When the first version of this column was originally published in March, 2015, it was occasioned by comments made by Pope Francis to the effect that the Death Penalty is never justified. Since then, it has become necessary to revise and update it, due to additional comments on the topic from the pope. Of particular note, these appeared in his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (83), which states: “the Church not only feels the urgency to assert the right to a natural death, without aggressive treatment and euthanasia”, but likewise “firmly rejects the death penalty”.
This statement, which moved the pope’s position from the realm of personal opinion and into a document some perceive to be a part of his personal magisterium, was addressed by an eminent group of theologians as a potential heresy here [see A). 1).]. For illustrative purposes, here’s a screenshot the section in question:
The citations in the above make clear that the established teaching of the Church on the matter come from both the Scriptures and the Magisterium. And yet, in an address given today, October 11, 2017, marking the 25th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the pope has taken his position even further, saying the Catechism needs to be revised to reflect the understanding that capital punishment “is, in itself, contrary to the Gospel, because a decision is voluntarily made to suppress a human life, which is always sacred in the eyes of the Creator and of whom, in the last analysis, only God can be the true judge and guarantor”. [emphasis added]
The teaching of the Church on the permissibly of capital punishment, however, is taken from Divine Revelation; it is, in other words, infallible, and not subject to such changes – even by a pope. As the late Jesuit theologian Fr. John Hardon explained:
In the 20th century, Pope Pius XII provided a full doctrinal defense of capital punishment. Speaking to Catholic jurists, he explained what the Church teaches about the authority of the State to punish crimes, even with the death penalty.
The Church holds that there are two reasons for inflicting punishment, namely “medicinal” and “vindictive.” The medicinal purpose is to prevent the criminal from repeating his crime and to protect society from his criminal behavior. The vindictive is to expiate for the wrong-doing perpetrated by the criminal. Thus, reparation is made to an offended God, and the disorder caused by the crime is expiated.
Equally important is the Pope’s insistence that capital punishment is morally defensible in every age and culture of Christianity. Why? Because the Church’s teaching on “the coercive power of legitimate human authority” is based on “the sources of revelation and traditional doctrine.” It is wrong, therefore, “to say that these sources only contain ideas which are conditioned by historical circumstances.” On the contrary, they have “a general and abiding validity” (Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 1955, pp. 81-2).
Behind this declaration of the Vicar of Christ is a principle of our Catholic faith. Most of the Church’s teaching, especially in the moral order, is infallible doctrine because it belongs to what we call her ordinary universal magisterium. There are certain moral norms that have always and everywhere been held by the successors of the Apostles in communion with the Bishop of Rome. Although never formally defined, they are irreversibly binding on the followers of Christ until the end of the world.
Such moral truths are the grave sinfulness of contraception and direct abortion. Such, too, is the imposition of the death penalty. Certainly Christianity, like Christ, is to be merciful. Certainly Christians are to be kind and forgiving. But Christ is God. He is indeed loving and in fact is love. But He is also just. As a just God, He has a right to authorize civil authority to inflict capital punishment.
What the Church Actually Teaches About Capital Punishment
The Church’s stance on capital punishment has always been more than merely permissive; the idea, for example, that “rendering harmless” those criminals deserving of capital punishment is sufficient to eradicate the need for such a sentence is simply not consistent with the teachings of Holy Scripture, the understanding of popes, doctors of the Church, and various apostolic pronouncements.
Whatever the present pope’s desire, therefore, to eradicate capital punishment, he can’t — because even a pope lacks the authority to make such a change. In order to advance his position, Pope Francis would have to declare several of his predecessors — as well as St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Thomas More (who prosecuted heretics in an England where that was a capital offense), a papal decree, an apostolic constitution, and also divinely-inspired Sacred Scriptures — to be in error.
We’ll begin with the Scriptures, leaving aside the more numerous examples that could be drawn from the Old Testament and focusing instead on passages taken from the New Testament:
- “If then I am a wrongdoer, and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death.” (Acts 25:11)
- “Let every soul be subject to higher powers. For there is no power but from God: and those that are ordained of God. Therefore, he that resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of God. And they that resist purchase to themselves damnation. For princes are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good: and thou shalt have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to thee, for good. But if thou do that which is evil, fear: for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is God’s minister: an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil” (Romans 13:1-4).
