Capital punishment for retributive purposes

Is a Catholic allowed to be in favor of capital punishment when his reasons in favor of it are partially or even primarily retributive?

Catholic authorities and apologists I have heard, at CA and elsewhere, have always discussed the fact that Catholics are permitted to favor capital punishment in the context of protecting society from the individual criminal. I agree with the factual assessment of both Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI that such a need is almost never present in an advanced industrial society with a modern penal system.

However, I am inclined to believe that sometimes it is warranted simply as punishment. I realize most Church authorities disagree with this position, and that is a sobering fact for me that requires reflection, but is it even permissible for me to hold such a position for the reasons I have?

Finally, is it legitimate to factor in the deterrent effect when considering the protection of society rationale? I.e., can one broaden the scope beyond protecting society from the individual who has already committed a crime to protecting society from those future people who might be deterred from committing certain acts because of the threat of the death penalty?

Have you thought about why the Church’s position is what it is? Could it be that since only God has rightful authority to take a life (in the absence of other circumstances like defense), the State taking a life intrudes on His sovereignty?

I think that there is room in Catholic theology for the use of capital punishment for purposes of justice as well as for the protection of society. This article by Avery Cardinal Dulles presents that position.

Cardinal Dulles has 10 points.

  1. The purpose of punishment in secular courts is fourfold: the rehabilitation of the criminal, the protection of society from the criminal, the deterrence of other potential criminals, and retributive justice.
  1. Just retribution, which seeks to establish the right order of things, should not be confused with vindictiveness, which is reprehensible.
  1. Punishment may and should be administered with respect and love for the person punished.
  1. The person who does evil may deserve death. According to the biblical accounts, God sometimes administers the penalty himself and sometimes directs others to do so.
  1. Individuals and private groups may not take it upon themselves to inflict death as a penalty.
  1. The State has the right, in principle, to inflict capital punishment in cases where there is no doubt about the gravity of the offense and the guilt of the accused.
  1. The death penalty should not be imposed if the purposes of punishment can be equally well or better achieved by bloodless means, such as imprisonment.
  1. The sentence of death may be improper if it has serious negative effects on society, such as miscarriages of justice, the increase of vindictiveness, or disrespect for the value of innocent human life.
  1. Persons who specially represent the Church, such as clergy and religious, in view of their specific vocation, should abstain from pronouncing or executing the sentence of death.
  1. Catholics, in seeking to form their judgment as to whether the death penalty is to be supported as a general policy, or in a given situation, should be attentive to the guidance of the pope and the bishops. Current Catholic teaching should be understood, as I have sought to understand it, in continuity with Scripture and tradition.

And it is not right to take one of these 10 principles out of context of the other 9. They stand together as a whole.

And Cardinal Dulles also states:

The Pope and the bishops, using their prudential judgment, have concluded that in contemporary society, at least in countries like our own, the death penalty ought not to be invoked, because, on balance, it does more harm than good. I personally support this position.

The Church’s traditional teaching on the Fifth Commandment actually upholds this, that capital punishment’s first purpose is to punish, that is, to fulfill the requirements of justice, the offender is caused to suffer and be deprived of a good to redress the wrong committed, the good in this case, being his earthly life. Deterrence and protection of society were secondary.

In the current Catechism, the Church has decided to add a prudential judgment to factor in those two secondary objectives in the decision as to whether to execute a criminal. This does not, however in any way, reverse Catholic teaching on the justness of the death penalty as a fitting punishment for serious crimes.

The Church teaches us that while God is the owner of all human life, he has delegated to the state the authority to take the lives of criminals, that is, to wield the sword. This goes back as far as Pope Innocent I, affirmed by subsequent Popes to as recent as Pius XII, and upheld by the Council of Trent as being obedient to the commandment against murder (not contrary to it).

On the original poster’s question, Pope Pius XII is very clear on the expiative value of capital punishment.

