Capital punishment and the law of nations

While the increase in opposition to the death penalty in modern society does indeed reflect a moral revolution, it is precisely a revolution away from the Catholic understanding of human dignity, not a deeper appreciation of it.

Pope Francis meets with a delegation from the International Commission Against the Death Penalty in the papal library of the apostolic palace Dec. 17, 2018. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

What is the nature of Pope Francis’s 2018 change to the Catechism’s teaching on capital punishment?  Does it amount to a reversal of traditional teaching?  A development of doctrine that is consistent with that teaching?  A prudential judgment?  And if the latter, is assent to the new formulation binding on the faithful?  Barrett Turner offers an important analysis in his Nova et Vetera article “Pope Francis and the Death Penalty: A Conditional Advance of Justice in the Law of Nations.” Let’s take a look.

The text of the revision, at paragraph 2267 of the Catechism, reads as follows:

Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.

Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.

The crux of this passage is the statement that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” Turner identifies three basic ways to interpret this.

Three interpretations

The first would be to read it as teaching that capital punishment is intrinsically immoral. This would amount to an outright reversal of the traditional doctrine of the Church, and thus an endorsement of the position of “new natural law” theorists like Germain Grisez, John Finnis, and E. Christian Brugger, who have long argued for such a reversal. Turner rejects this interpretation. In a letter announcing the change to the Catechism, Cardinal Ladaria, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, stated that the revision was not in contradiction with prior Church teaching and instead reflected a change in historical circumstances. As Turner points out, he could not have said this if the revision had been intended as an endorsement of the view of Grisez, Finnis, and Brugger that past teaching was wrong and that the death penalty is intrinsically evil.

(It is worth noting that Finnis, despite his own view that capital punishment is intrinsically immoral, agreed that the revision did not change past teaching and was very critical of the reasoning behind it. In any event, as Joseph Bessette and I show in our book By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, the arguments of Grisez, Finnis, and Brugger fail, and their position cannot be reconciled with Catholic orthodoxy. Turner indicates that he agrees with us about this much.)

A second interpretation of the revision identified by Turner would be to regard it as an erroneous or at best imprecise prudential application of Catholic teaching. As Turner points out, this interpretation cannot be dismissed out of hand, because the revision falls into the category of non-definitive acts of the ordinary Magisterium. Moreover, if the revision is not intended to contradict past doctrinal principles and reflects instead a change in judgement about how to apply those principles to concrete circumstances, then this current judgement could, in the nature of the case, hardly be more definitive than the past judgments it replaces.

Toward the end of his essay, Turner identifies several respects in which Pope Francis’s teaching on this subject is indeed problematic. However, the bulk of the essay is devoted instead to exploring a third possible interpretation of the revision to the Catechism. On this interpretation, the revision, on the one hand, does not reflect any change in the fundamental doctrinal principles concerning capital punishment. It remains Catholic teaching that the state has the right in principle to execute offenders for sufficiently grave offenses.

But on the other hand, the revision is more than merely a prudential application of these fundamental principles to concrete contemporary circumstances. It is a prudential judgment of a deeper kind than that, one concerning what the Thomistic natural law tradition calls the ius gentium or “law of nations.”

The law of nations

The law of nations is a middle ground level of moral principles, coming in the between the fundamental and immutable principles of natural law on the one hand and the various local laws and customs of individual political communities on the other. Its function is to mediate the application of the former to the latter. Like local laws and customs, it is contingent and changeable. Unlike them, it has universal application, and a higher degree of durability even if it falls short of strict immutability. It is a kind of conventional wisdom about how best to apply the principles of natural law, and widely regarded as more or less settled even if not infallible.

Turner offers a few examples, including the practically universal agreement today that subjecting those defeated in a just war to servitude is not morally acceptable. Even if such servitude were theoretically justifiable as punishment of those guilty of unjust aggression, the moral downside of such a practice is so grave that it is better simply to rule it out as beyond the pale in a decent society. As Turner notes, a change in the law of nations (such as the change from permitting this kind of servitude to abolishing it once and for all) can reflect not merely a change in circumstances, but a deeper application of distinctively Christian moral principles.

Now, there is a further distinction to be drawn here, because as Turner also notes, there are, within the Thomistic natural law tradition, two ways that the ius gentium has been interpreted. On the first interpretation, the law of nations is concerned with entirely man-made principles that are practically indispensable for applying the natural law. The ius gentium is, on this view, essentially a matter of positive law rather than the discovery of anything strictly there in natural law itself. Turner associates this interpretation with thinkers like Francisco de Vitoria, Domingo de Soto, Melchior Cano, and Domingo Banez. On the second interpretation, the ius gentium goes a bit deeper than this, and involves the discovery of what justice strictly requires given certain civilizational conditions. Turner associates this interpretation with thinkers like Jacques Maritain and Yves Simon.

The basic idea here (as I understand it) is that on the second interpretation, the principles of the ius gentium are absolutely binding given certain conditions; whereas on the first interpretation, they are never absolutely binding but can nevertheless be, under certain conditions, binding for all practical purposes (and to such an extent that it is as if they were absolutely binding). Either way, as Turner points out, the ius gentium reflects a moral conventional wisdom that runs so deep that it can “feel” as binding as the natural law – even to educated people who know the difference, and certainly to the average person who does not.