We must also examine papal and magisterial pronouncements:
- “It must be remembered that power was granted by God [to the magistrates], and to avenge crime by the sword was permitted. He who carries out this vengeance is God’s minister (Rm 13:1-4). Why should we condemn a practice that all hold to be permitted by God? We uphold, therefore, what has been observed until now, in order not to alter the discipline and so that we may not appear to act contrary to God’s authority.” (Pope Innocent 1, Epist. 6, C. 3. 8, ad Exsuperium, Episcopum Tolosanum, 20 February 405, PL 20,495)
- Condemned as an error: “That heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit.” – Pope Leo X, Exsurge Domine (1520)
- “The power of life and death is permitted to certain civil magistrates because theirs is the responsibility under law to punish the guilty and protect the innocent. Far from being guilty of breaking this commandment [Thy shall not kill], such an execution of justice is precisely an act of obedience to it. For the purpose of the law is to protect and foster human life. This purpose is fulfilled when the legitimate authority of the State is exercised by taking the guilty lives of those who have taken innocent lives. In the Psalms we find a vindication of this right: “Morning by morning I will destroy all the wicked in the land, cutting off all evildoers from the city of the Lord” (Ps. 101:8). (Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent, 1566, Part III, 5, n. 4)
- “Even in the case of the death penalty the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. Rather public authority limits itself to depriving the offender of the good of life in expiation for his guilt, after he, through his crime, deprived himself of his own right to life.” (Pope Pius XII, Address to the First International Congress of Histopathology of the Nervous System, 14 September 1952, XIV, 328)
- “The same divine authority that forbids the killing of a human being establishes certain exceptions, as when God authorizes killing by a general law or when He gives an explicit commission to an individual for a limited time. The agent who executes the killing does not commit homicide; he is an instrument as is the sword with which he cuts. Therefore, it is in no way contrary to the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ to wage war at God’s bidding, or for the representatives of public authority to put criminals to death, according to the law, that is, the will of the most just reason.” – (St. Augustine, The City of God, Book 1, chapter 21)
- It is written: “Wizards thou shalt not suffer to live” (Ex. 22:18); and: “In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land” (Ps. 100:8). …Every part is directed to the whole, as imperfect to perfect, wherefore every part exists naturally for the sake of the whole. For this reason we see that if the health of the whole human body demands the excision of a member, because it became putrid or infectious to the other members, it would be both praiseworthy and healthful to have it cut away. Now every individual person is related to the entire society as a part to the whole. Therefore if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and healthful that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since “a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:6). – (St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae, II, II, q. 64, art. 2)
St. Thomas even proposes that accepting a death sentence has an expiatory nature:
“Even death inflicted as a punishment for crimes takes away the whole punishment for those crimes in the next life, or at least part of that punishment, according to the quantities of guilt, resignation, and contrition; but a natural death does not.” (Summa Theologica, Index, under the word mors [Turin, 1926]; As cited by Romano Amerio in Iota Unum, p. 435)
In his apostolic constitution, Horrendum illud scelus, Pope St. Pius V even went so far as to decree that actively homosexual clerics were to be stripped of their office and handed over to the civil authorities, who at that time held sodomy as a capital offense. He wrote: “We determine that clerics guilty of this execrable crime are to be quite gravely punished, so that whoever does not abhor the ruination of the soul, the avenging secular sword of civil laws will certainly deter.”
For some of us, these teachings could be construed, to borrow words from the New Testament, as “hard sayings.” But as Catholics, we are obligated to wrestle with these teachings – especially the ones we don’t understand or find ourselves interiorly opposed to.
The above citations alone should be sufficient to prove that the death penalty has always been viewed by the Church as more than simply morally permissible in certain circumstances. The traditional view was that, when carried out justly, the execution of criminals deserving of such penalties by the legitimate authority of the state positively served the common good and even had the power to expiate temporal punishment on the part of the guilty.
