Capital punishment...again


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)

(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)


I said there were two criteria that determined the justness of a punishment: (1) is the severity appropriate for the severity of the crime, and (2) does its use introduce harm to the community. A punishment is unjust if either criterion is not met. Why is this complicated? Clearly it is the State that determines the latter. How often must I say there can be valid prudential objections to the use of capital punishment?

That capital punishment is a just punishment according to the first criterion is a given. If the church thought it was unjust she would never have recognized the validity of its use, let alone done so for two millennia. If the death penalty was unjust by the standard of commensurate severity the church would have opposed its use.


As I said, I hear that a lot. What I’m looking for are actual arguments that address specific points I have made.

Inventing a foolish position and ascribing it to me is not what I mean by an actual argument. I have made boatloads of specific claims. Pick one and refute it.

Make your case. Assert something particular that we can discuss.

I disagree. Support your position.

No, this thread is entirely about punishment, and if the discussion was somehow separated from the concept of punishment nothing would make sense. It is only the proper understanding of punishment that allows us to justly respond to a person’s actions.


The church has never taken an absolutest position against all killing, otherwise she would not have (always) noted three exceptions:

Q. 1276. Under what circumstances may human life be lawfully taken?
A. Human life may be lawfully taken:

1. In self-defense…
2. In a just war…
3. By the lawful execution of a criminal… (Baltimore Catechism)


I just thought of an interesting hypothetical. What if in the United States we had a criminal convicted of many murders. Let’s also say that this person is it foreign national coming from a land where the people are very fanatical about their religion. And let us say that they demand that this man be put to death. Finally let say that they insist that if he is not put to death they must, according to their true beliefs, kill one or more innocent Americans.

In that case society would be seriously harmed, people killed, by not putting him to death. So in that case would executing him be the proper thing to do to protect society? Or is it better that many innocent suffer lest one guilty man be put to death?


Well, I have recognized (at least) two criteria for a punishment to be just, so if the man in question has not committed a sufficiently serious crime to merit the death penalty then it would be unjust to execute him regardless of the reaction that might ensue.

Now if his crime is serious enough to merit death then the government has to decide which action (death or not) is more beneficial, and frankly I suspect that there are any number of jurisdictions that would choose not to execute regardless of the reaction. I doubt you could invent a scenario that would convince them to execute someone, but I would guess they would also believe the first criterion could never be met.


Is this statement he made in 2016 still valid or would it now constitute dissent, because I don’t consider it all that different from what I’ve been saying? Surely we would have been justified in accepting it then, but it is still true?

The Catholic Church has always taught that legitimate governments have the right to impose the death penalty on those guilty of the most serious crimes. This teaching has been consistent for centuries — in the Scriptures, in the writings of the Church Fathers and in the teachings of the popes.

The Church is not changing her teaching. Governments will always have the justification to use the death penalty if it is necessary to carry out its task of ensuring social order. What the Church is urging now is that governments exercise their discretion

Now, I recognize that Archbishop Gomez strongly opposes the use of capital punishment, and did so in the document containing the remarks I cited. That said, my question is whether those two statements are as valid today as they were when he made them?


To the pro Capital punishment posters who regard Ender as their spokesperson please look more deeply into the context of the many quote mined citations he uses.

The St Bellarmine quote here is speaking in a general way about Mosaic law.

“These words cannot utter a prophecy, since a prophecy of this sort would often be false, but a decree and a precept. Hence in the Chaldaic paraphrase it is rendered, “Whosoever sheds blood before witnesses, his blood shall be shed by sentence of the judge.” And Judas says, “Bring her out that she may be burnt.” Here the patriarch Judas, as head of a family, condemned an adulteress to death by fire.”

Bellarmine specifically explains how the Israelites used Genesis 9 to formulate the decrees and precepts of the Old Law which changed from era to era according to the needs of Jewish Law. Bellarmine in fact is specifically saying that Genesis 9 is not a divine command.

What Ender has done with the citation from the Summa regarding vengeance, is paste a convenient single sentence from the objections, to the general summary that Aquinas precedes with in his answer. Reading on, 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. Aquinas continues on to define human law and the limits of the State.

“All who sin mortally are deserving of eternal death, as regards future retribution, which is in accordance with the truth of the divine judgment. But the punishments of this life are more of a medicinal character; wherefore the punishment of death is inflicted on those sins alone which conduce to the grave undoing of others.” - ST II II 108 3

The punishments of this life are in fact not fixed by divine law but are bound to serving the common good in order to be just.