Turner’s proposal, then, is that the revision to the Catechism reflects a prudential judgment about the law of nations, specifically. In particular, it reflects the judgment that, in light of both the adequacy of contemporary non-lethal means of protecting society and the higher demands of the Gospel as applied to the law, the principle that resort to capital punishment is never justifiable in practice ought now to be regarded as part of the ius gentium. Turner also indicates, though, that this is better understood in terms of the first interpretation of the ius gentium (i.e. the one associated with de Vitoria, de Soto, Cano, and Banez) rather than the second, stronger interpretation (i.e. the one associated with Maritain and Simon). For the latter interpretation might give the impression that the Magisterium was teaching grave error prior to the 2018 revision.

Still a flawed prudential judgment?

As Turner notes, though this interpretation attributes to the revision a deeper alteration to the Church’s teaching than most prudential judgments involve, it still amounts to a kind of prudential judgment, and a non-definitive one that is arguably problematic in several respects. All the same, it is, in his view, the most plausible understanding of what the revision intends –namely, something less radical than a doctrinal reversal or development, but more radical than other prudential judgments tend to be.

As an interpretation of the pope’s and the CDF’s intentions, Turner’s view seems to me interesting and plausible. And it may be the only plausible way to read the statement that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” in a manner that rescues it from the charge of doctrinal error. For the appeal to “the inviolability and dignity of the person” gives the impression that the problem with capital punishment goes beyond mere contemporary circumstances – and thus involves some intrinsic evil. The ius gentium interpretation opens the door to a middle ground reading, on which the problem does go beyond contemporary circumstances but nevertheless does not entail intrinsic evil.

But even if this is indeed the Catechism’s position, it doesn’t follow that that position is well-founded or unproblematic. And in fact it is neither. Turner himself notes several problems with it. One of them is that the assumption that capital punishment is absolutely never needed today for the protection of society is undefended and open to serious objections. Turner notes, for example, that without the deterrent effect of capital punishment, some prisoners are threats to the lives of fellow prisoners and of prison guards. In a recent article, I discussed other ways in which the total abolition of capital punishment threatens innocent lives. In that case, though, incorporation of such an abolition into the ius gentium could hardly facilitate a more just society.

A second problem noted by Turner is that Pope Francis’s frequently reiterated position that life sentences should be abolished partially undermines the rationale for the Catechism’s revision. For the claim that capital punishment is unnecessary today for the protection of society rests on the idea that locking the most dangerous offenders up indefinitely provides an alternative way to incapacitate them. (As I have argued elsewhere, there are also other serious problems with this particular teaching of the pope.)

A third problem identified by Turner concerns the revised Catechism’s appeal to “a new understanding… of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state.” It is not clear exactly what is meant by this. Is the claim that retributive justice is no longer among the considerations to be weighed when deciding what punishments are suitable? Turner notes that this would contradict the traditional teaching of the Church – and as Joe Bessette and I show in our book, the teaching that retributive justice is among the purposes of punishment is also irreformable.

It is worth adding that Pope Pius XII, who taught more systematically and at much greater length about the topic of punishment and criminal justice than any other pope, explicitly addressed the view that modern times call for a new understanding of punishment that deemphasizes retribution and emphasizes instead the protection of society and rehabilitation. And he explicitly rejected this position as contrary to Scripture and the traditional teaching of the Church. (See pp. 128-34 of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed, which quotes extensively from the relevant documents.)

If the revision of the Catechism is taking the opposite view, we would have a contradiction between Pius XII’s teaching and Francis’s teaching. But Pius XII’s teaching is very clear, is expounded and defended in detail, and is firmly grounded in Scripture and Tradition. But Francis’s teaching on the purposes of punishment – if indeed that teaching is meant entirely to abandon retributive justice in favor of rehabilitation and the protection of society (which is not obvious) – is not clearly expressed, is merely asserted rather than supported with arguments, and is difficult to reconcile with Scripture and Tradition.

These problems, which Turner himself acknowledges, are serious enough. But there are yet other grave problems with the view that the ius gentium should now be understood as absolutely ruling out the death penalty in practice. The revision to the Catechism says that “today… there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person” rules out such a penalty. But is contemporary opposition to capital punishment in fact generally motivated by an increased awareness of human dignity? Does it reflect moral common ground between the Catholic faith and the secular world?

Some of the most influential contemporary Catholic opponents of capital punishment themselves acknowledge that that is the opposite of the truth. For example, Finnis warns:

We should be under no illusions: the organs of the European Council, the United Nations, and the European Union, unconcerned to exclude from human society all intent to kill, and disdainful of God’s lordship over life and death, are devoted to the opaque language of dignity. They deploy it constantly, bureaucratically, to promote their rejection of capital punishment but equally their indulgence towards euthanasia, suicide, and the many forms of anti-marital sex, and the radically unjust promotion of gender fluidity and same-sex parodies of marriage. And the educational institutions and programs they promote are nearly unanimous in denying or ignoring the justice of retribution, with its attention to the continuing and often justly decisive relevance of past deeds to present entitlement and conduct, attention and relevance essential to the truth of the Christian faith.

Similarly, Cardinal Avery Dulles, who supported the abolition of the death penalty, acknowledged that most opposition to capital punishment today reflects, not deeper moral insight but a move away from Christian morality:

Many governments in Europe and elsewhere have eliminated the death penalty in the twentieth century, often against the protests of religious believers. While this change may be viewed as moral progress, it is probably due, in part, to the evaporation of the sense of sin, guilt, and retributive justice, all of which are essential to biblical religion and Catholic faith. The abolition of the death penalty in formerly Christian countries may owe more to secular humanism than to deeper penetration into the gospel.

