Religion and capital punishment
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Major world religions take varied positions on the morality of capital punishment. Religions are often based on a body of teachings, such as the Old Testament and the Qur'an, which contain many cases of criminals being executed.
Christian tradition from the New Testament have come to a range of conclusions about the permissibility and social value of capital punishment. While some hold that a strict reading of certain texts forbids executions, others point to various verses of the New Testament which seem to endorse the death penalty's use. Many read the Passion narratives in the Gospels as a condemnation of capital punishment because of the execution of Jesus, whom Christians regard as innocent and an example of executing the innocent.
Roman Catholic Church
Historically and traditionally, the Church has classed capital punishment as a form of "lawful slaying", a view defended by theological authorities such as Thomas Aquinas. (See also Aquinas on the death penalty). At various times in the past, the Church has held that, in certain cases, a legal system may be justified in levying a death sentence, such as in cases where the sentence may deter crime, may protect society from potential future acts of violence by an offender, may bring retribution for an offender's wrongful acts, and may even help the offender to move closer to reconciliation with God in the face of death. The 1566 Roman Catechism states this teaching thus:
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 are the legitimate avengers 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.
This teaching was evident in the writings both of Pope Innocent I and Pope Innocent III, with the latter stating that "the secular power can without mortal sin carry out a sentence of death, provided it proceeds in imposing the penalty not from hatred but with judgment, not carelessly but with due solicitude." More recently, the 1911 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia suggested that Catholics should hold 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."
In an address given on September 14, 1952, Pope Pius XII made clear that the Church does not regard the execution of criminals as a violation by the State of the universal right to life, arguing that:
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.
In recent times, however, the Catholic Church has generally moved away from any explicit condoning or approval of the death penalty and has instead increasingly adopted a more disapproving stance on the issue, with many modern Church figures such as Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops having actively discouraged the death penalty or having advocated for the out-right abolition of the death penalty. For example, in his 1995 Evangelium Vitae, 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 organisation of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent." The most recent edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church restates this view, and further states that:
Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
However, that the assessment of the contemporary situation advanced by John Paul II is not binding on the faithful was confirmed by Cardinal Ratzinger when he wrote in 2004 that,
if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father (i.e., the Pope) 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.
Some Catholic writers, such as the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin of Chicago, have 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." Other Catholic writers, such as Joseph Sobran and Matt Abbott, have criticised this approach, contending that it minimises the issue of abortion by placing it on the same level as the death penalty – the latter of which the Church does not consider intrinsically immoral.
In 2015, Pope Francis stated in an address to the International Commission against the Death Penalty that: "Today the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed." Francis argued that the death penalty is no longer justified by a society's need to defend itself and has lost all legitimacy due to the possibility of judicial error. He further stated that capital punishment is an offense "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."  In the address, Francis further explained:
In certain circumstances, when hostilities are underway, a measured reaction is necessary in order to prevent the aggressor from causing harm, and the need to neutralize the aggressor may result in his elimination; it is a case of legitimate defence (cf. Evangelium Vitae, n. 55). Nevertheless, the prerequisites of legitimate personal defence are not applicable in the social sphere without the risk of distortion. In fact, when the death penalty is applied, people are killed not for current acts of aggression, but for offences committed in the past. Moreover, it is applied to people whose capacity to cause harm is not current, but has already been neutralized, and who are deprived of their freedom. [...]
For a constitutional State the death penalty represents a failure, because it obliges the State to kill in the name of justice [...] Justice is never reached by killing a human being. [...] The death penalty loses all legitimacy due to the defective selectivity of the criminal justice system and in the face of the possibility of judicial error. Human justice is imperfect, and the failure to recognize its fallibility can transform it into a source of injustice. With the application of capital punishment, the person sentenced is denied the possibility to make amends or to repent of the harm done; the possibility of confession, with which man expresses his inner conversion; and of contrition, the means of repentance and atonement, in order to reach the encounter with the merciful and healing love of God. Furthermore, capital punishment is a frequent practice to which totalitarian regimes and fanatical groups resort, for the extermination of political dissidents, minorities, and every individual labelled as “dangerous” or who might be perceived as a threat to their power or to the attainment of their objectives. As in the first centuries and also in the current one, the Church suffers from the application of this penalty to her new martyrs.The death penalty is contrary to the meaning of humanitas and to divine mercy, which must be models for human justice. It entails cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, as is the anguish before the moment of execution and the terrible suspense between the issuing of the sentence and the execution of the penalty, a form of “torture” which, in the name of correct procedure, tends to last many years, and which oftentimes leads to illness and insanity on death row.