As I’ve said, I get this a lot so I’d like to be as clear as possible about what I believe. In the previous post I cited two comments made by Archbishop Gomez in 2016. I mentioned that this was only a small part of a document that was directed at the elimination of capital punishment, so clearly Abp Gomez strongly opposes its use. Despite his opposition, however, he still made these statements…and I agree 100% with every one of them.

  • The Catholic Church has always taught that legitimate governments have the right to impose the death penalty on those guilty of the most serious crimes.
  • This teaching has been consistent for centuries — in the Scriptures, in the writings of the Church Fathers and in the teachings of the popes.
  • The Church is not changing her teaching.
  • Governments will always have the justification to use the death penalty if it is necessary to carry out its task of ensuring social order.
  • What the Church is urging now is that governments exercise their discretion

So the question is, is what was true in 2016 still true today, and if it is, why is my position so strongly condemned?


You quoted me out of context, which judging from what others are saying is something you do often. What I said you “are decidedly wrong” about is the cavalier dismissal of arguments others have raised as being mere “assertions” or something less than the arguments you raise. Based on the way at least two other posters have caught you manipulating quotes, and the way you have now done it to me, I repeat my advice for you to log off the forum for some time and go spend some serious time in a research library. My FULL quote is here:

Maybe I am wrong about the death penalty. But Mr. Ender, yourself, and others in this form, are decidedly wrong when you ignore, or claim that evidence presented by @Don_Ruggero consists of nothing more than “assertions,” “[his] understanding of the situation,” or nothing more than “I’m right, you’re wrong, discussion is not allowed.” You can disagree with him, the Pope, every bishop and cardinal on the planet, and a very large number of secular governments for all I care, but do NOT belittle this good man’s effort by being so cavalierly dismissive of his argument.


Here is what His Excellency said after the revision:

August 03, 2018 16:11Archbishop José E. GomezForum

Below is a reflection of Archbishop Josè Gomez, Archbishop of Los Angeles, on the death penalty now being, in all cases, “inadmissable,” after the recent revision in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, announced yesterday. This statement was published on Angelus News:

For some years now, I have expressed my concern that the death penalty is both cruel and unnecessary and I have called for its abolition.

So, I welcome the changes to The Catechism of the Catholic Church on the death penalty and I am grateful for Pope Francis’ leadership in working for an end to judicial executions worldwide.

The Catechism revisions announced today reflect an authentic development of the Church’s doctrine that started with St. John Paul II and has continued under emeritus Pope Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis.

The Scriptures, along with saints and teachers in the Church’s tradition, justify the death penalty as a fitting punishment for those who commit evil or take another person’s life. And the Church has always recognized that governments and civil authorities have the right to carry out executions in order to protect their citizens’ lives and punish those guilty of the gravest crimes against human life and the stability of the social order.

But in recent decades, there has been a growing consensus — among bishops’ conferences around the world and in the teachings of the Popes and the Catechismthat use of the death penalty can no longer be accepted.

The Church has come to understand that from a practical standpoint, governments now have the ability to protect society and punish criminals without executing violent offenders. The Church now believes that the traditional purposes of punishment — defending society, deterring criminal acts, rehabilitating criminals and penalizing them for their actions — can be better achieved by nonviolent means.



The Church’s continued prayer and reflection has also helped us to see the deeper demands of the Gospel’s teaching on human life and dignity.

We understand now that all human life is sacred — even the lives of those who commit acts of great evil and depravity. And we have come to insist that authorities respect the dignity of even the most violent criminals and give them the chance to reform their lives and be reintegrated into society.

Today’s revisions to the Catechism seem to me to reflect this growing consensus in the Church that capital punishment should be rejected.


First, the use of punishment and execution springs from a natural impulse specific to the welfare of the human community since they are witnessed in cultures and tribes in history not even visited by the One God. Logically it is implicit to the use of execution, that it serves the common good first and foremost. Logically we can also recognise that the ‘severity of a crime’ is influenced by the conditions that exist in the community in which it happens. Those in charge of these communities are most disposed to determine this and to recognise if the climate warrants abolition of a sentence altogether.

Around the world States have been coming to this conclusion for more than a century now. The climate in society, by some unhealthy aspect, has blurred the lines of black and white justice. Justice is more prudently served today by abolition of the death penalty. There is no deficiency in justice because of it as you seem to be imagining.

I guess you’ll have to keep saying it for as long as you experience condescension towards the Church and those defending her teaching.

No, the given is that capital punishment is just if it serves the common good. It no longer is doing that and is being opposed by the Church.


