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.
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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).