Capital punishment...again


Here’s how I see it.
Evil is the negation of the good. It isn’t a thing in itself. Natural evils are things like death, sickness, suffering. There is a loss of the good, but it’s not willful. It just happens. Moral evils are where we intentionally do evil through the use of our wills.

The Church teaches that the ends does not justify the means. As such, I would say that referring to worse evils that are prevented through things like war and capital punishment is actually arguing the reverse, that the ends sometimes does justify the means.

BUT, like divorce, God permits evil because of the hardness of our hearts. He allowed the law of Moses to include divorce, and He’s allowed the Church to permit evils like slavery and capital punishment.

But we are in an age where we are acknowledging the universal call to holiness gradually. This means we’re rejecting notions of marriage being some sort of moral concession to control our sexual appetite, as if lust were okay in marriage. It means that we acknowledge that abstinence in marriage may be prudent, that we can even speak of a grave moral reason to avoid pregnancy, meaning that sometimes it is gravely sinful to engage in sex with our spouses, even though we are married.

We are also acknowledging that the path to holiness is a gradual one. We must not become so obsessed with avoiding one type of sin that we engage in graver sins to avoid the lesser ones. THIS is a problem today.

So, yes, killing a human being (regardless of their guilt) is a moral evil. Their life is a gift from God. Is it an evil we’ve had to permit? Yes. Indeed, to not permit some moral evils do result in encouraging greater evils, but we need to acknowledge this. We need to grow in humility and stop thinking we’re holier than we are.



Capital punishment is most certainly not a ‘tolerable evil’ in the eyes of God, becuase He specifically commanded it.



I can go along with that.
It still doesn’t logically exclude it being a tolerated matter under the old dispensation.



How does “Whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven” fit into this. Does that allow the Pope to change the morality of the death penalty?



Well, it does, becuase God didn’t merely tolerate it under the old dispensation.



There are two concerns here: forgiveness and justice, and the latter seems to get lost in these discussions. You are surely correct in claiming that God does not wish to punish even the worst of sinners, but it is important to note that he will do it when it is necessary.

God is merciful, but he is just withal; he deals mercifully with those who fear him; he cannot act thus towards the obstinate. (St. Alphonsus Liguori)

We seem to have lost sight of the concept of “just deserts” - of being held morally accountable for our actions. If there are situations where execution is “deserved” then what is the argument against treating a person as his actions deserve to be treated? Even God himself is not merciful in all cases.

Justice is nothing more than treating a person in accordance with his actions: giving him what he deserves. It begins to appear that justice itself has become suspect.

Say to the just man that it is well; for he shall eat the fruit of his doings. Woe to the wicked unto evil; for the reward of his hands shall be given him.” Isaiah

Do we no longer believe this?

Christian opposition is a new phenomenon.

"The mounting opposition to the death penalty in Europe since the Enlightenment has gone hand in hand with a decline of faith in eternal life. In the nineteenth century the most consistent supporters of capital punishment were the Christian churches, and its most consistent opponents were groups hostile to the churches.” (Cardinal Dulles, 2001)



I suspect you are right in tying the 2018 change in the catechism (as well as the 1997 change from the 1992 version) to the perception the public has about capital punishment and what it signifies, and it is certainly possible that some will conclude that executions suggest that human life has little value. There is, however, another perception that might be more accurate: the one that was explained in the Catechism of Trent.

Of these remedies {for the disease of murder} the most efficacious is to form a just conception of the wickedness of murder. The enormity of this sin is manifest from many and weighty passages of Holy Scripture. So much does God abominate homicide that He declares in Holy Writ that of the very beast of the field He will exact vengeance for the life of man, commanding the beast that injures man to be put to death.1 (1 - references Gn 9:5,6)

Trent found that executions demonstrated not a disrespect for human life, but the proper response to a crime as awful as murder, which required such a terrible reaction. It is hard to argue that we see murder with anything like the “abomination” it was held in in the past. Think about it: most capital cases require “special circumstances” for someone to be liable for execution. Common old murder just doesn’t rise to that level any more.



We clearly use the word tolerate differently.

  1. In the Bible did God really “command” the Hebrews to commit Genocide on the Caananites and steal their land?
    “God told me to do it” is a transparent ruse used even today by psychotics.
  2. The alleged command was never uncircumscribed but a tolerated evil to (a) avoid a proportionally greater evil (lawlessness) and not to be a directly willed killing (b) not to be carried out by an individual but by the authority of the State.


It is incorrect to hold that things in the Old Testament no longer bind us, and in this case capital punishment is not part of an “old dispensation”, like divorce, that has been rescinded in the new. God’s words on the subject (Gn 9:5-6) are part of the covenant with Noah and will never be retracted.



No, the pope has no authority to change truth. Binding and loosing does not refer to setting moral truths.