I think the OP was asking only about the justness of capital punishment for its retributive value, not necessarily the propriety of its application in modern society. The answer to his question is yes, the Church has always upheld that capital punishment’s first purpose is retribution. Yes, the Catechism states the prudential judgment on its contemporary application which we should hold on to, but if I read the OP correctly, he was not asking about this.

Where has God delegated this authority? And by what authority do states presume authority to punish by death? I can see an argument for a State evicting an offender from its jurisdiction, and sending him to the proper Judge, but since the State creates nothing, it has no claim of right to exact punishment.

For the Scriptural basis, we find it in Romans 13:3-4: “For** rulers** are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval,for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid,** for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer**.”

The Church confirms this in various magisterial pronouncments, for example:

Pope Innocent I: "It must be remembered that power was granted by God [to the magistrates], and to avenge crime by the sword was permitted. He who carries out this vengeance is God’s minister (Rm 13:1-4). Why should we condemn a practice that all hold to be permitted by God? We uphold, therefore, what has been observed until now, in order not to alter the discipline and so that we may not appear to act contrary to God’s authority. "

Innocent III: “The secular power can without mortal sin carry out a sentence of death, provided it proceeds in imposing the penalty not from hatred but with judgment, not carelessly but with due solicitude.”

Roman Catechism (of the Council of Trent): “The power of life and death is permitted to certain civil magistrates because theirs is the responsibility under law to punish the guilty and protect the innocent.** Far from being guilty of breaking this commandment, such an execution of justice is precisely an act of obedience to it.** For the purpose of the law is to protect and foster human life. This purpose is fulfilled when the legitimate authority of the State is exercised by taking the guilty lives of those who have taken innocent lives.”

Capital punishment,I always believed that man had a right to self defend himself against unjust agressors,we all agree to that,so heres where i’m going with this. Isimply make the case that capital punishment is society’s way of exercising its right to self defend itself by cleansing itself of attackers…william bradl

Romans 13 is not a delegation of authority. The Popes say as much when they cite it. They acknowledge, as did St. Paul, that states have power to do these things, and that God allows it.

But where is the authority? We must have proper authority to act, otherwise power is weilded unjustly.

I admit that I have very serious questions about the scope of the Church’s authority. And perhaps I’m a bit strident in my pursuit of the truth and justice. But I do not think it unreasonable to search for real delegations of authority.

Christ himself submitted to Rome’s power, not because Rome had authority, but because it served his purpose. Otherwise, he did not lay down his life willingly, but became subject to the powers of this world.

How are we as men any different? Do we not consent to be governed? Without our consent, governments have no authority, since as Christians our first allegiance is to God. Without proper authority, power is naked, without excuse, and tyrannical.

Recall Daniel praying against the will of the State. The State had the power to execute him, but not the authority.

I didn’t take any of it out of context. One of the reasons I like this article is its holistic approach - it addresses justice AND protection of society.

I think it is a good read for anyone who questions why the issue of capital punishment is one of prudential judgement and not one of an absolute moral prohibition.

Sorry, please read the quotes again, especially from Pope Innocent I. He explicitly cites this passage as the proof of the state’s authority to take lives. Romans 13 is clear. Who wields the sword, but whose wrath is exercised and on whom?

But where is the authority? We must have proper authority to act, otherwise power is weilded unjustly.

I admit that I have very serious questions about the scope of the Church’s authority. And perhaps I’m a bit strident in my pursuit of the truth and justice. But I do not think it unreasonable to search for real delegations of authority.

Where in those Scriptural quotes and magisterial pronouncements are you having difficulty seeing that the authority to wield the sword is God-given? I even bolded Pope Innocent I’s statement: this power is granted by God to the state. How much clearer do you need it to be? Remember, this is the Church speaking, not some layman.

Did St. Paul have authority to delegate authority to States?

That comment was a general one, not directed at you.

It’s a very thorough article, and it actually doesn’t support either “side” in this debate, though he does agree with the general direction of the Church in the context of western countries.

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