Someone like Fr. Ripperger, formerly of the FSSP, would tell you that your critics’ judgments are skewed by a magisterial positivism which has arisen in recent decades:

"…magisterialism has led to a form of positivism. Since there are no principles of judgment other than the current Magisterium, whatever the current Magisterium says is always what is “orthodox.” In other words, psychologically the neoconservatives have been left in a position in which the extrinsic and intrinsic tradition are no longer included in the norms of judging whether something is orthodox or not. As a result, whatever comes out of the Vatican, regardless of its authoritative weight, is to be held, even if it contradicts what was taught with comparable authority in the past. Since non-infallible ordinary acts of the Magisterium can be erroneous, this leaves one in a precarious situation if one takes as true only what the current Magisterium says. While we are required to give religious assent even to the non-infallible teachings of the Church, what are we to do when a magisterial document contradicts other current or previous teachings and one does not have any more authoritative weight than the other? It is too simplistic merely to say that we are to follow the current teaching. What would happen if in a period of crisis, like our own, a non-infallible ordinary magisterial teaching contradicted what was in fact the truth? If one part of the Magisterium contradicts another, both being at the same level, which is to believed?

Unfortunately, what has happened is that many neoconservatives have acted as if non-infallible ordinary magisterial teachings (such as, for instance, the role of inculturation in the liturgy as stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church) are, in fact, infallible when the current Magisterium promulgates them. This is a positivist mentality. Many of the things that neoconservatives do are the result of implicitly adopting principles that they have not fully or explicitly considered. Many of them would deny this characterization because they do not intellectually hold to what, in fact, are their operative principles."


I hope you find the above helpful. At this point, however, having followed most of this discussion, albeit without actively participating in it, I do feel obliged to remark (and I say this without the intention of causing offense), that though my views diverge from the “anti-death penalty” faction (for most of the reasons you have previously enumerated), I am largely in agreement with Don Ruggero when he stated, with what I imagine to have been a long-suffering tone, that,

“When persons ask: “What is really meant by unacceptable?” “What is really meant by inadmissible?” it is nothing short of bizarre in the present context.[…] When it comes to theology, what the Holy Father has articulated are extremely easy concepts.”

Indeed, Pope Francis’s motives in revising the Catechism, as well as the reasoning presented by the Holy Father, are quite clear. For that reason, I found your response to Don Ruggero and other like-minded interlocutors, along the lines that what they have presented is merely “their understanding of the situation”, to be rather curious. A straightforward reading of the Holy Father’s words reveals that “their understanding” and Pope Francis’s are identical.

I believe those of us in favor of retaining the possible use of capital punishment are better served by a plain recognition of this fact, and that it would also be good to draw inspiration from Fr. John Fongemie, FSSP, who, shortly after the announcement of the revision to the Catechism, declared in his parish bulletin that, “The Holy See is apparently in error, and in my view, no Catholic should feel himself bound to the Catechism in this regard.”

I do not fear to misrepresent Don Ruggero by positing that he sharply disagrees with Fr. Fongemie on this point—however, I am also confident in asserting that if nothing else, he will at least begrudgingly commend this FSSP priest for his honesty—here, at least, there is no attempt at waving away the Holy Father’s unambigious statements, or putting words in his mouth. If one believes the ordinary Magisterium has erred and that certain measures will be corrected or repealed in the future, then one should forthrightly say so—quibbling over semantics and reinterpreting the Holy Father’s words is not, in my mind, a particularly useful endeavor.


That isn’t true. The purpose of punishment was primarily justice. If rehabilitation was a traditional purpose then they wouldn’t have been executing people for all the various capital crimes of the past. You can’t rehabilitate a dead man because he is dead. So that just doesn’t make sense.


You are endeavourig to argue with an Archbishop who is the vice-president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops…and himself a gifted theologian


JReed, speaking as a non US poster as Don Ruggero and some of the others here are also, if you get to the bottom of Enders reasoning, implicitly he is deeming abolition to be ungodly and a deficiency of justice. Around the world, it has been abolished for moral reasonings and that is recognised by Evangelium Vitae which calls it “a growing moral sensitivity”. Enders objection is not that the US needs the death penalty today but that abolition is an offence against the Divine. How arrogant and insulting to the rest of the world!


I find it easy to view the death penalty as intending, among other things, to encourage restoration of the person to life in their heart. It would focus the mind most sharply on the four last things, and on prompt repentance. I’m not sure if it would work that way in a modern society of “nones”. But there is that quote about there are no atheists in foxholes.


Clearly not as he isn’t here. But that statement makes no sense to me.

I agree. If the discussion is how can punishment be reformative then there is no reason to exclude the death penalty. Plenty of condemned repent when they know they are going to be killed.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit