdered by those known murderers that we have allowed to murder, again – recidivist murderers.

      At least 400,000 innocents have been murdered by those known criminals that we have allowed to harm, again – recidivist criminals.

      In addition, the death penalty protects innocents in three ways, better than does life without parole.

      detailed here:

      The Death Penalty: Saving More Innocent Lives

  6. The last few Popes have all lived under dictatorships that cannot be trusted with the power of life and death (Mussolini, the Communists, the Nazis, and the Argentine Junta). This probably colors their view on capital punishment.

    In the United States, the federal death penalty is rarely invoked and even more rarely carried out. States vary significantly in whether they have capital punishment and how often they carry it out. For example, Michigan abolished the death penalty in the 1800s, while neighboring Ohio has it and carries it out relatively frequently.

    • The United States had the misfortune of abolishing the death penalty in 1972 near the beginning of a massive crime wave. It was reinstated in 1976. The wave began before the abolition and continued to rise after its reinstatement, yet people associate the abolition with rising crime.

      I am curious how the crime wave happened in states that never had the death penalty vs. states that got rid of it and reinstated it. Did crime go up in Detroit (where the death penalty was never in effect) at the same rate as in Cleveland (where it was abolished and reinstated)?

      • Yes, these Popes did have good reasons to mistrust their governments. Even in the US, there is a growing mistrust of our own government, i.e. unfair trials, etc, which is the common argument given by abolitionists. Unfortunately,this well founded mistrust, has blurred the reality that A) There is no such thing as a humane and perfect penal system – how many guards and other prisoners are murdered in prisons? B) Capital punishment does deter as outlined in this article and C) as clumsily and imperfect our system may be, it is a positive response to a cosmic need for justice.

  7. It would be interesting to find out how death penalty opponents would have handled the case of Clarence Ray Allen. Mr. Allen, while in prison for one murder, was arranging for the murder of the witnesses in his murder trial so that he could ask for a new trial, where there would then be no witnesses to testify against him.

    • Clearly the prison authorities needed to do a better job monitoring that individual’s communication outside the prison. Allen’s horrible actions could have taken place while he was on death row as well because death row prisoners are able to communicate with the outside world as well (and they can spend years on death row). Better monitoring of prisoner communication would be the answer.

      • All prisoners are given the right to communicate with their attorneys without eavesdropping on the discussion. Some murderers have used their attorneys for conspiracy to commit further crimes. Organized crime does this all the time, that’s why they have their own attorneys on their payroll.

      • Andrew:

        That is, exactly, the point with the three Popes constant errors with the death penalty, as with the error plagued CCC 2267, 1997 amendment.

        The criminal justice systems are filled with huge errors that cause more harm to innocents, while the Popes and CCC 2267 say the opposite to defend their anti death penalty positions.

        Remember, EV and the amended 2267 came out at the same time of the height of the priest sex scandal.

        Where did 2267 or those three Popes develop the fictional reasoning that somehow, man’s criminal justice systems would be better managed than the Church’s horrendous mismanagement of the priest sex horrors over 6 decades.

        Their confidence in man’s criminal justice systems came from nowhere, 1995-2018 and they continue that farce, in complete contradiction to the well known facts.

        The question is not “How?” by “Why?”. It’s not as if the Popes do not know how badly innocents are hurt by criminal justice systems.


        Catechism & State Protection

  8. Joseph, both you and Mr. Feser earn your living in non Catholic colleges. I agree with you both but I too never have obtained income from a Catholic institution. We are more free to look at data. On this issue unfortunately, especially theology professors in Catholic colleges and universities are deeply inclined to follow Popes….because of income security, pension security and a series of Lumen Gentium 25 related documents requiring obedience in the non infallible. UN data shows to me that two things account for low murder rates worldwide….the death penalty where the poor are dominant ( Asia…safest region and death penalty dominant by UN figures) and mild affluence as dominant ( Europe the second safest area and non death penalty). A non death penalty partly nominally Catholic region with millions of poor is the most murderous on earth…northern Latin America and the Caribbean with some exceptions like Martinique etc. The US Virgin Islands and five Catholic countries are in the top ten worst countries on earth. If you free travel in the islands like St. Croix off tour, you soon say to yourself…” I haven’t seen a cop car in days”. Which brings up another problem. Some very poor nations have a death penalty but insufficient police budgets. Guatemala even if it had executions…only convicts in 4% of murder cases.
    I think these last three Popes have begun an anti death penalty trend which will affirm secular leaders in a policy that will get tens of thousands of poor people killed going forward. By trying to image the Church as the uninquisition so to speak…these three Popes will get tens of thousands of murder victims killed and I point to these numbers….Brazil averages over 50,000 murders a year ( no death penalty). China with 7 times Brazil’s population averages 11,000 murders a year. If Brazil had China’s murder rate, they would save 49,000 murder victims a year.
    Brazil is the largest Catholic population and yet not one Pope seems conversant with the holocaust of their 26 murders per 100,000 to China’s most recent rate of .74 per 100,000. Three Popes in a row seem oblivious to the fact that a Catholic region is non death penalty and the most murderous in the world. The Chinese would be daffy if they allowed this new papal position to gain traction in China which like Brazil has millions of poor. Japan is like Europe…mild affluence, few poor. It has executions…has a .33 per 100,000 murder rate some years but like Europe, it would still be safe without executions due to homogeneity and mild affluence. It is the third world and developed Brazil and Mexico where the death penalty would save thousands….and always does in Asia. Catholic professors will tend to follow this new mistaken narrative for both earthly and LG25 et al reasons…and that will get people killed in Rio, Sinaloa, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize….mostly poor people…the ones we champion 24/7.

