Death Penalty: Avoiding Ambiguity in Doctrinal Matters

Singchair-234x300 Death Penalty: Avoiding Ambiguity in Doctrinal MattersIn recent developments, there has been a growing debate over the question of the death penalty. On the one side, the liberals are clamoring that taking the life of an offender is always immoral (though they don’t scruple to defend the “right” to destroy the innocent lives of the unborn). The other end of the spectrum is regrettably mixed, with some standing firmly in the doctrinal legitimacy of the death penalty and others solidly opposing it. To these latter, the question is not whether the criminal is guilty, but instead whether it is “Christian” for any authority to deliberately end the life of a criminal held in custody

Dangers of Abandoning the Teachings of Scripture and Tradition

Whatever position one takes regarding the application of the death penalty in this or that place or historical circumstances, one must take care not to shroud the clear principles of natural law and Revelation in ambiguity.

In a scholarly article from 2001, the late Avery Cardinal Dulles warned that if the Church abandoned the arguments from Scripture and Tradition that justify the death penalty, this would destroy their authority and could no longer be invoked as basis “for repudiating divorce, abortion, homosexual relations, and the ordination of women to the priesthood.” And he adds, “[i]f 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.” 1

The Old and the New Testament Accept the Death Penalty

“In the Old Testament the Mosaic Law specifies no less than thirty-six capital offenses calling for execution,” Avery Cardinal Dulles writes. And he says that “[t]he death penalty was considered especially fitting as a punishment for murder since in his covenant with Noah God had laid down the principle, ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in His own image'”; (Genesis 9:6).

The Cardinal highlights that “[i]n the New Testament the right of the State to put criminals to death seems to be taken for granted.” And that even if “Jesus himself refrains from using violence,” He did not “deny that the State has authority to exact capital punishment.” For instance, in His debates with the Pharisees, “Jesus cites with approval the apparently harsh commandment, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die’ (Matthew 15:4; Mark 7:10, referring to Exodus 2l:17; cf. Leviticus 20:9).”

When Pilate refers to his authority to crucify Him, “Jesus points out that Pilate’s power comes to him from above – that is to say, from God (John 19:11). Jesus commends the good thief on the cross next to him, who has admitted that he and his fellow thief are receiving the due reward of their deeds (Luke 23:41).”2

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The Constant Magisterium of the Church

The legitimacy of the death penalty imposed by competent authority after due process stems from Revelation and natural law. It has always been taught by the Magisterium of the Church and her theologians. The same Cardinal Dulles affirms:

“The Catholic magisterium does not, and never has, advocated unqualified abolition of the death penalty. I know of no official statement from popes or bishops, whether in the past or in the present, that denies the right of the State to execute offenders at least in certain extreme cases.”3

The profession of faith that Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) demanded from Valdese heretics who denied the legitimacy of the death penalty, contains this statement: “Concerning secular power we declare that without mortal sin it is possible to exercise a judgment of blood as long as one proceeds to bring punishment not in hatred but in judgment, not incautiously but advisedly.”4

Cardinal Ratzinger’s Letter to the American Bishops

In a letter to the American Bishops on denying Holy Communion to pro-abortion Catholic politicians, Cardinal Ratzinger, then Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, made it clear that the death penalty is legitimate and cannot be placed on the same footing as abortion or euthanasia. Says he:

“[I]f 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…[I]t 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.”5

Confusion About the Concept of Punitive Justice

Most objections to the death penalty arise because the punishment of a criminal is seen only as a means to stop him from committing another crime. If so, it would be sufficient to jail the criminal. In this view, the purpose of the punishment is to protect society or correct the malefactor.

That conception, disseminated by the Enlightenment philosophy, abandoned the expiatory aspect of punishment. In the text below, Pope Pius XII explains that the absence of this aspect makes it more difficult to understand Divine justice and the dogma of Hell. For, since in the next life the need for protection and the possibility of conversion are nonexistent, eternal punishment can be understood only as expiation for the evil committed, reparation to Divine Justice which is offended, and the triumph of good over evil.

Crime Violates the Juridical Order

But let Pope Pius XII himself explain these notions. Below are excerpts from his memorable speech at the Sixth Congress of International Penal Law, on October 3, 1953.6 It is one of the most complete and systematic explanations in a papal document about this matter:

“Penal law is a reaction of the juridical order against the delinquent; it presupposes that the delinquent is the cause of the violation of the juridical order…At the moment of the crime, the delinquent has before his eyes the ban imposed by juridical order: he is conscious of it and of the obligation it imposes; but, nevertheless, he decides against his conscience, and to carry out his decision commits the external crime. That is the outline of a culpable violation of the law.”