(CCC 553) The power to “bind and loose” connotes the authority to absolve sins, to pronounce doctrinal judgements, and to make disciplinary decisions in the Church. Jesus entrusted this authority to the Church through the ministry of the apostles and in particular through the ministry of Peter, the only one to whom he specifically entrusted the keys of the kingdom.

The power to pronounce doctrinal judgements is about deciding what the truth is based on what has been revealed, not about deciding what the truth ought to be based on ones personal opinions.



“Whosoever shall shed man’s blood, his blood shall be shed: for man was made to the image of God.” Gen. 9:6



Tell me where Jesus rescinded the explicit OT law that absolutely no interest be charged on a loan then…

Fine assertions above then, but unless you can actually shore them up with something they just remain subjective views.



Indeed. Nowadays, I don’t think most Catholics think of the death penalty as a demonstration of respect for the life of the one killed, but rather a disrespect of the life of the murderer. A lack of thinking about heaven or also lack of belief may be part of the problem. But we also are different about our treatment of criminals in general, I think, even those we do not give the death penalty.

It will be interesting to see how prisons transform over time. Perhaps ultimately they will disappear and instead the offenders will be monitored with AI/computers, allowing them to work and be at home.



As I said, Genesis 9 (1-17) is God’s covenant with Noah.

9 And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. 2 The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every bird of the air, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. 3 Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. 4 Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. 5 For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it and of man; of every man’s brother I will require the life of man. 6 Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image. 7 And you, be fruitful and multiply, bring forth abundantly on the earth and multiply in it.” 8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him,… (RSCVE)

God’s covenant with Noah has not been, and will never be, rescinded.

(CCC58) The covenant with Noah remains in force during the times of the Gentiles, until the universal proclamation of the Gospel.

I don’t see any reasonable way to get around the plain meaning of 9:5-6, which is as relevant today as it has ever been.



Is truth in this case absolute or relative to the circumstances. Whether or not it is moral to kill someone else is going to depend on the circumstances. It is not always right and it is not always wrong. And the circumstances are changing over time. It is for the Holy Father to determine how the current circumstances relate to the question at hand, because he has been given the keys to do such?



You bring up some good points but I’m not sure the hard or soft forms of intrinsic evil are the correct terms to be used here although I see your point. I think something else is going on here in the cases of divorce and polygamy which requires I believe making some distinctions of various kinds in addition to or in place of simple ‘hard and soft forms of intrinsic evil’.

An intrinsically evil act is intrinsically evil in its object which is one of the three sources of morality of human actions, the other two being the circumstances and intention. For example, murder is intrinsically evil in its object, namely, murder or the deliberate killing of an innocent human being, and such an act can never be justified either according to circumstances or intention. We cannot conceive of a natural reason for doing so except perhaps from a direct command or revelation from God who himself is the author of both divine or revealed law and the natural law and thus only He can lawfully change it.

There are various ways of understanding divorce. In the sense of putting away one’s spouse or not living under the same roof, this is lawful even under the christian dispensation. For no spouse is required to live with an adulterous spouse which Jesus even made mention of. Nor would a wife be required to live with an abusive husband or a husband who abuses the children or molests them or in general simply refuses to assume the responsibilities of a husband. There are also the various Pauline and Petrine priviledges for believers in Christ. In cases such as this, a christian spouse may even lawfully get a civil writ of divorce. Without an annulment, however, a separated spouse cannot remarry while the other spouse is still alive. So, in this sense, ‘divorce’ as it were or rather separation of spouses is not an intrinsic evil.

Polygamy is a little more difficult case to reason through as it were and it can get quite complicated in determining such as whether the holy patriarchs were sinning by taking more than one wife. There appears not to have been any explicit revealed divine law except that perhaps written in the heart or the natural law. The Old Law doesn’t forbid it though neither does it command it. Both polygamy and divorce in the Old Law were not positive commands from God but something permitted, something individuals took upon themselves by their own decisions unless perhaps inspired internally by the Holy Spirit. I mean, a man under the Old Law whose wife may have committed adultery wasn’t absolutely required to put her away especially if she repents. And in order to obtain a writ of divorce he had to present his case to the lawful authorities such as the levitical priests. In the case of Joseph and Mary and before the angel informed Joseph of the miraculous conception of Jesus in Mary by the Holy Spirit, the scripture says that Joseph had a mind of putting away Mary privately.




It’s kind of difficult to imagine that the holy patriarchs such as Abraham, Jacob, or David sinned by taking more than one wife. Though not perfect, they are in general praised in the Bible for being examples of virtue and our fathers in the faith. Jesus makes mention of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in that parable of eating and drinking with them in the Kingdom of God. Without going into great detail at present, Aquinas writes about principle or primary and secondary precepts of the natural law. He argues that polygamy is against the natural law indeed but in its secondary precepts which are as conclusions drawn from the first precepts or principles. The first principles are applicable always and for all times like the notion of intrinsically evil acts and do not allow for dispensation unless perhaps from God himself directly and supernaturally while the secondary precepts are as laws that are applicable for the majority of the cases but perhaps may be dispensed from in individual cases under particular circumstances.

For example, the natural law prescribes in general to return to the owner what has been loaned. However, in a particular case in which to return the money loaned to the owner in which it is known that such money is going to be used for treason or such like, it is not required to return the loan to the owner. To make a long story short, Aquinas argues that God dispensed by an internal inspiration to the patriarchs of old the precept of having only one wife of the natural law which he argues belongs to the secondary precepts of the natural law which dispensation at that time was conducive to the propagation of individual humans to be brought up in the worship and knowledge of the one true God, namely, the chosen people of the Israelites. In the christian dispensation, the children of God are regenerated spiritually by grace as the adopted daughters and sons in baptism and so Christ did away with the dispensation or permission of polygamy.

Accordingly, in Aquinas’ view, polygamy is indeed against the natural law but in its secondary precepts which kind of secondary precepts of the natural law may admit of dispensation in individual cases or according to certain times unlike the first precepts of the natural law which do not admit of dispensation in this manner but are valid for all times and places like it is said of intrinsically evil human actions.



I am a neonatal Catholic (I guess you could call me, since I’m still in RCIA). Therefore, I don’t have much to offer into the insights of the canons of construction and theological rules on how to interpret the recent statements on the death penalty. What I can offer, though, is some practical insights into the ultimate legal result of giving someone the death penalty (since I’m a prosecutor). Thus, what I’m about to offer is simply the practical side of things, which may have a bearing as to the ultimate result of your interpretations of the new statements on the death penalty.

If a prosecutor were to ask for the death penalty, then a jury had to unanimously vote for it. That, in of itself, is a high standard to achieve.

If that legal hurdle is passed, then the defendant will be placed on death row and be isolated. He/she is stripped of all social interactions (which, according to social psychology principles, is the worst punishment you could do to someone (even over death)).

While on death row, the defendant has the right to an incredible number of appeals to ask the higher courts to overturn his/her death penalty sentence. The majority of the time, a higher court will do this, and it will send the case back to the original court and tell all those legal players to do the case all over again.

Once that happens, it’s up to the prosecutor again to determine whether to seek the death penalty (or, in the alternative, just life in prison). Knowing that the case will probably be sent back to him/her again to try (because the higher courts ultimately send the majority of death penalty cases back), the prosecutor has to evaluate whether a) it’s worth his/her time to probably prosecute this case again in the future if he/she seeks the death penalty again and b) whether the tax payers should bear the burden of the exorbitant costs it takes to retry a defendant (paying court staff, jurors, process servers, expert witnesses, etc). Weighing these things, the prosecutor may or may not take the death penalty sentence off the table. If the prosecutor does not seek the death penalty at this point, then this matter is moot. However, if the prosecutor again seeks the death penalty (and achieves that high legal standard of all 12 jurors agreeing to sentence the defendant to the death penalty), then we’re back to the same scenario of the defendant having numerous tries at appeals to overturn his/her death penalty sentence. Which, again, he/she most likely will get. Thus, we get thrown into this same situation again where the prosecutor has to determine whether he/she wants to seek the death penalty again and waste time and money knowing it will just get reversed, or rather just seek life imprisonment.

((Please see next post for a continuation. I’m apparently too long winded (but that’s no surprise since I’m an attorney) :smile:))



((Part 2 continued from above.))

Additionally, during the interim of this cyclical saga, the defendant, while on death row and isolated, is incurring exorbitant costs to be taken care of (as opposed to the defendant being placed in the general population). The prosecutor knows all this, and he/she will weigh this in determining whether to seek the death penalty in the first place (or reseek it again later when the case is returned to him/her by a higher court). Compound this with the prosecutor usually having an elected position, he/she must weigh all these decisions in light of what is right (legally and according to their morals), and whether the general public who vote for that prosecutor will be satisfied or not based on the prosecutor’s decisions.

I say all of this to basically tell you that, ultimately, if the death penalty is ever sought, the likelihood of anyone being actually put to death is incredibly slim. Therefore, the chances of an “intrinsic evil” or sometimes a “tolerable evil” being carried out is of no moment, since in practice it never actually comes to fruition one way or the other.



It is important to distinguish between doctrines and the correct applications of those doctrines. The doctrine on capital punishment has always been that it is a legitimate option for States to apply to those guilty of serious crimes. That, however, says nothing whatever about whether that penalty is appropriate in a particular circumstance. That determination requires a prudential judgment, but the thing is that while doctrines require our assent, judgments (even of popes) do not.

This doesn’t mean we are free to disregard what is said simply because it involves a judgment, but it does mean that disagreeing with an opinion is not the same as dissenting from the church.


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