Arguments from the progress of ethical consciousness have been used to promote a number of alleged human rights that the Catholic Church consistently rejects in the name of Scripture and tradition. The magisterium appeals to these authorities as grounds for repudiating divorce, abortion, homosexual relations, and the ordination of women to the priesthood. If the Church feels herself bound by Scripture and tradition in these other areas, it seems inconsistent for Catholics to proclaim a “moral revolution” on the issue of capital punishment.

Nor is the connection between opposition to capital punishment and hostility to Catholic morality a recent phenomenon. As Brugger acknowledges, when the modern movement to abolish capital punishment got started among European intellectuals two centuries ago, it was closely associated with various doctrines at odds with Catholicism, such as utilitarianism and skepticism about the afterlife. Hence, he writes:

The early organized public efforts to eliminate (or limit, with a view to eliminating) capital punishment, at least for ordinary or “lesser” crimes, were almost exclusively secular phenomena. Early spokesman for the cause include Montesquieu, Voltaire, Robespierre, and Diderot in France, Hume and Bentham in Britain, and Fichte in Germany – all harsh critics of the Catholic Church and its orthodox teaching… [The] social movement to abolish capital punishment… became associated in the minds of many Catholic thinkers with opposition to orthodox belief and to the Church. (Capital Punishment and Roman Catholic Moral Tradition, pp. 130-31)

In short, while the increase in opposition to the death penalty in modern society does indeed reflect a moral revolution, it is precisely a revolution away from the Catholic understanding of human dignity, not a deeper appreciation of it.

Now, the revision to the Catechism offers three justifications for the change: (a) “an increasing awareness [of] the dignity of the person,” (b) “a new understanding… of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state,” and (c) “more effective systems of detention… which ensure the due protection of citizens” without recourse to capital punishment. But as we have just seen, all three of these are seriously problematic.

And there is yet another serious problem with the revision. Again, the statement that “the death penalty… is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” seems, considered in isolation, to be saying that capital punishment is intrinsically evil. To be sure, it need not be read that way, and there are good arguments for not reading it that way. But it takes theological learning and analytical skill to see that. To the average person, the statement seems to be lumping capital punishment in with abortion, euthanasia, and murder in general. Much of the other recent rhetoric of popes and bishops has the same effect. And while popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI at least occasionally qualified these statements by explicitly acknowledging that capital punishment is not intrinsically evil, Francis does not do so. Indeed, he and other bishops have ignored pleas for clarification.

The problem with this is that the Church now thus appears to many people to be contradicting the teaching of Scripture and of her own past Magisterium. For orthodox believers, this can cause a crisis of faith. Meanwhile, heterodox Catholics are emboldened, hopeful that a change in teaching on capital punishment will open the way to changes to other traditional teachings. Again, the revision does not actually have the implications that orthodox believers fear and that the heterodox welcome. But Catholics should not have to have special theological expertise in order to see this. For a magisterial document to require such expertise in order to see its continuity with Scripture and Tradition is thus a serious defect.

As I have discussed in detail elsewhere, the CDF instruction Donum Veritatis and the Tradition of the Church acknowledge that non-definitive acts of the Magisterium can sometimes be defective in this way, and may, accordingly, be met with respectful criticism. I submit that the revision to the Catechism provides as clear an example as there has ever been of a case where the norms of Donum Veritatis apply.

A binding prudential judgment?

There is one further question to address. Again, Turner takes the revision to amount to a non-definitive prudential judgement, and acknowledges that it is problematic. Now, some prudential judgments require only respectful consideration by the faithful, but neither assent nor obedience. Cardinal Ratzinger, acting as head of CDF, stated in a 2004 memorandum that papal opposition to capital punishment was an example of such a prudential judgment. But as Cardinal Dulles noted in his book Magisterium: Teacher and Guardian of the Faith, there can also be prudential judgments which “require external conformity in behavior, [even if they] do not demand internal assent” (p. 94). He gives as an example past Vatican instructions to theologians concerning which methods of biblical exegesis were permissible. Some such restrictions, says Dulles, were excessive and later relaxed. But though some theologians even at the time may have had good reasons for disagreeing with the restrictions, they were nevertheless obligated to abide by them in their published work. (For a detailed treatment of the different kinds of magisterial statement and their levels of binding force, see pp. 144-57 of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed.)

Now, some might argue that even if the revision to the Catechism is flawed, and even if Catholics are permitted respectfully to raise criticisms of it, it nevertheless requires “external conformity in behavior” (to borrow Dulles’s phrase). In particular, it might be claimed that the permission to support the actual use of capital punishment that Cardinal Ratzinger affirmed in the 2004 memo has now been rescinded. Hence, it might be argued, every Catholic public official must now work to implement a policy of abolition of capital punishment, even if he is at liberty to think this policy mistaken.

It seems this might be Turner’s view, though this is unclear. He notes that the precepts of the ius gentium, though they lack the absolutely binding character of the precepts of natural law, are nevertheless “existentially indistinguishable from the precepts of the natural law to the common person in any given age” (p. 1047). That is to say, in practice they are generally perceived as having the force of natural law, even if strictly speaking they do not. And Turner later goes on to say that with respect to the abolition of capital punishment, the pope “is within his office to make such a prudential judgment and to enshrine that judgment in the Catechism as existentially binding” (p. 1049). This characterization of the revision as “existentially binding” seems to imply that Catholics are obligated to conform their behavior to it even if they may raise legitimate questions about it – though again, Turner does not say this in so many words.