Modern Penal Theories are Incomplete
“Most modern theories of penal law explain punishment and justify it in the last resort as a protective measure, that is, a defense of the community against crimes being attempted; and, at the same time, as an effort to lead the culprit back to observance of the law. In these theories, punishment may indeed include sanctions in the form of a reduction of certain advantages guaranteed by the law, in order to teach the culprit to live honestly; but they fail to consider expiation of the crime committed, which itself is a sanction on the violation of the law as the most important function of the punishment…”

“Yet, from another point of view, and indeed a higher one, one may ask if the modern conception is fully adequate to explain punishment. The protection of the community against crimes and criminals must be ensured, but the final purpose of punishment must be sought on a higher plane.”

The Essence of Punishment: To Proclaim the Supremacy of Good Over Evil
“The essence of the culpable act is the freely-chosen opposition to a law recognized as binding, it is the rupture and deliberate violation of just order. Once done, it is impossible to recall. Nevertheless, insofar as it is possible to make satisfaction for the order violated, that should be done. For it is a fundamental demand of ‘justice,’ whose role in morality is to maintain the existing equilibrium, when it is just, and to restore the balance when upset. It demands that by punishment the person responsible be forcibly brought to order; and the fulfillment of this demand proclaims the absolute supremacy of good over evil; right triumphs sovereignly over wrong.”

“Now we take the last step; In the metaphysical order the punishment is a consequence of our dependence on the supreme Will, a dependence which is written indelibly on our created nature. If it be ever necessary to repress the revolt of a free being and re-establish the broken order, then it is surely here when the supreme Judge and His justice demand it. The victim of an injustice may freely renounce his claim to reparation, but as far as justice is concerned, such claim is always assured to him.”

The Need for Expiation, Protection of the Juridical Order
“The deeper understanding of punishment gives no less importance to the function of protection, stressed today, but it goes more to the heart of the matter. For it is concerned, not immediately with protecting the good ensured by the law, but the very law itself. There is nothing more necessary for the national or international community than respect for the majesty of the law, and the salutary thought that the law is also sacred and protected, so that whoever breaks it is punishable and will be punished.”

“These reflections help to a better appreciation of another age, which some regard as outmoded, which distinguished between medicinal punishment – paena medicinalis – and vindictive punishment – paena vindicativae. In vindictive punishment the function of expiation is to the fore: the function of protection is comprised in both types of punishment.”

Without the Notion of Expiation, One Does not Understand Divine Justice “Finally, it is the expiatory function which gives the key to the last Judgment of the Creator Himself, Who ‘renders to everyone according to his works’… (Matt. 16:27; Rom. 2:6). The function of protection disappears completely in the after-life. The almighty and all-knowing Creator can always prevent the repetition of a crime, by the interior moral conversion of the delinquent; but the Supreme Judge, in His last judgment, applies uniquely the principle of retribution. This, then must be of great importance.”
Does the Dignity of Man Oppose any Punishment?

Some argue that the death penalty is contrary to human dignity and that a criminal maintains his dignity in spite of his crimes, however horrendous they may have been.7 This argument, however, leads to confusion between the ontological order (human nature) and the moral order (conformity of human actions with right reason and Divine law). While man never loses the ontological dignity of his nature, he does lose his acquired (virtuous) moral dignity when he intentionally practices evil.8

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Furthermore, the argument of human dignity is not germane to the issue, because the object of justice is not human dignity, whether ontological or moral, but rather the voluntary acts of man in his relationships with others.9 No one is condemned to a just punishment because of dignity or the lack thereof, but rather for concrete actions practiced against the common good.

Sentiment and Sentimentality

We are in a time dominated by emotionalism. Emotion takes the place of reason and sentimentality that of true sentiment. Thus we must take care and discuss doctrinal problems in the realm of reason and not of emotion.

But even when one opposes capital punishment because of circumstantial reasons, one must not deny its legitimacy or condition it on the circumstances in such a way that it never can be put in practice. For then, principles would not guide real life, and one would fall into the error of pragmatism.


