Capital punishment...again


It was not a prophecy because it would not always be true, as he said. This simply recognized the validity of circumstantial exceptions, as Aquinas noted. It is nothing more than recognition of exceptions, which is why he said the passage was a “decree and a precept”. The words mean neither more nor less than what they plainly say.

decree: an official order issued by a legal authority.
precept: a general rule intended to regulate behavior or thought.


Your original claim to which my response was directed was this:

it is evident that the general comment “These punishments are fixed by divine law” references the eternal punishment due in regard to Gods judgement of souls

It is quite clear that you are no longer defending that position (“This article is addressing the right of human law to punish men and that right is divine law.”) The rest of your position is based on your own fantasy about what I believe, and no matter how often I correct you, you refuse to accept my explanation of my own position.


I try not to use words in any way other than their common meaning, so yes, punishment and penalty seem to me to be the same thing. As for the objectives of punishment, there are four: retribution, rehabilitation, deterrence, and defense.

This is where we disagree. It is absolutely a measure of justice/retribution, and it is only because it is deserved that it is a just act. If you remove the concept of desert from “penalty” then anything is permissible as you will have completely abandoned the concept of justice.

" . . . in the process of giving him what he deserved you set an example to others. But take away desert and the whole morality of the punishment disappears. Why, in Heaven’s name, am I to be sacrificed to the good of society in this way? unless, of course, I deserve it." (C.S. Lewis)


It is critical to recognize the distinction between the responsibilities of the individual and those of the state. As individuals we are forbidden to take revenge even as the state has the duty to do so. It is a mistake to assume that all the commands directed to us as individuals (Turn the other cheek, do not return evil for evil…) apply to the state.

…when Our Lord says: “You have heard that it hath been said of old, an eye for an eye, etc.,” He does not condemn that law, nor forbid a magistrate to inflict the poena talionis, but He condemns the perverse interpretation of the Pharisees, and forbids in private citizens the desire for and the seeking of vengeance. For God promulgates the holy law that the magistrate may punish the wicked by the poena talionis; whence the Pharisees infer that it is lawful for private citizens to seek vengeance (St Bellarmine, De Laicis)


Emeraldlady - “The Church is correcting the false assertions by US Catholics that capital punishment was a ‘divine command’ and a default sentence. That was never taught by the Church in its history.”

Ender - "Don’t be too sure of that…

For God says, “Whosoever shall shed man’s blood, his blood shall be shed.” These words cannot utter a prophecy, since a prophecy of this sort would often be false, but a decree and a precept . (St. Bellarmine)"

A decree and a precept are not ‘divine command’. That’s sorted.

You also then spliced together grabs from the ST to force it to support your position.

"(3 objection 3) … Therefore it seems that the punishment of death should not be inflicted for a sin.
On the contrary, These punishments are fixed by divine law as appears from what we have said above (I-II, 105, 2). (Aquinas ST II-II 108, 3)"

Divine law pertains to salvation and is unchangeable. The fact that there is punishment for sin is unchangeable. While divine law informs the basis of positive law, it doesn’t make positive law ‘fixed’ or unchangeable. Positive law is concerned with what serves the good of the relations between men. The common good. That logically means that no sentence is fixed and unchangeable including the sentence of death. They are flexible in human law serving first and foremost the common good. That’s sorted.


You’ve packed a lot of meaning into the word punishment. I don’t know how useful that’s going to be in a discussion like this

If those prescriptions for death in the Pentateuch were truly “just” and “deserved” for the corresponding act which is cited in each passage, then would a death sentence still be a just and deserved penalty today? Obviously not. So why is there a disconnect between the penalty and the justice, or what’s deserved?


Remember what is required for a punishment to be just: it must be of commensurate severity with the severity of the crime, and it must not be harmful to the society that employs it. If a punishment was truly just in the past then its severity must have been appropriate to the severity of the crime. For some crimes, the severity depends partly on the circumstances: stealing $100 from a rich man’s surplus is very different than stealing the last $100 from a poor man’s pocket.

For some crimes, such as first degree murder, the severity of the crime does not change. That is, while the nature of the murder may make some worse than others, no murder ever falls below the level where death is not a commensurate punishment.

So, if death was a just punishment before because of the nature of the crime then it is equally just today. If the severity of the crime was more serious in the past because of existing circumstances then it would merit a more serious punishment in the past than would be just today.

I don’t believe there is. Can you be more specific?