In any event, there is a serious problem with this interpretation, which I spelled out in a recent article. The Catechism, in line with the traditional teaching of the Church, states that war can be justifiable when necessary to protect citizens against violent aggression. But it also states that the responsibility for making a prudential judgment about when the criteria for just war are actually met lies with public authorities. The reason is that it is public authorities (and not churchmen) who have the duty under natural law to protect citizens, and it is public authorities (and not churchmen) who have the relevant expertise concerning how best to do this.

Now, when addressing capital punishment, the Catechism – both in the versions promulgated by Pope St. John Paul II and in Pope Francis’s revision – states that whether the death penalty is ever justifiable depends on whether it is necessary in order to protect society. The difference is that John Paul thought it was only rarely necessary, and Francis thinks it is never necessary. But, as in the case of war, it is public authorities (and not churchmen) who have the duty to protect citizens from violent aggressors, and public authorities (and not churchmen) who have the relevant expertise. Hence, in the nature of the case, it is hard to see how the Church could make a binding prudential judgment where resort to capital punishment is concerned, any more than she could make a binding prudential judgment where the application of just war principles is concerned. In the one case as in the other, to do so would be to usurp the responsibility that the natural law puts on public authorities, not on the Church.

An attempt to bind public authorities to abolishing capital punishment thus smacks of a kind of clericalism – in particular, of an interference of the Church with the legitimate functions of the state, which the Church has otherwise been moving away from in the period since Vatican II. The Church no longer calls upon the assistance of the state to safeguard people’s souls (since, it is said, the state has no competence in that area). What sense does it make, then, for the Church to interfere with the state’s right to protect people’s bodies (where, the Church says, the state does have competence)?

Furthermore, the revision to the Catechism has been presented as just an extension of what John Paul II already taught and of his reasons for teaching it (such as the adequacy of non-lethal means of protecting society and a better understanding of human dignity). The difference, again, is just that John Paul thought the death penalty was rarely if ever needed and Francis thinks that it never is. But as Ratzinger’s 2004 memo makes clear, John Paul II’s teaching was not of such a nature that Catholics were obligated to behave in accordance with it. So, how can Francis’s teaching, which differs from John Paul’s in degree but not in kind, impose any stricter obligation?

For these reasons, then, it seems to me that the claim that Catholics are obligated to show the revision “external conformity in behavior” is theologically problematic. All the same, this is, of course, not my call to make. Like the other difficulties I’ve described, it is ultimately a matter for the Magisterium of the Church to clarify. I suspect we will have to wait for a future pontificate before that happens.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Dr. Edward Feser 41 Articles
Edward Feser is the author of several books on philosophy and morality, including All One in Christ: A Catholic Critique of Racism and Critical Race Theory (Ignatius Press, August 2022), and Five Proofs of the Existence of God and is co-author of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, both also published by Ignatius Press.


  1. Goodness.
    I oppose the death penalty because the State is corrupt.
    The Beloved One accepted the Death penalty because He assumed all the sins of mankind.
    The Beloved One did not rescue the good thief from the death penalty but said instead “today you will be with Me in Paradise.”.
    The PF point of view would release psychopathic killers as Charlie Manson into society again. This is plainly insane.
    An impending execution doubtless intensifies the mind to consider the consequences in afterlife and the stimulation to repentance may be significant in some cases but we see many go to their deaths unrepentant as the other thief was.
    So perhaps a lifetime confinement with access only to religious books and films and counseling might be a better course of not only punishment but maybe even redemption. But then the prisoners must be restrained from killing and it seems only physical isolation could accomplish that. With the massive number of imprisoned murderers it seems impossible.
    Does PF believe the wages of sin is Death… does he acknowledge the authority of the Author of Life?
    The Catechism is not dogma is it? It strives to explain and in some instances is wanting.

  2. The same elites that accept the murder of the unborn via abortion in the womb (sometimes even out of the womb), the killing of the infirm and elderly via euthanasia, and the mutilation of children via trans-surgery, somehow finds capital punishment abhorrent.

    Forgive me if the opinions of said people do not carry much weight with me.

    • Some of us find all of those things abhorrent. Abhorrent but not equal. Execution at least in theory rids a society of someone dangerous. And in very rare instances it may be the only solution available to defend society.
      But if we don’t trust our govt to tax us fairly, operate our schools effectively, or provide healthcare why would we put them in control of life & death? Or leave it up to the govt. to define who is actually a threat to society?
      Treason used to be, & in some places remains, a capital offense. I have ancestors who were arrested for treason & insurrection in the 1800’s. One was sentenced to hang. Thankfully he escaped prison & my other ancestor was pardoned or I wouldn’t be here today.
      We had confused conspiracy-theory-followers carry on inside the US Capitol a few years ago-(which last time I checked was a public building)- & they’ve been accused of treason & insurrection too.
      Often the only difference between a death sentence & life in prison is the financial ability to retain decent legal counsel. Or like my ancestor-make a successful break for it. I don’t think that’s what Christians should be supporting nor should we give the govt that much power.

  3. I have grown weary of various authors turning themselves inside out to explain or defend some of the pretty indefensible statements of Pope Francis. Four semesters of undergraduate Catholic theology and five semesters of essentially Thomistic philosophy clued me up pretty substantially many years ago. That is not to say that I don’t appreciate this article. Perhaps I will return to it in a better frame of mind and with more patience, but for now I find myself in the position in which a lot of better Catholics than I must find themselves. I am just tired.

  4. “As Turner points out, he could not have said this if the revision had been intended as an endorsement of the view of Grisez, Finnis, and Brugger that past teaching was wrong and that the death penalty is intrinsically evil.”

    Perhaps I am wrong on this, but it is my understanding (through my discussions with Joseph Boyle years ago) that Grisez and Boyle were opposed to the death penalty, but Finnis argued that the death penalty is “in principle” morally justifiable (see The Fundamentals of Ethics). Boyle and Finnis were at odds on this issue. Also, it is my understanding that Grisez and Boyle argue that for the Church to reject the death penalty would not amount to a reversal of Church teaching, but a development, because unlike the Church’s teaching against contraception, the Church has not really definitively taught that capital punishment is morally okay.

    Unless something had changed during the years I last saw Joe Boyle and his death, I think you might have this part of your case wrong.

  5. Capital punishment is found in many legal systems both ancient and modern. Is there anything specifically Catholic in the death penalty?

  6. … Francis isn’t correct in this matter and doesn’t speak for the Catholic Church. The death penalty should be used much more than it currently is. Obstinate heresy/irreligion (especially propagation of the same), murder, treason, and debasing currency are four sins for which the death penalty is a very good punishment.

  7. Cardinal Avery Dulles, as quoted above:

    “The abolition of the death penalty in formerly Christian countries may owe more to secular humanism than to deeper penetration into the gospel.”

    Hmh. It seems as if the same thing could be said of the rest of Bergoglio’s positions, opinions, ramblings and speculations.

    Thank you, Dr. Feser for your cogent and systematic dismantling of this problematic Bergoglian diktat. I’ve been waiting for this for a long time.

  8. Take away all these argument and your left with a harsh truth: the death penalty is often used on people who turn out to be innocent. If you don’t believe me check out the website of the Innocence Project. The police and the state are not perfect. They make mistakes. I’m not saying we should coddle criminals. But a life sentence is not a vacation. And at least if new evidence comes out the person can be set free. Not so when they’re six feet under.

    • Unfortunately, the greater majority of folks behind bars have long rap sheets. It’s not their first rodeo & even if they’re 100% innocent of a particular offense they were sentenced for, they’re guilty of a host of other crimes they were never caught at. Or that they had plea bargained down to a lesser offense. And when I talk to people in correctional facilities, they’ll privately admit that.
      That said, I’m no supporter of the death penalty. I don’t think it has any place in a Christian society with perhaps the very smallest window left open in the event it’s the only means of self-defense against a dangerous killer.
      As I commented above, beyond the question of innocence, financial means can make the difference between a conviction resulting in the death penalty or one resulting in life imprisonment. That’s not real justice.

  9. As a novice in this matter of capital punishment, yours truly notices that the Pope Francis’ amendment remains silent on retribution. Retribution is retained elsewhere in the Catechism and is not rescinded (not inadmissible?). Yes? Usually, silence means continuity.

    So, two side comments, without resolution:

    FIRST, Dulles and Benedict (Ratzinger) both are mentioned. In earlier writings and when asked, both of them commented on St. John Paul II’s attention to capital punishment (The Gospel of Life).

    Cardinal Ratzinger: “Clearly the Holy Father has not altered the doctrinal principles…but has simply deepened (their) application…in the context of present-day historical circumstances” (National Review, July 10, 1995, p. 14; First Things, Oct. 1995, 83). In a July 2004 letter to former-Cardinal McCarrick—a letter intended for all of the bishops but which came to light only when later leaked to the press—he wrote: “Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia….There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”

    Cardinal Avery Dulles concluded that traditional teachings on “retributive justice” and “vindication of the moral order” are not reversed by John Paul II’s strong ‘prudential judgment’ regarding the use of capital punishment. The pope simply remained silent on these teachings. (“Seven Reasons America Shouldn’t Execute,” National Catholic Register, 3-24-02). See also CCC 2266, 2267, 2271, 2277.

    SECOND, we notice that in The Gospel of Life, St. John Paul II immediately followed his prudential judgment on capital punishment (n. 56) with a message about abortion—surely intended for the European Union (EU) whose members all allow abortion, while already prohibiting capital punishment as a condition of EU membership:

    With n. 56 positioned (and intended?) as a segue: “If such great care must be taken to respect every life, even that of criminals and unjust aggressors, the commandment ‘You shall not kill’ has absolute value when it refers to the INNOCENT PERSON. And all the more so in the case of weak and defenseless human beings [….]” (n. 57).

  10. Also, allow me one more comment, and excuse my simplicity, but if Pope Francis is wrong on this (and it seems he’s said quite a bit that is rather questionable), would it not follow that in principle Pius XII is also possibly wrong on this? Of course, contradictories cannot be true at one and the same time–that’s not my point.

  11. God did not proscribe capital punishment. Instead He prescribed it as a deterrent for murder. We are created in His image and we are to do no murder.

    Numbers 35:31 Moreover, you shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death, but he shall be put to death.

    1 John 3:12 We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.

    John 8:44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

    A popes role is to interpret scripture, not to redefine it. Some query the value of an earthbound cultural Marxist!

    • Proud Heretic Brian Young:

      Who are you to set forth what a Pope’s role is? Moreover, who are you to set forth a false teaching in making your bogus declaration? Once again we see your malevolent efforts to undermine Catholic teaching in these comboxes.

      As good Catholics know, a Pope’s role is Rightly Not Limited to interpreting Scripture as presented only in legitimate bibles instead of the illegitimate one you use. In fact, anybody who relies only on Scripture does not follow Jesus as demanded by Jesus. This applies to you and your fellow Protestants, yet you keep pushing the heresy of sola scriptura in many of your comments in this Catholic website that completely and correctly rejects the irrational sola scriptura.

      Next, some query the value of you as a committed and proud Protestant frequently criticizing Catholic doctrine in this Catholic website.

      To all good Catholics reading and/or participating in these comboxes: Always view any and all things that Brian Young writes by keeping in mind his ongoing efforts to undermine Catholic teaching. Don’t be fooled by his technique of being Mr. Nice Guy and saying some agreeable things. Always keep in mind his anti-Catholic ultimate agenda that even Carl Olson has recognized and commented a bit about.

      • That you misrepresent my perspective is nothing new. Jesus Christ has saved my soul through His work on the cross. You have been accorded respect despite our differing views and that is how it should be.

        Let us be considerate of one another in honour of what Christ has done for us.

        Galatians 5:22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,

        Colossians 3:12-17 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

        God bless you.

        • From the Catholic perspective DocVerit accurately positions your statements. You follow by then misrepresenting that – him – and then misrepresenting the clarity as “not being considerate” and add that it is “not as Christ would do to you”. It’s your own appeal to a type of audience, I think.

          These are simplistic errors that oughtn’t to be so hard to see and overcome.

          You want to announce Scripture in attractive terms but you’re making a mess of it -to put it mildly.

          Pride makes me shudder too, yes.

  12. Great Article. Yes, the current movements to abolish the death penalty largely flow from Secular Humanism. As Donoso Cortes observed, since the authority to execute criminals comes from God, when states lose faith in God, they begin to abolish the death penalty–because at some level they realize that they lack the authority to shed blood. However, when they move from mere doubt about God to full blown atheism, they begin to see themselves as God, and it is then that blood is shed on a massive scale–as in the case of, say, Maoist China.

  13. IIRC Pope Francis has made statements against life in prison as a remedy, so it makes it hard to take his anti-death penalty position seriously. Even self defense is under assault by left wing DAs who make the victim into the guilty party. Our legal system is becoming evermore incompetent in protecting public safety. Many big cities are becoming shooting galleries with the people on the streets being turned into clay pigeons. Crime has become an ad hoc form of reparations under the leftist ideology. The identity politics of the left promotes group think that allows individuals of favored groups to take a walk on personal responsibility and accountability for their actions. HAL 9000 comes to mind. He killed off almost the entire crew because his mission was too important to allow anyone to jeopardize it. Under current social circumstances the anti-death penalty position is rapidly losing creditability as big cities in particular are turning into criminal war zones under leftist leadership.

  14. Excellent article. I will list a few points that come to mind:

    In Pope John Paul II’s “The Gospel of Life” he states, “The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is ‘to redress the disorder caused by the offence.”(#56) (retribution). But, he then goes on to describe how we now have better means of protecting society, without addressing how imprisonment now redresses the disorder.

    The new reading now is that, “Today…there is an increasing awareness of the dignity of the person.” I believe that this is an assertion without a demonstration. We are still killing the unborn person in terrible numbers. The Catechism is for the world, not just the United States. There are quite a few countries with legal euthanasia, as well as several of our states with aid in dying laws. We have serial and mass murders. Don’t know that I see an increasing awareness of the dignity of the person.

    While the Pope has not used the word “immoral” that is not true of all the bishops. If they believe that, wouldn’t they have to admonish prosecutors, juries, judges, and those administering fatal drugs? Those that assist in any way with an abortion are also guilty.

    How many faithful Catholics who do believe that the death penalty can be appropriate in some cases now see themselves (incorrectly) as cafeteria Catholics?

    The Catechism of the Council of Trent (our official Catechism for over 400 years) states that far from being a violation of the fifth commandment, that capital punishment is an act of “paramount obedience” to the commandment. To say that it is now inadmissible can hardly be seen as a development of doctrine, when it is clearly a reversal of doctrine.

    As for those who say it was never defined dogma, nineteen hundred years of ordinary magisterial teaching constitutes more than opinion.

    Thanks to Dr. Edward Feser for all the clarifications he has given on this subject.

  15. So many of these people who think like PF oppose capital punishment because they don’t seriously value the innocents whose lives have been taken. To them, these lives are “gone”. It’s a typical “this-world” view.

    But how can anyone put faith in the justice of our monstrous legal system?

    It’s sad that Dr. Feser has to waste his time with the impossible task of logically explaining incoherence.

  16. Can we no longer believe the Bible?

    A stipulation: Our legal system has flaws when it comes to capital punishment. The Bible has not been updated to include the evidence of DNA, which still does not offer a conclusion in every case. Some more evidence might need corroboration along with the positive conclusion of DNA.

    Wikipedia: “The passage in Leviticus states, “And a man who injures his countryman – as he has done, so it shall be done to him [namely,] fracture under/for fracture, eye under/for eye, tooth under/for tooth. Just as another person has received injury from him, so it will be given to him.” (Lev. 24:19–21).” “The concept of capital punishment was established in Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.”

    Romans 13:4 specifically discusses the concept of government’s authority, mandating the instruction.”

    Some premeditated murders calling for capital punishment…

    Killing the innocent: The premeditated first degree mass murder of school children, (babies) and adults . No statute of limitations!

    Treason: The deliberate aid and comfort of a mortal enemy by disclosing critical documents that lead to a war to eliminate a democratic nation or society.

    TV or Social Media spewing lies and toxic programming causing the suicide of the mentally ill or impressionable children or adults.

    God guide us in our decision on capitol punishment.

  17. 3000 years ago the Jewish nation had rules governing capital punishment that seem a tad better than our current system. Let,s say someone struck his neighbor with his fist and caused him to die, 2 upstanding men in the community would have to have witnessed the murder for there to be a conviction. Now if the aggressor was executed and later found innocent the 2 witnesses that falsely testified would summarily be executed themselves. Now if you look at this system you can deduce that there had to have been very few people receiving the death penalty. There were 7 sanctuary cities for those accused of serious crimes and the accused were essentially put under a city wide arrest until there came enough evidence to essentially exonerate or convict a person . The last avenue for a final solution was that if the presiding judge dies the
    prisoner was let free. While not perfect this system seems a bit better than the no responsibility actions that are now in place. Did I get the Old Testament capital punishment system right?

    • Steve, I have actually been a juror on a murder trial. I could support capital punishment under one circumstance: If a prisoner is executed and it is later shown that the prisoner was, or could have been, within a reasonable doubt, innocent, then the prosecuting attorney and possibly the judge, maybe even the jury, shall immediately be declared guilty of murder and executed.

      No-one should be ready to take another’s man life unless he is willing to bet his own that he is right.

      And I find MrsCracker’s comment of (paraphrasing) ‘go ahead and kill them, they’re surely guilty of something’ to be absolutely abhorrent.

      • Wichita Knight,
        You totally misunderstood my comments & have misrepresented them. I in no way support capital punishment. But neither am I naive about the innocence of most folks behind bars.
        I’ve been a juror once & have had extensive experience running background checks. I also personally know & am in contact with incarcerated people. I pray for them, talk to them, offer them support, and wish none of them harm. But trust me, they’re behind bars for a reason & in many cases incarceration has saved their lives. Minus that they’d probably be victims of violence or overdoses by now. Prison gives them a chance to rehabilitate & reform- if they can take advantage of that. “If” being key.
        But for goodness sakes please don’t misrepresent that I want to kill anyone. That’s really unfair, incorrect, & not befitting. I’m a pretty vocal opponent of the death penalty.
        Thank you.

      • Will the God of all creation not do what is right? He is the God who brings down to death and raises to life.

        When one is found guilty of murder by his peers, the sentence should be carried out. If there has been a miscarriage of justice, God will address it.

        Romans 6:4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

        Jesus died for the sins of the world though he was innocent. God will fix all wrongs in the fullness of time.

      • This door swings both ways. You might want to read about what happened when Norman Mailer pushed for the parole of convicted killer Jack Abbot. Six weeks after his release on parole Abbot killed again. Killers can never make their victims whole. The victim gets a death sentence without the benefit of a court hearing. Murderers become the judge, jury, and executioner of their victims from which there is no appeals process.

        • Yup.
          Again, I don’t support capital punishment but people can be very naive about offenders and manipulated by them.

  18. Bishop Fulton Sheen warned a time coming when the church would become “a religion without a cross, a religion without a world to come.”

    Francis’ obsession with the death penalty and his continued proclamation of “human fraternity(Fratelli Tutti) and climate change… fits that narritive.

  19. Let’s see what the Creator of the universe says:
    “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” Genesis 9:6
    Seems pretty clear cut to the average Christian.

    • “Seems pretty clear cut to the average Christian.”
      Perhaps if one’s reading has been limited to the Old Testament. But thankfully that’s not the case for Christians.

  20. Perhaps the death penalty can be understood in context of murder and the justification to execute a determined murderer. Lucifer was eternally condemned for murderous intent in drawing others to disobey God.
    Pope Francis never proclaimed the death penalty to be intrinsically evil [inadmissible suggests admissible] . Although Finnis, Grisez and co argue it is intrinsically evil, it is rather that as both Benedict and Card Ladaria correctly interpret that the penalty was considered by Francis under changing conditions. The presumption drawn from this is that it is and was legal under Ius Gentium.
    Turner’s essay offers interesting possibilities, although I agree with Feser, “How can Francis’s teaching, which differs from John Paul’s in degree but not in kind, impose any stricter obligation?”.

  21. A most interesting discussion regarding a most serious topic. I cannot get past the reality that is, in essence, flippantly dismissed by pro-capital punishment defenders that if a mistake is made wherein an innocent person is wrongly executed, ‘such is indeed a tragedy, but oh well, God will sort it out and perhaps reward the person’ or whatever else they claim to excuse the wrongful execution of an innocent person. No matter how much they may protest to the contrary, there is a cruel callousness in the attitude which accepts that the most egregious of possible mistakes that destroys the life of an innocent person is acceptable.

    However, there is actually a solution that will always prevent the unjust execution of an innocent person, and it is this: Consider a death penalty to be simply life in prison for the rest of one’s life without any possibility of parole, save for exonerating evidence that may prove such a person deserving of parole or release. In short, what has been known as a Life Sentence becomes understood more accurately as a Death Sentence since it lasts until death. Moreover, nobody should appeal to potential costs involved in keeping a person in prison, because that is one of the arguments used by pro-death abortion advocates in pushing for abortion to save on costs involved in keeping a child alive. Also, some prisoners are already being kept alive with Life sentences, so if costs are to be considered, then perhaps Life sentences should end after let’s say 20 years, and then a “cost-savings” execution takes place. Rubbish.

    Of course the wisdom of Pope St. John Paul II can also be applied in those circumstances wherein a person in jail presents an ongoing danger to the life of others wherein execution is only acceptable if there is Absolutely no other way to protect the life of others.