1. Avery Cardinal Dulles, Catholicism & Capital Punishment, (First Things, 112, April 2001:30-35), at, accessed 3/9/15.
2. Ibid. On the moral legitimacy of death penalty see, for example, Marcellinus Zalba, S.I., Theologiae Moralis Summa, (Madrid, 1957), v. II, nn. 173-176. Aertnys-Damen C.SS.R, Theologia Moralis, (Turin, 1950), v. I, n. 569; Antonio Peinador Navarro, C.M.F, Tratado de Moral Professional (Madrid, 1962), n. 169.
3. Ibid.
4. Denzinger n. 425.
5. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion. General Principles,” available at, accessed 3/9/15.
6. Vincent A. Yzermans, Ed. The Major Addresses of Pope Pius XII, (St. Paul, Minn.,The North Central Publishing Company 1961), Vol. I, pp. 224-257. For the Italian, see Discorsi e Radiomessagi di Sua Santità Pio XII, (Tipografia Poliglota, Vatican), v. XV, pp. 335-359. Subtitles ours.
7. “Can even the monstrous crimes of those who are condemned to death and are truly guilty of such crimes erase their sacred dignity as human beings and their intrinsic right to life? … [E]very member of human community shares a dignity that is not cancelled by defects of health or age or moral quality.” Bishop Blase J. Cupich, “How Unconditional Is the Right to Life?America, Jan. 29, 2007 , p. 15).
8. Cf. Ehtics & Medics, Redefining Human Dignity, at, accessed 3/9/15.
9. “[T]he proper matter of justice consists of those things that belong to our intercourse with other men … Hence the act of justice in relation to its proper matter and object is indicated in the words, ‘Rendering to each one his right'” (Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 58, a. 1).
  • Jerryb53

    “Thou shalt not kill” to me has no exceptions. If a murderer is executed he loses the chance to repent. Murderers can and do repent. God will be the judge when that murderer stands before him. Life in Prison without parole I think is worse than the death penalty. Society is well protected these days from such prisoners.

    • CommonSenseAlGuy

      No exceptions? What if someone is about to shoot and kill your wife and child? Can you not kill them in order to protect and defend your wife and child?

      • Jerryb53

        You know what I meant. I’m not talking about self defense. That is justified. Come on man stick with the script. John was talking about murderers who are in jail being executed. Self defense is another matter.

        • Edward Koestner

          It’s the self defense of a society. Just like one can kill in self defense, society can kill by death penalty.

          • Jerryb53

            Does Society trump God’s Law? Society is another way of saying man’s law.

          • Edward Koestner

            There’s no contradiction here between Divine Law, Natural Law and Positive Law.

          • Edward Koestner

            Positive laws are those that God or man enacts, set as precept and command obedience under threat of punishment. In the first case, we have Divine Positive Law (for instance, the Decalogue). In the second case, we have human positive law, which is made by human legislators.

            Human positive law must be based on natural law, and not on anyone’s whims, popular consensus or historical circumstances. When positive law is not based on natural law, it is not a true law. We are not obliged to obey it, and sometimes cannot obey it.

            When positive law is based on natural law, we are obliged to obey it.

          • Jerryb53

            How does the death penalty defend society. That’s just hogwash. When is the last time that a murderer in prison escaped. The last time was a few years back. The amount of escapes of murderers is minimal and not enough to claim that the death penalty protects society. What it is is revenge most of the time and not a means to protect society. Look at Charles Manson, society was protected and he was in for life.

          • Rosech Levy

            Edward, sometimes there are those who have lost contact with logic, as appears to have happened in this blog today.

        • CommonSenseAlGuy

          No, I didn’t know what you meant. The death penalty can be used for ‘self-defense’ of a society (as Edward noted). I don’t think it should be used when life in prison is an option, but if it’s not an option then the death penalty can be justified.

          • Jerryb53

            As I said to Edward..Society’s law is mans law and if we follow society’s law then we certainly not go through that narrow gate Jesus talked about.

          • Edward Koestner

            To avoid anarchy, God wants civil society with just laws. There is no contradiction between God and just civil laws. Otherwise, each person becomes the sole interpreter of God’s law and we plunge into anarchy.

          • Jerryb53

            That’s exactly what you are doing, interpreting God’s Law. By this “To avoid anarchy, God wants civil society with just laws.” How do you know this. God could care less about anarchy. I’m sure he didn’t have anarchy in mind when he wrote Thou Shalt not Kill. You are interpreting Thou shalt not kill into Thou Shalt not Kill according to your interpretation. The 10 Commandments were written in stone for a reason and that reason was that they could never be changed or interpreted aside from what was written and given to Moses. These are not able to be interpreted because God wrote them so no interpretation was needed. It is this and you will follow this according to how it is written.

    • mangdiego

      “Thou shalt not kill” with no exceptions? You must be kidding me. How are you going to protect yourself when you are being assaulted by a murderer? Just pinch him in the nose and he’ll go away right?

      • Jerryb53

        Read my comment below. You fail to get the premise of John’s column. He never talked about self defense. I was referring to his comment about someone incarcerated for murder. Self defense is another different animal altogether. GEEZ!

      • DIANE

        The true translation is Thou Shall Not Murder. That is an enormous difference.

    • Rosech Levy

      Certainly you should not kill, but just as stated above, use reason and not emotion as in reality many do not even wish to repent. The balance must be kept and that is why we have God’s laws and man following those laws. Keeping them in prison today is almost a walk in the park (have you been to see any prisons? I have and many offer niceties that you and I could not have nor afford). Nevertheless we each can choose to following God’s word or not. I choose to. Thy shalt not kill does not mean you won’t and hence punishment here is not unjust but a balance to the human race to live without fear. In any case before being put to death, they do have time to repent and some do, but unfortunately most don’t give a darn for what they have done. Protected? You truly are blind to reality.