I admire your tenacity. These past few months I hardly find time or concentration to read anything not work related. Except for the casual browsing of a thread here and there :slight_smile:

A beautiful post @graciew I could never write a post like that :slight_smile:


Thank you adgloriam…


“[P]rotecting society from criminal killers” is far from the only purpose of punishment. Retribution, equity, and the perpetuation of civic order are at least as important. If it’s not licit for the state to kill under any circumstance, then only private vengeance can adequately requite certain transgressions. But leaving such things to private retribution is an open invitation to public disorder and the law of vendetta. Therefore, it follows that the state needs the discretion to impose punishments (including death) that would otherwise degenerate into tit-for-tat private quarrels.


Thank you for taking the time to respond, I’m aware that you have several other users making demands upon your time. I present my thoughts for your consideration, but please do not feel obliged to reply in as much length.

I agree completely, and for that reason this issue demands great clarity of thought and scalpel-like precision in language. Admittedly, there is something to be said for diplomacy and expressing oneself with tact (I’m not looking to get suspended either), but we have to seriously ask ourselves if trying to accommodate the Holy Father’s statements with the continued use of the death penalty is not, in effect, the rhetorical equivalent of jamming a square peg into a round hole. If it is in fact impossible to do so, then one is better off saving oneself the trouble and rejoining Fr. Fongemie’s position; otherwise, another half a thousand posts can easily be made without this discussion advancing in the slightest.

The Holy Father is unambiguous on this point—the Church must, “…work with determination for [the death penalty’s] abolition worldwide.” Clearly, prison systems in the Third World are not more secure than their counterparts in the Occident, even those dating back to the mid to late 20th Century. And yet, this reality notwithstanding, the Holy Father did not see fit to grant exceptions to less developed countries. Instead, the ban on the death penalty applies worldwide, despite Ven. Pope Pius XII’s affirmation that the death penalty has a “general and abiding validity”. (Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 1955, p. 81-2). Can we view this as anything other than a change, and a major one at that?

Also significant is the fact that we find very little mention of evolving material circumstances in the Holy Father’s reasoning; rather, stress is laid on the principle that the death penalty is “contrary to the Gospel” and that our awareness of the dignity of persons has “increased.” If this is so, we must conclude that the teaching has changed not primarily because prison systems have significantly improved across the globe in recent years, but because, as Pope Francis plainly states, the death penalty is, “…an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”, “…contrary…to divine mercy”, and because, “Justice is never reached by killing a human being.”


Before emeraldlady, billsherman, et al. throw off their caps in jubilation over my frank avowal, however, I must note that I do not rejoin their position for several reasons, one of which I will attempt to concisely outline for anyone who might wish to probe my reasoning. First, I think we can all agree that if the teaching on the death penalty is circumscribed by divine law, then any prudential disallowance of it is fundamentally misguided and therefore illegitimate. On the other hand, if the death penalty was merely a prudential question all along, then it certainly seems as though the competent authority is free to revise the teaching as it sees fit—and that the competent authority, has, in fact, done so. This I believe is a fair representation of the anti-death penalty faction’s position.

My view, however, is that even a revision of a prudential nature is unacceptable because it causes the foundations of Catholicism crumble; for,

…it would be contrary to the truth, if, proceeding from some particular cases, one were to conclude that the Church’s Magisterium can be habitually mistaken in its prudential judgments, or that it does not enjoy divine assistance in the integral exercise of its mission.” —then-Cdl. Ratzinger, Donum Veritatis 24

Changing the teaching now would prove that the Church was “habitually mistaken in its prudential judgments”, and consequently did not enjoy the guidance of the Holy Ghost for well over a century, if not the entirety of her history. If this is so, then Our Lord’s promise in John 16:13 would be risible, Scripture itself incontestably fallible and erroneous, and Catholicism itself not worth more than a cent in the penny jar of world religions. Not being inclined to favor this eventuality, I am instead left to conclude that what we are dealing with here is a judgment which will be overturned in the future.

At this point the following rejoinder can be made: “But J_Reed, aren’t you lending too much weight to Donum Veritatis ? If you abandon the idea that the Church cannot be habitually mistaken in her prudential judgments, that resolves all your difficulties in one stroke—just accept that the Church was mistaken for decades, or even centuries, and all will be well!”

To which I respond, “Prove to me that Donum Veritatis should be ignored, and that I am a better theologian than Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and am at perfect liberty to disregard their decree, and you will have made slight progress towards convincing me that this ‘development’ of the teaching on the death penalty is not a non-trivial concern,” as Ender put it. Until then, I will continue to maintain my position, which in any case is not a difficult one to adhere to, given that it entails deferring to my pastor, who like Fr. John Fongemie considers the revision to the Catechism erroneous, and has no qualms saying so from the pulpit.