    Lastly, minimum accommodations are provided to a person under a death sentence of life in jail until death, so this will keep a lid on costs for those who still believe, like many in favor of abortion, that costs should be a consideration as to whether or not somebody should be executed.

  22. This door swings both ways. You might want to read about what happened when Norman Mailer pushed for the parole of convicted killer Jack Abbot. Six weeks after his release on parole Abbot killed again. Killers can never make their victims whole. The victim gets a death sentence without the benefit of a court hearing. Murderers become the judge, jury, and executioner of their victims from which there is no appeals process.

      • Ive had a similar issue with duplicate comments on other sites. It’s annoying but I suppose if you say something worthwhile it’s not a bad thing to say it twice.

    • Greg B:

      If your comments are an attempt at addressing my proposed solution, you botched it. Note that I call for life in prison with no possibility of parole UNLESS evidence exonerates the person and therefore deserves to be released. The Norman Mailer example is pointless since it does not apply to my proposed solution.

  23. “The map is not the territory” – Alfred Korzybski.

    This is long and I am not a qualified philosopher. I think you’ll find it interesting!

    The quotation inserted in the new paragraph 2267 is from Pope Francis’ address to a group on the Promotion of the New Evangelization. It would seem he is saying that the idea is fit with and tailored to evangelization of today, which makes it “legitimate”.

    The quote says nothing about binding moral force and I haven’t read the full address; but just placing that quote into the Catechism without more, raises the question if such a thing is germane to the Catechism and has binding force. The new paragraph is styled to the Catechism: an introduction and an explanation and a conclusion – this “formulation discipline” does not “add moral weight” because it follows the particular rote of the particular Catechism.

    To me 2227, just as it is, is very slapdash/shoddy. It does not befit instruction.

    The address to the group would constitute the beginnings of trying to form out a following and movement for adding some weight of some kind. It would seem the Pope is using the opportunity as a Jesuit ordinarily might, to offer his own political opinion and aid in a chiseling out of a secular field or moment; but which he would be forbidden to do now as Pope.

    As Pope he is introducing, inter alia, the conflictedness of obligation.

    More. The new paragraph 2227 contradicts 2226 in general and also on the question of expiation. There is an attempt to reconcile the issues between the two paragraphs, in the alteration of the final sentence which now appears to limit punishment to a medicinal value only. Limiting punishment to a medicinal value is contrary to the full victory Christ won in the Redemption.

    Again, the opening sentence of 2226 reduces the questions to the curbing of behaviours and advancing basic rules of civil society. As if it can all be a done deal because such a thing can be Identified in our own minds.

    Thus, I see it as more problematic than Feser allows for now. His essay here though has more than I could have found on my own. I like Feser in general. And, one time, 2020, I had used an article about his book Until the End of Time, to reach out to a client. It didn’t work but it blunted the client’s enthusiasm! The Korzybski quote is from there.

    I am not surprised to hear about Finnis.

    Capital punishment has a wider application beyond sentencing of an offender in front a Court. It applies in the everyday action of police working in the line of defense when directly and imminently confronted with a deadly menace that can not be avoided. When the officer’s reaction causes death we call this appropriate use of force. It is not a juridical act per se but it remains reviewable juridically and the ratification is, actually, death penalty imposed by law. Death penalty has an inescapable “operational” dimension. Something similar holds for self-defense, I think.

    Some diligent officer might learn how to quickly injure his assailant without killing him. Maybe. That is a individual matter.

    That is an outline of one aspect in policing. This can be a delicate area in public life and law enforcement. Obviously there are situational contexts. If police are confronted with a holed-up shooter and no-one else is at risk they can besiege him until ammunition or energy is done without having to kill him. Nor do we necessarily want, on the other hand, for executive kill orders to flourish or that they get legitimized into everyday exercises, viz., espionage killing or police rage.

    Do we even know what was discussed at the New Evangelization meeting that was hosted for receiving Pope Francis’ opening points? What was “representative” there?

  24. I find this to be a very interesting issue from the point of view of the papacy. I have had no difficulty with the position that CP can be justified “in principle”. At this point in my life, however, I do lean towards the elimination of CP. I certainly believe in “life sentences”, and I can’t for the life of me understand why or how Pope Francis believes it is within his field of competence to pronounce on the issue of life sentences, as if issuing one is intrinsically immoral (from one angle, he’s quite an absolutist, a position he seems to reject in other areas). But let us assume for a moment that Pope Francis is right (Capital punishment is intrinsically evil). That raises some very interesting questions about the teaching of the ordinary magisterium and the papacy (Pius XII was wrong). If Pope Francis is wrong, that also raises some very interesting questions about the papacy, papal pronouncements, the fallibility of popes, what that implies for the faithful, etc. Either way, it is looking as if the time has arrived for us to discard a rhetoric of certainty and dogmatism. Things are far more tentative and far less certain than the “orthodox” Catholic tends to believe. Some issues are very easy and clear, but many are rather murky and are going to take a great deal of time to figure out.

  25. Saving someone from due sentence of capital punishment /death penalty, is a work of mercy. It is not a work of reform – natural law – and not one of changing doctrine -ecclesiology/moral theology.

    If your civil law structure does not have a mercy committee or equivalent channel, your secular arrangements can get a reform – there – to include it.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Capital punishment and the law of nations – Catholic World Report -
  2. Capital punishment and the law of nations - JP2 Catholic Radio

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.