Shortly prior to Francis's address, the Vatican had 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 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.
Despite recent Church statements, the Catholic Church still officially holds, as per the most recent 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, that the death penalty may be employed where public authority cannot find any other way to contain a dangerous person.
Various Orthodox churches have issued statements opposing capital punishment, including the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Church in America, the Greek Orthodox Church, and the Georgian Orthodox Church.
Anglican and Episcopalian
Article 37 of the Thirty-Nine Articles states that
The Laws of the Realm may punish Christian men with death, for heinous and grievous offences.
The Lambeth Conference of Anglican and Episcopalian bishops condemned the death penalty in 1988:
This Conference: ... 3. Urges the Church to speak out against: ... (b) all governments who practise capital punishment, and encourages them to find alternative ways of sentencing offenders so that the divine dignity of every human being is respected and yet justice is pursued;....
Before that date, Anglican Bishops in the House of Lords had tended to vote in favour of the retention of capital punishment.
The Southern Baptist Convention
In 2000 the Southern Baptist Convention updated Baptist Faith and Message. In it the convention officially sanctioned the use of capital punishment by the State. It said that it is the duty of the state to execute those guilty of murder and that God established capital punishment in the Noahic Covenant (Genesis 9:6).
Several key leaders early in the Protestant Reformation, including Martin Luther and John Calvin, followed the traditional reasoning in favour of capital punishment, and the Lutheran Church's Augsburg Confession explicitly defended it. Some Protestant groups have cited Genesis 9:5–6, Romans 13:3–4, and Leviticus 20:1–27 as the basis for permitting the death penalty. Furthermore, some verses can be cited where Jesus seems to be a legalist by advocating respect for religious and civil laws: Matthew 5:17-22, 22:17-21 (the famous phrase ″Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's″, separating religion and civil law) and John 8:10-11.
Mennonites, Church of the Brethren and Friends have opposed the death penalty since their founding, and continue to be strongly opposed to it today. These groups, along with other Christians opposed to capital punishment, have cited Christ's Sermon on the Mount (transcribed in Matthew Chapter 5–7) and Sermon on the Plain (transcribed in Luke 6:17–49). In both sermons, Christ tells his followers to turn the other cheek and to love their enemies, which these groups believe mandates nonviolence, including opposition to the death penalty.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) presently takes no position on capital punishment. There are statements from church officials on blood atonement. This belief held that the blood of Jesus' Atonement could not remit certain serious sins, and that the only way a Mormon sinner could pay for committing such sins would be to have his own blood spilled on the ground as an atonement. This doctrine was never held by the church or practised by clergy in their official capacity. The doctrine has no relation as to the reason why, until recently, Utah gave convicts sentenced to death a choice to be executed by firing squad rather than other methods such as lethal injection. On the night before the execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner, who chose to die by firing squad for this reason, the LDS Church released a statement that it did not support blood atonement of individuals as a doctrine of salvation.
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- Everyone fears punishment; everyone fears death, just as you do. Therefore do not kill or cause to kill. Everyone fears punishment; everyone loves life, as you do. Therefore do not kill or cause to kill.
Chapter 26, the final chapter of the Dhammapada, states, "Him I call a brahmin who has put aside weapons and renounced violence toward all creatures. He neither kills nor helps others to kill." These sentences are interpreted by many Buddhists (especially in the modern humanistic west) as an injunction against supporting any legal measure which might lead to the death penalty. However, as is often the case with the interpretation of scripture, there is dispute on this matter. Historically, most states where the official religion is Buddhism have imposed capital punishment for some offences. One notable exception is the abolition of the death penalty by the Emperor Saga of Japan in 818. This lasted until 1165, although in private manors executions continued to be conducted as a form of retaliation. Japan still imposes the death penalty, although some recent justice ministers have refused to sign death warrants, citing their Buddhist beliefs as their reason. Other Buddhist-majority states vary in their policy. For example, Bhutan has abolished the death penalty, but Thailand still retains it, although Buddhism is the official religion in both.