Cardinal Ratzinger, before his election to the papacy, admitted that Catholics had room to disagree on this issue. He stated, as pertains to the question of capital punishment and the worthiness of an individual who supports it to receive Holy Communion:
Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. 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.
Prudential Considerations and Evangelium Vitae
Some will argue that the the Church’s moral position on capital punishment has evolved. As an irreformable truth on a matter of faith and morals, this is, of course, categorically false. Still, it is not difficult to understand how the faithful might come under this impression from a reading of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Evangelium Vitae:
Among the signs of hope we should also count the spread, at many levels of public opinion, of a new sensitivity ever more opposed to war as an instrument for the resolution of conflicts between peoples, and increasingly oriented to finding effective but “non-violent” means to counter the armed aggressor. In the same perspective there is evidence of a growing public opposition to the death penalty, even when such a penalty is seen as a kind of “legitimate defence” on the part of society. Modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform.
This is the context in which to place the problem of the death penalty. On this matter there is a growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely. The problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God’s plan for man and society. The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is “to redress the disorder caused by the offence”. Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfils the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people’s safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behaviour and be rehabilitated.
It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.
If one pays close attention to the language in the above citation, one does not see a reversal of the Church’s moral teaching on capital punishment, or an untenable accusation that it is “contrary to the Gospel,” but rather a questioning of its prudence in application.
This is an important distinction.
There are certainly contexts in which a state — particularly considering that most modern states are secular, and refuse recourse to the moral guidance of the Church — might make use of capital punishment unjustly. For an obvious example, one need only look to the Communist regimes still operating in the world today, where minor offenses — some not even criminal in nature — result in summary executions.
Since the moral permissibility of the death penalty is not a teaching which can be overturned, such discussions of prudence in application leave room, as then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, for debate and disagreement. Setting aside the obvious injustices committed under ideological regimes that do not value human life, we are at liberty to ask whether some of the assumptions of Evangelium Vitae are realistic. For example, EV asserts that criminals are rendered “harmless” by “steady improvements in the…penal system”, and yet the epidemic of modern prison violence — assault, rape, and murder — cast serious doubt upon this premise. Comprehensive statistics on prison homicides in America are difficult to come by, since they are broken down by federal and state jurisdictions. Moving the focus to the dehumanizing crime of prison rape, however, we see a vastly different and more horrifying picture. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that somewhere between 86,000 and 200,000 cases of sexual assault happen in American prisons every year.
This does not seem indicative of the “steady improvements in the organization of the penal system” that Pope John Paul II spoke about when declaring the need for executions “practically non-existent.”
Another common argument against the death penalty follows from EV’s assertion that “Modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform.” This argument typically takes the form of a statement along these lines: “If criminals are executed, what chance do they have to repent and convert? The longer we keep them alive, the more opportunities there are for God’s grace to reach them.”
St. Thomas Aquinas, however, addressed this claim specifically. He wrote:
“The fact that the evil ones, as long as they live, can be corrected from their errors does not prohibit that they may be justly executed, for the danger which threatens from their way of life is greater and more certain than the good which may be expected from their improvement.
They also have at that critical point of death the opportunity to be converted to God through repentance. And if they are so obstinate that even at the point of death their heart does not draw back from malice, it is possible to make a quite probable judgment that they would never come away from evil.” – (Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, chapter 146)
These examples suffice to demonstrate that there are real prudential aspects to the application of the death penalty that should be evaluated by competent civil and ecclesiastical authorities. The Church certainly never demanded that the death penalty always be carried out in certain cases. The decision was relegated to legitimate civil authority. This, too, was affirmed by no less than our Divine Savior Himself, who said to Pontius Pilate — knowing full well he was about to be sentenced to an unjust death — “Thou shouldst not have any power against me, unless it were given thee from above.” (Jn. 19:11)
Christ didn’t say that what Pilate was doing was just in that given circumstance. But he did affirm that the authority rested with him to do it.
It is demonstrably false that capital punishment is morally impermissible or in any way contrary to the Gospel. This is confirmed by both the Scriptures and the perennial magisterium of the Church. Any pope who wishes to overturn this teaching quite simply lacks the authority to do so and must be opposed.