  9. You make a very good argument for the eradication of poverty not the imposition of the death penalty. Murder is not deterred by the death penalty. Few reputable criminologists believe that. The stats also don’t support that. The USA, as a whole, has one of the most liberal death penalty policies compared to its other first world counterparts but has the highest, by many margins, murder rates in the world. Lowering murder rates involves much more than just killing people. It involves education, addressing poverty etc. Compare two countries that are very similar like Canada and the USA on a per capita basis and you’ll see that lower murder rates has more to do with poverty and culture than it does with the death penalty. For example Detroit has a 49 per 100,000 murder rate. Less than 1 mile away Windsor Ontario has a murder rate of .30 per 100,000 people. Let that stat sink in. Now I know Michigan does not have the death penalty, but the logic of the above article would suggest that Windsor should have a similar murder rate as it’s neighbor Detroit since it too doesn’t have the death penalty as a deterrent. It’s not like Canadians go on murder rampages because they don’t have the death penalty. Amazing Canadians have managed not to murder one another in large numbers without the death penalty looming over their heads. Thus illustrating that the cause of murder has probably more to do with other factors apart from punishment.

    I’m love the USA and think it’s a great country, but Americans often fail to realize that there are other ways of doing things. There are first world democracies all over the world that are actually safer (and as a result freeer) than the USA and they don’t have the death penalty. Isn’t that something to consider?

    BTW: I’m not a trolling liberal Catholic. I believe in what the Catechism teaches. I dissent from nothing the Church teaches. I simply agree with St. John Paul 2 that in the modern world the need for the death penalty is exceedingly rare if non-existent.

    • Andrew, you wrote ( and I stopped reading you right there…for logic reasons ):
      ” Murder is not deterred by the death penalty. Few reputable criminologists believe that.”

      The US Supreme Court Justices between 1972-1976 halted the death penalty in the USA and then took four years to study reputable penology experts ON BOTH SIDES of the death penalty issue. They, SCOTUS, concluded that those studies affirming the death penalty were correct….that the death penalty deters not passion/ spousal murders but criminal ( thus more premeditated) murders…as in robberies, extortion, drug territory disputes etc.

      • As a matter of courtesy you should always finish reading someone’s argument before you comment on it. That study you cited is 41 years old. Lots of studies have been done since then that say otherwise.

        • You’re accustomed to using manipulative cues like ” Few reputable criminologists”…”as a matter of courtesy”. You could be from a genteel setting where that works on insecure people. Ego isolating cues won’t work on me. I’m from the NY harbor…swam in it as a lad with gang members who killed.
          No commenter has an obligation to read beyond one tall tale. As Aquinas noted,
          “Granted one absurdity, others must needs follow”. I just skimmed the rest of your piece. The USA and Detroit has a black population, unlike Windsor Canada, a substantial number of whom are radically criminal and are doing over 50% of the US murders despite blacks being only 13% of the population. Europe doesn’t have those blacks either but rather gets the creative black musicians and theatre people and authors.
          I took care of three very tough black girls in Newark’s worst area for four years…sending one to Catholic school until she chose something else. I tutored her 900 days plus over a drug dealer and party on the floor below whose cutting up of heroin I walked in on one night to say
          goodnight to the other two girls. The men all looked at me with total anger then I picked the leader and raised my right hand open and said…” just wanted to tell the girls goodnight…that’s all”. The leader’s face changed from total anger to total smile and he sensed I was not turning them in by my calm….which a Benedictine Abbot agreed with that month when I sought counsel on it. The Abbot was big city…” they’re using while selling…low level…they’ll be replaced on the street in 24 hours and you won’t be able to help those girls…don’t turn them in.”
          Four other black guys near there later ambushed me on the street but I got away in a telephone truck.
          A huge black guy challenged me to a fight because at my 6’3″ as an ex gymnast…he felt I and my body were worthy though he was 6’7″, 300 hundred pounds and nuts.
          I scared him off since he thought I was drawing a pistol. Three years ago I mugged a black criminal who mugged my house minutes before and took a lethal weapon from that house. I was not Christ in that moment…I was Axle Rose…” you can take anything you want but ya better not take it from me”. God instructed me later on the nuances of almost killing a thug over a weapon. It made that neighborhood safe for a long time but…God still wanted me to obey the nuances next time.
          So no….Detroit versus Windsor Canada….confirms my point…they don’t compare.
          I compared Brazil to China…not Brazil to Austria…both Brazil and China have poor who are capable of violence historically but one country stopped it by inadvertently obeying Romans 13:4. Read about the Taiping Rebellion….20 million killed in China in mid 19th century. China takes tough measures because rebellions there get out of hand like the rivers do….and involve millions of lives. Catholicism with this spanking new anti death penalty thing…has given Asia an unnecessary blockage against conversion….and it has helped fundamentalists conversions in China who support Rom.13:4 while we find ten ways to circumvent it. Catholicism has just added a mistake which gets poor people killed and….and prevents conversions. There are fallen cherubim enjoying this mistake very much.
          Let China run Detroit for ten years with Chinese courts and laws and police…and Detroit will rise again.

