Death Penalty: Avoiding Ambiguity in Doctrinal Matters

In 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

What Does Saint Thomas Say About Immigration?

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).

Should We Stop Opposing the Ruling Legalizing Same-Sex “Marriage”? Bishop Robert Barron’s Surprising Statements

Pope Saint Pius V moved a victorious crusade against the Turks.

The recent (January 30) statements by the Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles, Robert Barron, that he will not fight for the abolition of the same-sex “marriage” ruling has scandalized even his admirers. He contends that revoking that decision “would probably cause much more problems and dissension and difficulty if we keep pressing it.” He doubles down: “I wouldn’t want to get on a crusader’s tank and try to reverse that.”1

Is Homosexual Tendency Intrinsically Disordered?

This statement by a bishop known for his writings, videos, homilies and cultural comments is even more serious because he made them to David Rubin, a homosexual journalist living in a same-sex “marriage.”2

For Bishop Barron, “if the only thing a gay person hears from the Catholic Church is, ‘you’re intrinsically disordered,’ we’ve got a very serious problem, if that’s what the message has become.”

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Contrary to the above statement, the Church has never taught that a person with same-sex attraction is “intrinsically disordered,” but rather his homosexual tendency. To say that someone is “intrinsically” disordered, that is, in their very nature, would mean that God created a disordered nature, which is absurd.

Taking a Principled not a Personal Stand


As practicing Catholics, we are filled with compassion and pray for those who struggle against violent temptation to sin, be it toward homosexual sin or otherwise.

We are conscious of the enormous difference between these individuals who struggle with their weaknesses and strive to overcome them and others who transform their sin into a reason for pride, and try to impose their lifestyle on society as a whole, in flagrant opposition to traditional Christian morality and natural law. However, we pray for them too.

According to the expression attributed to Saint Augustine, we “hate the sin but love the sinner.” And to love the sinner, as the same Doctor of the Church explains, is to wish for him the best we can possibly desire for ourselves, namely, “that he may love God with a perfect affection.” (St. Augustine, Of the Morals of the Catholic Church, no. 49,

In What Sense Is a Sinner a Child of God?

The Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles added, “The first thing a gay person, like any person, should hear is ‘You’re a beloved child of God.”

In the context in which this statement was made—that is, on a pro-homosexual program—it takes on a dangerous ambiguity. For it does not make clear whether the bishop is referring to a person with a disorderly tendency who resists and does not sin, or to one who actually practices the act against nature.

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There is no doubt that all men are children of God. But the sinner is a son in revolt against his Creator, whom he offends by despising His Law. In this state of revolt, he loses divine friendship, sanctifying grace, and is on his way to Hell should he die in such a state.3

A True “Son of God” Is One Who Keeps the Commandments

The words of the Savior are clear and unequivocal: to love Him as a son loves his father, one must keep His words—that is Faith—and His commandments:

“If you love me, keep my commandments.”

“He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them; he it is that loveth me.”

“If any one love me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him, and will make our abode with him. He that loveth me not, keepeth not my words” (John 14:15, 21, 2324).

Does Concern With Morals Hinder Evangelization?

Bishop Barron, apparently angered by the protests caused by his statements, posted a response on his blog titled “Dave Rubin, the Pelvic Issues, and Larry David.”

Referring to Catholic sexual morality in a derogatory fashion as “the pelvic issues” is really shocking. In his view, people who care about moral issues hurt evangelization.

He says, “[T]his preoccupation with ‘the pelvic issues’ has served to undermine the work of evangelization.”

With the qualification that he does not scorn morality, he adds, “But I fear that for so many people in the secular world today, religion is reduced to the policing of sexual behavior, and this is massively unfortunate.”

As far as he is concerned, the Sacred Scriptures are not concerned with sexual morality:

“When you read the great evangelizing texts of the New Testament—the Gospels, the Epistles of Paul, the book of Revelation, etc.—you don’t get the impression that what their authors wanted you primarily to understand is sexual morality.”

Now, in his Epistle to the Corinthians, Saint Paul makes it clear that he is talking sexual morality:

“Do not err: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers. Nor the effeminate, nor liers with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor railers, nor extortioners, shall possess the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10).

Silence on Morality, a Triumph of the Sexual Revolution

Has the silence of the clergy on sexual morals (save for well-deserving exceptions) favored evangelization? On the contrary, one should consider the empty churches and the closure of convents and seminaries for lack of vocations.

This silence has only favored the Sexual Revolution, which keeps advancing and destroying the very foundations and remnants of morality, modesty, and human dignity.

Sexual pleasure is more and more idolized, with ominous consequences: destruction of marriage and the family, exaltation of free love, normalization of all forms of sexual aberration; sexual frenzy no longer respects barriers of age, sex and even species, with an increase in zoophilia.

Modesty—that flower of chastity that at the same time embellishes and protects it—has become virtually unknown. The human body is exposed and exploited by all means through fashion, movies, pictures, in an erotic exhibitionism opposed not only to morality but even to human dignity.

Is Christian Perfection Impossible?

Even more surprisingly, Bishop Barron declares that the Bible is ironical and skeptical in relation to “any claim to human perfectibility.” If that were the case, every effort man makes to sanctify himself with the help of grace would be useless. Nor would it make any sense for the Church to have canonized the saints for having practiced virtue to a heroic degree.

Sympathy for an Advocate of Same-Sex “Marriage”

Bishop Barron is entirely at ease with, and praises a journalist who advocates same-sex “marriage”:

“Dave is a stand-up comedian, political satirist” he says, though recognizing that “He is also an advocate of gay marriage.” He adds that “I am very grateful to Dave Rubin for the interview and the opportunity to explore a number of issues related to faith and society.”

The bishop again refers in a derogatory fashion to those concerned with sexual morality:

“I just hope that his viewers can appreciate that there is a lot more to Christianity than the ‘pelvic issues.’

Hell Is Supposedly Empty…

It is scandalous for a bishop to employ the crude and unworthy “pelvic issues” formula to refer to the divine and natural moral laws that condemn all sexual practice outside marriage, and especially those contrary to nature.

But Bishop Barron’s moral stance is related to his optimistic theory about Hell. Although he is obliged to reject Origen’s theory, condemned by the Church, that at the end of time the reprobates and even demons will be forgiven,4 he adopts its veiled form, espoused by Hans Urs von Balthasar:

“My own conviction is that Balthasar has this more or less right. Catholic doctrine is that Hell exists, but yet the Church has never claimed to know if any human being is actually in Hell.”

For Bishop Barron, “Hell” or “Gehenna” are “spatial metaphors.” He concludes with a formula very close to Origen’s heresy:

“The divine love, freely rejected, results in suffering. And yet, we may, indeed we should, hope that God’s grace will, in the end, wear down even the most recalcitrant sinner.”

Now, if Hell is purely metaphorical and “in the end” all sinners will be saved by grace no matter what state they die in, why worry about what he contemptuously calls “pelvic issues”?

Morality loses all its meaning, as does the notion of sin and offense to God.

Unfortunately, with his statements, the popular apologist has discouraged those opposed to same-sex “marriage” and created confusion about the very foundations of morality.

If a Catholic Politician Has to Resist Same-Sex “Marriage” Why not a Bishop?


In June 3, 2003, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published the document CONSIDERATIONS REGARDING PROPOSALS TO GIVE LEGAL RECOGNITION TO UNIONS BETWEEN HOMOSEXUAL PERSONS, signed by then-Cardinal Ratzinger.

The document is emphatic in the necessity to oppose same-sex “marriage” laws.

In n. 5, Section II it states:

“In those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty.”

And in Section IV of the document, with guidance for Catholic Politicians, the document insists:

“When legislation in favour of the recognition of homosexual unions is already in force, the Catholic politician must oppose it in the ways that are possible for him and make his opposition known; it is his duty to witness to the truth.”

If that is the obligation of a layman, a Catholic politician, what to say of the obligation of a Bishop that, by his own office is a guardian of the faith and morals?


Updated February 9, 2017.