The Buddhist concept of lethal self-defence is subtly non-linear and based on the criterion of prevention of greater suffering. The Bodhicaryavatara of Shantideva (8th century AD), authorises violence if it is necessary to prevent suffering: "One should always strive for the benefit of others. Even that which has been prohibited has been permitted for the compassionate one who foresees benefit"; "May I be a protector for those who do not have protectors"; and "If the suffering of many disappears because of the suffering of one, then a compassionate person should induce that suffering for the sake of others." Upaya-kaushalya sutra (Skillful Means) tells the story of a Bodhisattva who saved hundreds of people by killing a murderous thief. Other Mahayana scriptures explain that such a defensive killing prevents the murderer from bringing more bad karma on himself, and creates good karma for the defender, providing that the defender acts in the spirit of compassion. This is known in Japanese Buddhist tradition as issatsu tasho, "killing one (aggressor) in order that many (innocents) may live" and is a manifestation of "skillful means". In mystical Zen Buddhism (as reflected in Japanese Bushido), there is a traditional expression: "the sword that (justly) kills is the identical with the sword that gives life".
Therefore, few (if any) Buddhist groups issue blanket decrees against Buddhists being soldiers, police officers, or farmers (which in Buddhism is classified as a profession involved in destruction of life), and some argue that the death penalty is permissible if it is used for preventative purposes. In general, Buddhist groups in secular countries such as Japan, Korea, and Taiwan tend to take an anti-death penalty stance, while in Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan, where Buddhism has strong political influence, the opposite is true. Almost all Buddhist groups, however, oppose the use of the death penalty as a means of retribution.
A basis can be found in Hindu teachings both for permitting and forbidding the death penalty. Hinduism preaches ahimsa (or ahinsa, non-violence), but also teaches that the soul cannot be killed and death is limited only to the physical body. The soul is reborn into another body upon death (until Moksha), akin to a human changing clothes. The religious, civil and criminal law of Hindus is encoded in the Dharmaśāstras and the Arthashastra. The Dharmasastras describe many crimes and their punishments and calls for the death penalty in several instances, including murder, and righteous warfare.
The official teachings of Judaism approve the death penalty in principle but the standard of proof required for application of death penalty is extremely stringent, and in practice, it has been abolished by various Talmudic decisions, making the situations in which a death sentence could be passed effectively impossible and hypothetical. "Forty years before the destruction" of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, i.e. in 30 CE, the Sanhedrin effectively abolished capital punishment, making it a hypothetical upper limit on the severity of punishment, fitting in finality for God alone to use, not fallible humans.
While allowing for the death penalty in some hypothetical circumstances, scholars of Judaism are broadly opposed to the death penalty as practised in the modern world. The Jewish understanding of Biblical law is not based on a literal reading of the Bible, but rather through the lens of Judaism's oral law. These oral laws were first recorded around 200 CE in the Mishnah and later around 600 CE in the Babylonian Talmud. The laws make it clear that the death penalty was used only rarely. The Mishnah states:
- A Sanhedrin that puts a man to death once in seven years is called destructive. Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says: a Sanhedrin that puts a man to death even once in seventy years. Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Tarfon say: Had we been in the Sanhedrin none would ever have been put to death. Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel says: they would have multiplied shedders of blood in Israel. (Mishnah, Makkot 1:10).
Rabbinic tradition describes a detailed system of checks and balances to prevent the execution of an innocent person. These rules are so restrictive as to effectively legislate the penalty out of existence. The law requires that:
- There must have been two witnesses to the crime, and these must conform to a prescribed list of criteria. For example, females and close relatives of the criminal are precluded from being witnesses according to Biblical law, while full-time gamblers are precluded as a matter of rabbinical law.
- The witnesses must have verbally warned the person seconds before the act that they were liable for the death penalty
- The person must then have verbally acknowledged that he or she was warned and that the warning would be disregarded, and then have gone ahead and committed the sin.
- No individual was allowed to testify against him or herself.
The 12th-century Jewish legal scholar Maimonides famously stated that "It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death." Maimonides argued that executing a defendant on anything less than absolute certainty would lead to a slippery slope of decreasing burdens of proof, until we would be convicting merely "according to the judge's caprice." Maimonides was concerned about the need for the law to guard itself in public perceptions, to preserve its majesty and retain the people's respect. On the other hand, he allowed for the possibility of imposing capital punishment on circumstantial evidence alone when warranted
Today the State of Israel only uses the death penalty for extraordinary crimes, and only two people have ever been executed in Israel's history. The only civil execution ever to take place in Israel was of convicted Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in 1962. The other execution was of Meir Tobianski, an army major court-martialled and convicted of treason during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and posthumously exonerated. However, Israeli employment of the death penalty has little to do with Jewish law.