          • Your response is nonsense and frankly borders on racist. Wherever there is poverty and lack of education there will be violence and murder regardless of race.

          • Asia has hundreds of millions of people in poverty and according to UN data….is the safest large area on earth in respect to criminal murder.

        • Andrew:

          Reality really does matter:

          Asians aren’t even mentioned, because their crime rates are so small.

          For the White–Black comparisons, the Black level is 12.7 times greater than the White level for homicide, 15.6 times greater for robbery, 6.7 times greater for rape, and 4.5 times greater for aggravated assault.

          For the Hispanic- White comparison, the Hispanic level is 4.0 times greater than the White level for homicide, 3.8 times greater for robbery, 2.8 times greater for rape, and 2.3 times greater for aggravated assault.

          For the Hispanic–Black comparison, the Black level is 3.1 times greater than the Hispanic level for homicide, 4.1 times greater for robbery, 2.4 times greater for rape, and 1.9 times greater for aggravated assault.


    • Andrew:

      You are in error on deterrence.

      1) There have been 28 recent studies finding for US death penalty deterrence (1), overwhelmingly, by economists, nearly all of whom are anti death penalty – not criminologists.

      2) Looking at gross murder rates cannot be an accurate measure of deterrence. Deterrence is measured by there being less murders with the death penalty/executions than without them, no matter the gross murder rate (2).

      3) Never has the deterrent effect of any sanction or any negative prospect been negated. Never. It’s not possible.

      If you looked at differences between crime rates in zip codes, towns, cities, and counties within each state or between all the world’s countries, with and without the death penalty, and their crime and murder rates that would be clear. Some are high, some low, some medium, whether in a death penalty jurisdiction or not.



      c) “Death Penalty, Deterrence & Murder Rates: Let’s be clear”

      1) All deterrence issues covered, here:

      OF COURSE THE DEATH PENALTY DETERS: A review of the debate
      99.7% of murderers tell us “Give me life, not execution”

  10. The reason I support the use of the State imposing the death penalty is that this has been the teaching of the Faith since its beginning. I see no great revival of the Faith in the middle of the 20th Century that would give anyone the idea that it was possible that the Church was teaching error for 2000 years. I do see a crippling of the masculinity of many Catholic men and the clergy.

    Jesus – “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea”.

    Pilate – Do you not know that I have power to release you and I have power to crucify you?” Jesus – “You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above.”

    • Donald, we really agree on the masculinity issue. The catechism’s definition of torture contradicts scripture verse after scripture verse…ccc 2297: ” Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.” By those words ” frighten opponents”…Christ whipping the money changers out of the temple area reserved for gentiles was a sin on Christ’s part. We are too much of a non review culture. The above definition of torture shouldn’t be in the catechism.

    • Burning people at the stake had a long pedigree in the Church (when there were more humane ways of execution available). Is that part of Tradition too? Should we be executing people via millstone (I think Our Lord was speaking symbolically)? As for Pilate, I think Our Lord was speaking to that particular situation. There is no question that Church teachings allows for capital punishment. The question is can it be ministered in a just manner given the flaws in our system and should it when there are other means available for both punishment and community safety.

      I don’t think executions are the means of Church revival, although they would certainly make the World Youth Days more news worthy. 😉

      Consider this that according to a major study done by the Ubiversity if Michighan, it is conservatively estimated that 1 in 25 death rows convictions are of innocent men. Really think about that.

