Catholic Church and capital punishment

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The teaching of the Catholic Church categorizes capital punishment as a form of "lawful slaying", a view defended by theological authorities such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.[1] Augustine felt that the death penalty was a means of deterring the wicked and protecting the innocent.[2] In the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas reaffirmed this position. (See also Aquinas on the death penalty).

More recently, Pope John Paul II appealed for a consensus to end the death penalty on the ground that it was "both cruel and unnecessary."[3][4]


According to St. Augustine:

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 (from The City of God, Book 1, Chapter 21)


The following is a summary of Summa Contra Gentiles, Book 3, Chapter 146 which was written by Aquinas prior to writing the Summa Theologica. St. Thomas was a vocal supporter of the death penalty. This was based on the theory (found in natural moral law), that the state has not only the right, but the duty to protect its citizens from enemies, both from within, and without.

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.


Aquinas acknowledged these passages could also be interpreted as meaning there should be no use of the death penalty if there was a chance of injuring the innocent. The prohibition "Thou shall not kill", was superseded by Exodus 22,18: "Wrongdoers you shall not suffer to live." The argument that evildoers should be allowed to live in the hope that they might be redeemed was rejected by Aquinas as frivolous. If they would not repent in the face of death, it was unreasonable to assume they would ever repent. "How many people are we to allow to be murdered while waiting for the repentance of the wrongdoer?", he asked, rhetorically. Using the death penalty for revenge, or retribution is a violation of natural moral law.

The Church teaches that the commandment is "Thou shalt not murder", which permits the death penalty by the civil authority as the administrator of justice in a human society in accordance with the Natural Law.

Pope John Paul II advocated incarceration in lieu of the death penalty whenever possible.

Pope Francis has stated that he is against the death penalty.[6]

Church teaching[edit]

The Church’s teaching is that punishments, including the death penalty, may be levied for four reasons:[2]

  1. 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.
  2. Defense against the criminal - Capital punishment is an effective way of preventing the wrongdoer from committing future crimes and protecting society from him.
  3. Deterrence - Executions may create a sense of horror that would prevent others from being tempted to commit similar crimes.
  4. 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.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the death penalty is permissible in certain cases if the "guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined". As to defense against the criminal, the Church teaches that if there are other means available to defend people from the "unjust aggressor", these means are preferred to the death penalty because they are considered to be more respectful of the dignity of the person and in keeping with the common good.[7](2267) Because today's society makes possible effective means for preventing crime without execution, the Catechism - quoting Pope John Paul II wrote that "the cases in which execution of the offender is an absolute necessity 'are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.'"[7]

On March 25, 1995, Pope John Paul II affirmed the church's stance towards capital punishment in his 1995 encyclical titled Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life).[8]

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."[3][9] He said that criminal offenders should be offered "an incentive and help to change his or her behaviour and be rehabilitated"[10] Pope Francis advocated that "capital sentences be commuted to a lesser punishment that allows for time and incentives for the reform of the offender."[11]

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops states 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."[12]


  1. ^ "CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Capital Punishment (Death Penalty)". 1 June 1911. Retrieved 23 August 2010. 
  2. ^ a b Dulles, Avery Cardinal. "Catholicism & Capital Punishment". Retrieved 2014-06-27. 
  3. ^ a b Suris, Paul J. "Church Teaching and the Death Penalty". Retrieved 2009-05-05. 
  4. ^ "Catholicism & Capital Punishment". Catholic Education Resource Center. 
  5. ^ Latin source [1]
  6. ^ Bordoni, Linda (2014-10-23). "Pope: no to death penalty and to inhuman prison conditions". Radio Vatican. Retrieved 2015-02-12. 
  7. ^ a b Paragraph number 2258–2330 (1994). "Catechism of the Catholic Church". Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Retrieved 27 December 2008. 
  8. ^
  9. ^ "Catholicism & Capital Punishment". Catholic Education Resource Center. 
  10. ^ "The Death Penalty Pro and Con - The Pope's Statement". PBS. 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. 
  11. ^ "Papal Message Reaffirms Call to Abolish Death Penalty". National Catholic Register. 19 June 2013. 
  12. ^ "CATHOLIC CAMPAIGN TO END THE USE OF THE DEATH PENALTY" (PDF). United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.