      • Jerryb53

        Society is protected from people locked up in prison for life. Your a poor excuse for a Roman Catholic and your later comment about Francis not being your Pope shows that you pick and chose which RC Doctrine you want to follow. Mary says to pray for the Pope. He was chosen by God to be the Pope for a reason. It’s not us to decide who is out Pope. It is you who are blind.

    • Joan Swan

      In complete agreement. “Repententance” is the operative word and as you said, always a possibility and it is the key to the Kingdom of Heaven for all of us, as Christ is the only sinless One.

  • Johann du Toit

    Brilliant post and a good antidote to the very worn “seamless garment” that is based more on emotion than reason and logic.

    • Jerryb53

      Thank You.

  • Zacchaeus

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2267, almost appears to limit the justification of capital punishment to the protection of the community and indicates that avoidance of its application is more in keeping with–not to say an absolute requirement of–human dignity, especially perhaps in view of the hope of a repentance that application of the punishment would foreclose. The CCC does not actually contradict Pope Pius XII’s teaching, which is fuller and beautifully and helpfully highlights the proper understanding of divine justice. Rather, it seems that the teaching of paragraph 2267 strongly favors severely restricting the use of the death penalty as a prudential matter. Pope Francis, of course, takes this practical reasoning further and advocates elimination of the death penalty altogether.

    • Rosech Levy

      Well, Francis is not my pope because he preaches for socialism and communism, and my family has experienced both, so it doesn’t amaze me that he wants to eliminate the death penalty altogether rather than follow God’s words.

  • Robert Schofield

    The original Hebrew in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:13) reads, “Lo teer tsach”, which translated into English means, “Not, you shall murder”. Tsach does not mean “kill”, per se, and does not include killing in warfare. In the very next Chapter (Ex 21:14), the Scripture says, “But when a man kills another after maliciously scheming to do so, you must drag him even from my altar and put him to death.” Initially, this was a right to life issue, since society must be protected from murderers. Today we can incarcerate for life, and in the U.S. at least, society is protected. However, the Most High laid it out in black and white, and the warning to potential murderers is perhaps missing from today’s “compassionate” arguments.

  • Rosech Levy

    This has always I have seen the situation and never viewed it emotionally but trying to be rational. The seam of mankind must be kept whole and those who choose to do great evil must also suffer the consequences and, yes, to protect mankind. Those who think it is cruel should stop and think again. #1 it is not cruel but justice, #2 wanting to keep them in prison doesn’t work and is expensive, and #3 God’s word is better than ours.

    • Jerryb53

      God’s word is thou shalt not kill, including the death penalty. Your an a-hole.

      • Darm

        Jerryb53 I agree with most everything you have said except name calling of course.

        To take your arguments one step further. Man`s law no matter how well intentioned is always open to miss application for a variety of reasons [which I won’t go into]. If so much as one application of the death penalty is determined by the court system of any country to be the method of punishment but that person to receive that penalty is actually innocent even though found guilty the death penalty is then not justice it is instead error; murder and killing. One innocent death preformed by the state makes all the deaths imposed by the state unjust. Just look at the news at least a couple times a year people on death row are found to be innocent and get released, how many have not been found to be so before the penalty was administered. One is to many. In reality God gives life and only he has the right to take it when ever he so desires. Self defence or protection of the family used as arguments as killing or murder are red herrings by some of the commenters. I will take it a step further there is no just war – we suffer wars only because of our rebellion against God and his laws and Christ`s gospels. These offences by the majority on mankind are so detestable to God that he allows the corrupt, proud, arrogant, greedy rulers of our countries to take us into war as a chastisement for our sins. The act of war, killing and being killed simply punishes and helps purifies mankind by the elimination of all those God deems due.

        • Jerryb53

          I don’t think God is punishing the actual combatants in war. There are many decent and God fearing soldiers who die in war. Everything else I agree with.

          • Pat Owens

            Execution of a criminal is double murder. First the body dies. Then the soul. And you expect to fly into Heaven for that? There is no mercy for the unmerciful. Quote all you want. And if in doubt refer back to Rule Five.

          • Jerryb53

            The soul never dies. What do you think comes before Jesus when you die. “There is no mercy for the unmerciful” God shows mercy for everyone who repents. You need to brush up on your Theology before posting ridiculous statements.

  • TX Crusader

    stop feeding the church of nice trolls in the thread. the points are spot on and correct with scriptural and traditional references. those who want to wallow in sentimental pittle should be left alone when they refuse to accept God’s teaching and Church teaching.