Catholic Church and capital punishment
The position of the Catholic Church on capital punishment has varied throughout history, with the Church becoming significantly more critical of the practice since the mid-20th century. In 2018, the Catechism of the Catholic Church was revised to read that "in the light of the Gospel" the death penalty is "inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person" and that the Catholic Church "works with determination for its abolition worldwide."
The Church generally moved away from any explicit condoning or approval of capital punishment and adopted a disapproving stance on the issue by the mid-20th century. Modern Church figures such as Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have actively discouraged the imposition of the death penalty and advocated for its abolition. Since the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church became staunchly opposed to the death penalty in the vast majority of applications. During his papacy, John Paul II appealed for a consensus to end the death penalty on the ground that it was "both cruel and unnecessary".
Pope Innocent I (405)
Pope Innocent I in his letter Ad Exsuperium, Episcopum Tolosanum (PL 20, 495) defended the death penalty:
It must be remembered that power was granted by God, and to avenge crime the sword was permitted; he who carries out this vengeance is God's minister [Romans 13:1–4]. What motive have we for condemning 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.
Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
In the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas reaffirmed this position. The following is a summary of Summa Contra Gentiles, Book 3, Chapter 146 which was written by Aquinas prior to writing the Summa Theologica. In it, Thomas Aquinas supports death penalty.
For those who have been appropriately appointed, there is no sin in administering punishment. For those who refuse to obey God's laws, it is correct for society to rebuke them with civil and criminal sanctions. No one sins working for justice, within the law. Actions that are necessary to preserve the good of society are not inherently evil. The common good of the whole society is greater and better than the good of any particular person. "The life of certain pestiferous men is an impediment to the common good which is the concord of human society. Therefore, certain men must be removed by death from the society of men." This is likened to the physician who must amputate a diseased limb, or a cancer, for the good of the whole person. He based this on I Corinthians 5, 6: "You know that a little leaven corrupts the whole lump of dough?" and I Corinthians 5, 13: "Put away the evil one from among yourselves"; Romans 13:4: "[it is said of earthly power that] he bears not the sword in vain: for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that does evil"; I Peter 2:13–14: "Be subjected therefore to every human creature for God's sake: whether to be on the king as excelling, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of good." He believed these passages superseded the text of Exodus 20:13: "Thou shall not kill." This is mentioned again in Matthew 5:21. Also, it is argued that Matthew 13:30: "Suffer both the weeds and the wheat to grow until the harvest." The harvest was interpreted as meaning the end of the world. This is explained by Matthew 13,38–40.
Reformation period to modern era (1520–1900)
Exsurge Domine (1520)
During the Leipzig Debate prior to his excommunication, then-Catholic priest Martin Luther made commentary against the morality of burning heretics to death. His position was given by the 1520 papal bull Exsurge Domine as "[t]hat heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit"; as such, it was one of the statements specifically in the bull which the pope declared as "condemn[ed], disapprove[ed], and entirely reject[ed] as respectively heretical, or scandalous, or false, or offensive to pious ears, or seductive of simple minds, and in opposition to Catholic truth".
Roman Catechism (1566)
The Roman Catechism or "Catechism of the Council of Trent", in its section on the Fifth Commandment, teaches that civil authority, having power over life and death as "the legitimate avenger of crime", may commit "lawful slaying" as "an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder" by giving "security to life by repressing outrage and violence". It also states:
Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder. The end of the Commandment is the preservation and security of human life. Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing outrage and violence. Hence these words of David: In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land, that I might cut off all the workers of iniquity from the city of the Lord [Psalm 101:8].
Modern era (1900–2013)
Pope Pius X (1908)
The 1908 catechism of Pope Pius X teaches that the death penalty is lawful under the commandment thou shalt not kill:
It is lawful to kill when fighting in a just war; when carrying out by order of the Supreme Authority a sentence of death in punishment of a crime; and, finally, in cases of necessary and lawful defense of one's own life against an unjust aggressor.