      • But Our Lord’s millstone comment expressed what he thought those who led his child believers astray deserved, namely death. Moreover, since this does not routinely happen to such evildoers in this life, it must be what happens after death, and therefore at God’s will and action, and so at Christ’s.

        I might add that death by swift drowning though dramatic must be very swift and so relatively low in pain, somewhat like the Indian and British Indian execution by being blown from cannon or having one’s head trodden by an elephant.

      • Andrew:

        The method of execution is not part of this discussion, although I think the painful biblical methods would be more pf a deterrent than is the care and concern about a peaceful, pain free execution for today’s murderers.

        So, in that sense, it is part of the discussion.

  11. It would deter a lot more if it were used a little more.
    As far as repentance, it is difficult to improve on Samuel Johnson’s comment that the prospect of being hanged in a fortnight concentrates the mind wonderfully.

    • Andrew:

      I encourage you to fact check all of your claims.

      The 1 in 25 is not a conservative estimate. It is, completely, ridiculous if you fact check.

      The authors, knowingly, depended on a database that was in error on its “innocence” claims because they redefined “innocent” in a manner as if they had redefined lie as truth.

      detailed here:

      The 4.1% “Innocent” on Death Row: More Nonsense

  12. Peter:

    Bessette is trying to set the record straight within this debate.

    The only reason deterrence is denied is that anti death penalty folks don’t want to be thought of as bllod thirsty, of saving murderers lives at the expense of causing more innocent murders.

    It is a major part of the debate, as well as reflecting on the constant innacuracies of anti death penalty bishops and priests.

    It’s important to lay out the facts, in public policy and religious discussion.

  13. Spiritual death Catholic Anathema is a better option to physical death capital punishment. Anathema only kills the guilty and is reversible. But the best part about Anathema, is it can proactively seek out the guilty party and bring them to justice. Example: Simply have the Pope and Bishops auto-anathematize all child abusers, and Church leaders who help them avoid justice, who have not yet confessed their crimes to civil prosecuting attorneys and judges. Now if child molesters want to go to heaven, they themselves have to show the courts where the bodies are buried and tell the judges and juries how the crime took place.

    In Matthew 18, Jesus tells His Apostles that if the hand, foot or eye, of the body of His Church, is its downfall, cut it off and throw it into hell. Jesus is Commanding His Church to use Catholic Anathema to protect His Church.

    The Blessed Mother of Fatima tells us that Michael the Archangel will bring with Him a ‘Transparency of Actions’. The Blessed Mother says that their is very little crime in the ‘Golden Era for mankind which is to come’. I am sure Jesus will enforce His Laws, with and through His Church, in His Kingdom Come, using Catholic Anathema.

    In passing this sentence, the pontiff is vested in amice, stole, and a violet cope, wearing his mitre, and assisted by twelve priests clad in their surplices and holding lighted candles. He takes his seat in front of the altar or in some other suitable place, amid pronounces the formula of anathema which ends with these words: Wherefore in the name of God the All-powerful, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, of the Blessed Peter, Prince of the Apostles, and of all the saints, in virtue of the power which has been given us of binding and loosing in Heaven and on earth, we deprive N– himself and all his accomplices and all his abettors of the Communion of the Body and Blood of our Lord, we separate him from the society of all Christians, we exclude him from the bosom of our Holy Mother the Church in Heaven and on earth, we declare him excommunicated and anathematized and we judge him condemned to eternal fire with Satan and his angels and all the reprobate , so long as he will not burst the fetters of the demon, do penance and satisfy the Church; we deliver him to Satan to mortify his body, that his soul may be saved on the day of judgment.”…
    …He who dares to despise our decision, let him be stricken with anathema maranatha, i.e. may he be damned at the coming of the Lord, may he have his place with Judas Iscariot, he and his companions.

    Matthew 18:5
    “Whoever welcomes one such child for my sake welcomes me. On the other hand, it would be better for anyone who leads astray one of these little ones who believes in me, to be drown by a millstone around his neck, in the depths of the sea. What terrible things will come on the world through scandal! It is inevitable that scandal should occur. Nonetheless, woe to that man through whom scandal comes! If your hand or foot is your undoing, cut it off and throw it from you! Better to enter life maimed or crippled than be thrown with two hands or feet into endless fire. If your eye is your downfall, gouge it out and cast it from you! Better to enter life with one eye than be thrown with both into fiery Gehenna.

    Matthew 18:17
    “If he ignores them, refer it to the church . If he ignores even the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. I assure you, whatever you declare bound on earth shall be held bound in heaven, and whatever you declare loosed on earth shall be held loosed in heaven.”

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