In Orthodox Judaism it is held that in theory the death penalty is a correct and just punishment for some crimes. However, in practice the application of such a punishment can only be carried out by humans whose system of justice is nearly perfect, a situation which has not existed for some time.
Orthodox Rabbi Yosef Edelstein writes
- "So, at least theoretically, the Torah can be said to be pro-capital punishment. It is not morally wrong, in absolute terms, to put a murderer to death ...However, things look rather different when we turn our attention to the practical realisation of this seemingly harsh legislation. You may be aware that it was exceedingly difficult, in practice, to carry out the death penalty in Jewish society ...I think it's clear that with regard to Jewish jurisprudence, the capital punishment outlined by the Written and Oral Torah, and as carried out by the greatest Sages from among our people (who were paragons of humility and humanity and not just scholarship, needless to say), did not remotely resemble the death penalty in modern America (or Texas). In theory, capital punishment is kosher; it's morally right, in the Torah's eyes. But we have seen that there was great concern—expressed both in the legislation of the Torah, and in the sentiments of some of our great Sages—regarding its practical implementation. It was carried out in ancient Israel, but only with great difficulty. Once in seven years; not 135 in five and a half." (Rabbi Yosef Edelstein, Director of the Savannah Kollel)
Orthodox Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan writes:
- "In practice, however, these punishments were almost never invoked, and existed mainly as a deterrent and to indicate the seriousness of the sins for which they were prescribed. The rules of evidence and other safeguards that the Torah provides to protect the accused made it all but impossible to actually invoke these penalties...the system of judicial punishments could become brutal and barbaric unless administered in an atmosphere of the highest morality and piety. When these standards declined among the Jewish people, the Sanhedrin...voluntarily abolished this system of penalties" (Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan in Handbook of Jewish Thought, Volume II, pp. 170–71).
On the other hand, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, in a letter to then New York Governor Hugh Carey states: "One who murders because the prohibition to kill is meaningless to him and he is especially cruel, and so too when murderers and evil people proliferate they [the courts] would [should?] judge [capital punishment] to repair the issue [and] to prevent murder – for this [action of the court] saves the state."
- "The Talmud ruled out the admissibility of circumstantial evidence in cases which involved a capital crime. Two witnesses were required to testify that they saw the action with their own eyes. A man could not be found guilty of a capital crime through his own confession or through the testimony of immediate members of his family. The rabbis demanded a condition of cool premeditation in the act of crime before they would sanction the death penalty; the specific test on which they insisted was that the criminal be warned prior to the crime, and that the criminal indicate by responding to the warning, that he is fully aware of his deed, but that he is determined to go through with it. In effect this did away with the application of the death penalty. The rabbis were aware of this, and they declared openly that they found capital punishment repugnant to them... There is another reason which argues for the abolition of capital punishment. It is the fact of human fallibility. Too often we learn of people who were convicted of crimes and only later are new facts uncovered by which their innocence is established. The doors of the jail can be opened, in such cases we can partially undo the injustice. But the dead cannot be brought back to life again. We regard all forms of capital punishment as barbaric and obsolete..."
Summary of denominational positions in Europe and North America
|Affirm capital punishment||No clear/official position||Oppose capital punishment|
|American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese||Assemblies of God||African Methodist Episcopal Church|
- E.g. Romans 12:19.
- e.g. Acts 25:11 (though this could more properly be seen in St. Paul's declaration that the Christian should submit to the secular government and laws rather than approving of capital punishment).
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- Wallace & Wallace, "Introduction to Santideva", A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life.
- Jeffrey L. Richey, Zen, Premodern, in ENCYCLOPEDIA OF RELIGION AND WAR, at 465.
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- Moses Maimonides, The Commandments, Neg. Comm. 290, at 269–271 (Charles B. Chavel trans., 1967).
- Guide to the Perplexed pt. 3 ch. 40.
- Responsa Iggerot Moshe, Choshen Mishpat v. 2 responsum 68.
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