It is one thing to assert something, as Fr. Fongemie did, but a very different thing to present convincing arguments that it might be true. Actually, I think his position is unnecessarily confrontational, and pretty much ends the conversation before it can ever really begin. The arguments I have presented are directed at making this point: the change in 2267 is prudential because the interpretation that it is doctrinal is impossible.

Yes, this claim is unambiguous as to what it means, but that doesn’t mean it is anything more than his personal (prudential) opinion.

Yes. If if it is a prudential judgment then it is not a change at all. The church throughout her history has argued (prudentially) against capital punishment in specific circumstances.

  • Man is what God made, sinner is what man made himself to be. So do not condemn people to death, or while you are attacking the sin you will destroy the man. (Augustine)
  • Nevertheless, far be it from your minds that you, who have acknowledged so pious a God and Lord, now judge so harshly, especially since it is more fitting that, just as hitherto you put people to death with ease, so from now on you should lead those whom you can not to death but to life. (Nicholas I)

This is a more troubling assertion inasmuch as before this it was pretty much understood that Scripture supported the death penalty.

  • This teaching has been consistent for centuries — in the Scriptures… (Archbishop Gomez)
  • If the Pope were to deny that the death penalty could be an exercise of retributive justice, he would be … contradicting the teaching of Scripture. (Cardinal Dulles)

And this is the sticking point. In order to accept this we have to believe that virtually all the Fathers, and Doctors of the Church as well as every pope prior to this one failed to properly recognize man’s inherent dignity. We also have to believe everyone also misunderstood Scripture on this point…until now. That’s a devastating indictment.

This question is not in fact limited merely to capital punishment but goes to the nature of the church herself.


A prudential judgment that it is always disallowed would be illegitimate if it was in fact allowed by divine law. A judgment that it was currently disallowed because of existing circumstances would be a legitimate judgment (whether or not it was accurate).

I have always understood their position as the church was always wrong before and has now finally gotten it right. There was never a question of judgment.

This question does seem to go to the very roots of the church. It isn’t clear how how anything the church says could be taken seriously if she walks back on this one. Too many things have to be discarded:

And as the things which the Holy Synod of Trent decreed …we… declare this to be their sense, that, in matters of faith and morals, appertaining to the building up of Christian doctrine, that is to be held as the true sense of Holy Scripture which our Holy Mother Church has held and holds, to whom it belongs to judge the true sense and interpretation of the Holy Scripture; and therefore that it is permitted to no one to interpret the Sacred Scripture contrary to this sense, nor, likewise, contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers. (First Vatican Council)


My cousin is a priest. My cousin is an official chaplain for death row inmates at a Federal prison.

In speaking about this he has said that these people on death row, have absolutely no hope. They do not have hope in religion, they do not have hope in God, they do not have hope that there will be a life sentence commutation. They truly are living Hell on Earth with no hope.

He says that he tries as best he can reconcile them with the Church and few are receptive. But not everything that is in the media is how it’s portrayed. Not everyone is a vicious, unrepentant killing machine. Some people just made a mistake, and the situation and circumstances are in a very grey area.


[quote=“J_Reed, post:567, topic:526294”]
t would be contrary to the truth, if, proceeding from some particular cases, one were to conclude that the Church’s Magisterium can be habitually mistaken in its prudential judgments, or that it does not enjoy divine assistance in the integral exercise of its mission.” —then-Cdl. Ratzinger, Donum Veritatis 16

This isn t consistent with section 16 of the document in Vatican site,
If you have picked this from a blog , please re read the section to which this passage corresponds in full and then you ‘ll see if there is anything to comment…
Suggestion: avoid misleading blogs. And misleading bloggers.
Much less pitch Popes against each other.
And I assure you that I am not the brightest bulb in the Christmas tree but this is apples and oranges when you read the whole of the section and Donum Veritatis in the Vatican web site


Thank you for pointing this out, I have corrected the citation.


A lot of people who are in prison find God. I’d be interested to know how common this is with true life sentences vs. those eligible for parole. Of course finding a God is good for the parole board hearing.

One problem with the current system is that it allows someone to sit on death row for decades. That isn’t how capital punishment should work and is wrong as it is cruel. Of course we got here thanks to courts that want to undermine our system of justice. I can see how people under our current system have no hope. They expect to die but it is so far off that they wouldn’t have the motivation to repent.


You are very welcome


He was with an inmate all last year, right up to when he was executed.

Everything up until their point of death is misery, with no hope. Imagine someone telling you that you will die on 3/13/2029. From right now until that very date, there would be absolute misery for you. Nothing you experience from now until then will ever be the same.

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