Catholic Encyclopedia (1911)
The 1911 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia suggested that "the infliction of capital punishment is not contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church, and the power of the State to visit upon culprits the penalty of death derives much authority from revelation and from the writings of theologians", but that the matter of "the advisability of exercising that power is, of course, an affair to be determined upon other and various considerations". The 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia further states that:
Canon law has always forbidden clerics to shed human blood and therefore capital punishment has always been the work of the officials of the State and not of the Church. Even in the case of heresy, of which so much is made by non-Catholic controversialists, the functions of ecclesiastics were restricted invariably to ascertaining the fact of heresy. The punishment, whether capital or other, was both prescribed and inflicted by civil government.
Pope Pius XII (1952)
In an address given on 14 September 1952, Pope Pius XII made clear that the Church did not regard the execution of criminals as a violation by the State of the universal right to life. He argued:
When it is a question of the execution of a condemned man, the State does not dispose of the individual's right to life. In this case it is reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned person of the enjoyment of life in expiation of his crime when, by his crime, he has already disposed himself of his right to live.
Various opinions (1978–2001)
Some Catholic writers, such as Cardinal Joseph Bernadin of Chicago, argued against the use of the death penalty in modern times by drawing on a stance labelled the "consistent life ethic". Characteristic of this approach is an emphasis on the sanctity of human life, and the responsibility on both a personal and social level to protect and preserve life from "womb to tomb" (conception to natural death). This position draws on the conviction that God has "boundless love for every person, regardless of human merit or worthiness".
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops also advocated for the abolition of the death penalty. During the papacy of Pope John Paul II, the conference stated that "our fundamental respect for every human life and for God, who created each person in his image, requires that we choose not to end a human life in response to violent crimes if non-lethal options are available."
In contrast, theologian and cardinal Avery Dulles argued in a 2001 article that historical Church teaching and the then-contemporary Catholic magisterium do not advocate for the abolition of the death penalty and do not deny the right of the state to impose the death penalty in certain extreme cases. Dulles suggests that the commandment "Thou shalt not murder" permits the death penalty by a civil authority as the administrator of justice in a human society in accordance with the natural law. Dulles argues that the Church teaches that punishments, including the death penalty, may be levied for four reasons:
- Rehabilitation – The sentence of death can and sometimes does move the condemned person to repentance and conversion. The death penalty may be a way of achieving the criminal's reconciliation with God.
- Defense against the criminal – Capital punishment is an effective way of preventing the wrongdoer from committing future crimes and protecting society from him.
- Deterrence – Executions may create a sense of horror that would prevent others from being tempted to commit similar crimes.
- Retribution – Guilt calls for punishment. The graver the offense, the more severe the punishment ought to be. In Holy Scripture death is regarded as the appropriate punishment for serious transgressions. Thomas Aquinas held that sin calls for the deprivation of some good, such as, in serious cases, the good of temporal or even eternal life. The wrongdoer is placed in a position to expiate his evil deeds and escape punishment in the next life.
Pope John Paul II
1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church
The §2267 of the first edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992; first published in English in 1994) states:
If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
Evangelium vitae, 1997 Catechism
In his 1995 encyclical titled Evangelium vitae (The Gospel of Life), Pope John Paul II suggested that capital punishment should be avoided unless it is the only way to defend society from the offender in question, opining that punishment "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." The § 2267 of the second edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1997) was thus changed to:
The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.
If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
Today, in fact, given the means at the State's disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender 'today ... are very rare, if not practically non-existent' [Evangelium Vitae].
However, in 2004, Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) suggested that the 1995 assessment of the contemporary situation advanced by John Paul II was not necessarily binding on the Catholic faithful in regard to capital punishment; he wrote:
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.
In January 1999, Pope John Paul II, without changing Catholic teaching, appealed for a consensus to end the death penalty on the ground that it was "both cruel and unnecessary". He said that criminal offenders should be offered "an incentive and help to change his or her behaviour and be rehabilitated".
The 1997 update of the Catechism of the Catholic Church would remain in force until August 2018, when the Catechism was revised once again to take an even firmer stance against capital punishment and advocate for its complete abolition.
Pope Benedict XVI (2011)
In his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Africae Munus of November 2011, Benedict XVI called for the abolition of the death penalty:
Together with the Synod members, I draw the attention of society's leaders to the need to make every effort to eliminate the death penalty and to reform the penal system in a way that ensures respect for the prisoners' human dignity. Pastoral workers have the task of studying and recommending restorative justice as a means and a process for promoting reconciliation, justice and peace, and the return of victims and offenders to the community.
Later that month, Benedict XVI again proposed abolishing the death penalty:
I express my hope that your deliberations will encourage the political and legislative initiatives being promoted in a growing number of countries to eliminate the death penalty and to continue the substantive progress made in conforming penal law both to the human dignity of prisoners and the effective maintenance of public order.
Contemporary period (2014–present)
Pope Francis (2014)
Pope Francis has stated that he is against the death penalty. In 2013, Pope Francis advocated that "capital sentences be commuted to a lesser punishment that allows for time and incentives for the reform of the offender". In 2015, Pope Francis addressed the International Commission against the Death Penalty, stating that: "Today the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed." Francis argued that the death penalty is no longer justifiable by society's need to defend itself, and the death penalty has lost all legitimacy due to the possibility of judicial error. He stated that capital punishment is an offence "against the inviolability of life and the dignity of the human person, which contradicts God's plan for man and society" and "does not render justice to the victims, but rather fosters vengeance".
Vatican support for UN campaign against death penalty (2015)
The Vatican had also officially given support to a 2015 United Nations campaign against the death penalty. During a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting concerning the abolishment of capital punishment, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi declared that "The Holy See Delegation fully supports the efforts to abolish the use of the death penalty." The Archbishop also stated:
Considering the practical circumstances found in most States [...] it appears evident nowadays that means other than the death penalty 'are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons' [...] We should take into account that no clear positive effect of deterrence results from the application of the death penalty and that the irreversibility of this punishment does not allow for eventual corrections in the case of wrongful convictions.
Modification to the Catechism (2018)
On 1 August 2018, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sent a letter to the world's Catholic bishops to warn them about the coming change of the teaching on the death penalty in the Catechism. On 2 August 2018, it was announced that the Catechism of the Catholic Church was revised, through a papal rescript, to state that 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". The 1 August letter to the Bishops regarding the change stated that it was consistent with the previous teachings of the Catholic Church regarding the dignity of human life, and that it reflected how modern society had better prison systems with a goal of criminal rehabilitation that made the death penalty unnecessary for the protection of innocent people.
The new text reads:
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.
Fratelli tutti (2020)
In his 2020 encyclical Fratelli tutti, Pope Francis repeats that the death penalty is "inadmissible" and that "there can be no stepping back from this position". He adds that the Catholic Church is committed for the worldwide abolition of death penalty; he explains: "The firm rejection of the death penalty shows to what extent it is possible to recognize the inalienable dignity of every human being and to accept that he or she has a place in this universe."
On 9 January 2022, Pope Francis stated in his annual speech to Vatican ambassadors: "The death penalty cannot be employed for a purported state justice, since it does not constitute a deterrent nor render justice to victims, but only fuels the thirst for vengeance".
Objections to the current stance
Two weeks after the Catechism was changed, 45 Catholic scholars and clergy signed an appeal to the cardinals of the Catholic Church, calling on them to advise Pope Francis to retract the 2018 revision made to the Catechism, on the grounds that its appearance of contradicting scripture and traditional teaching is causing scandal.
Thomas Petri, dean of the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, considers that the 2018 change of the Catechism and Fratelli tutti which both declare the death penalty "inadmissible" means that the death penalty is, in fact, in itself admissible since the pope did not qualify death penalty as "intrinsically evil". He considers the change of stance is "a new understanding of punishment". He explains that historically the death penalty from a Catholic point of view is seen first as a mean of retribution, and secondly of rehabilitation of the criminal and of protection of society, but that John Paul II in Evangelium vitae declares that the protection of society was the first objective of death penalty.
In 2014, Pope Francis also proposed the abolition of life imprisonment, which he felt is just a variation of the death penalty. In 2019, he stated: "Life imprisonment is not the solution to problems, but a problem to be solved. Because if hope is locked up, there is no future for society. Never deprive anyone of the right to start over!". In 2020, in his encyclical Fratelli tutti, Francis called life imprisonment a "secret death penalty".
- Capital punishment in the Bible
- List of people executed in the Papal States
- Capital punishment in Vatican City
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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 fulfills 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.
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