Capital Punishment...

In my first post here can I share some thoughts that I posted about in more detail at my blog on the subject of capital punishment?

Roman Catholic teaching notes that traditionally capital punishment was not absolutely excluded (an understatement indeed…), but that today, so long as non-lethal means can defend against the aggressor and protect the safety of other persons, then those non-lethal means are to be chosen. This is more in keeping with the common good and conforms more to the dignity of the human person (CCC, 2267). John Paul II notes that the cases in which the execution of an offender is absolutely necessary “are very rare, if not practically non-existent (Evangelium vitae, 56).” In a country like the United States, to the Roman Catholic Church, there isn’t a person being executed that needs to be.

Do you agree that this accurately represents the Church’s thoughts on the matter?

I certainly invite your participation at my blog discussion on the subject as well, where the issue is spoken of in more detail (


Like everything else the Church teaches, it makes perfect logical sense although we may not agree emotionally.

Having spent time in prison, i can assure you that a life sentence is far worse than the death sentence. Life in prison gives you nothing but time to reflect on your sins and hopefully repent!

The emotional need for revenge, is the only reason for the Death Penalty in a country like the US.

Actually … no, I do not. CCC 2267 and Evangelium Vitae 56 represent the thoughts of JPII but do not reflect what the Church taught prior to 1995. I find it significant that neither of the two sources mentioned above reference anything the Church has ever said on this subject; in fact they reference each other.

[quote=Mark77]The emotional need for revenge, is the only reason for the Death Penalty in a country like the US.

Crime and punishment are cause and effect; the more severe the crime, the more severe the punishment must be. It is not revenge that is called for but justice which requires a fit penalty. Punishment is not primarily about protecting the public but about “redressing the disorder caused by the offense.”


Ender, thank you for your thoughts.
You misdiagnose however.
Contrary to what you assert, they sources I quoted do note the traditional view of capital punishment. In noting what has traditionally been maintained, it is my opinion that they very optimistically interpret it, and in doing so make it more continuous with the present teaching on the matter. While the Catechism’s or John Paul’s views might not be yours, it wasn’t my intention to summarize your views and as such I think it stands that I have accurately portrayed the Church’s teaching on capital punishment. Our current position is that there wouldn’t be an execution preformed in the United States that needs to be committed.
Thanks again,

I agree with the Church’s teaching regarding capital punishment. JPII, in reading the “signs of the times,” notes correctly that modern society has the technology to incarcerate capital offenders indefinitely. Whether it has the resources to do so is a matter of prudential judgment which the pope left, as he should, to the political and judicial systems.

When the community applies capital punishment, they, I think, must act out of charity toward the offender. Not to do so render the morality on questionable (but not entirely undependable) grounds.


There are a host of secular reasons why capital punishment makes no sense… among them the fact that since 1973, 131 people have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence. One of them - from Illinois - spent 19 years on death row and at one point came within 2 days of being executed. It was later determined conclusively that he was innocent of the crime.

I have corresponded with several death row inmates for the past 11 years, and believe me, we’re not talking about a posh life here. And nor should it be; if guilty, these people must be punished and society must be protected. But I also remember the words of our Lord when he said, ""Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ "Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’”

The State governments in my country, and the Federal government all decided against the death penalty early to mid last century. Clearly Australians decided against the morality of capital punishment. The nation rejected capital punishment, so that the issue doesn’t arise here. I hope that it will be resolved in your country soon.

As you say, both the Catechism and Evangelium Vitae refer to the Church’s teachings on punishment (the Catechism in 2266 and EV in referencing 2266) and then both go on to ignore it (the Catechism in 2267). There is in fact no way to square what is said in 2267 with what was just proclaimed in 2266.

What is the primary purpose of punishment? In 2266 it is defined as “to redress the disorder caused by the offense.” That is - justice. What is the reason capital punishment is ruled out in 2267? There it is explained that it is unnecessary for the defense of society. The defense of society however is a secondary objective of punishment, which may or may not be a factor in determining the punishment; the primary objective in contrast must always be satisfied. It cannot be true that a secondary objective of anything can ever override the primary objective … which is why the defense of society can never override the need for justice in determining the punishment to apply to a criminal.


I am not certain I would feel comfortable claiming the CCC to be wrong and at the same time claiming to be Catholic.

A wise parent once told me that if you believe the Dogma of God’s church to be in error, the error is more likely in the one reading it.

How so?
I have yet to see the legal system in this country demonstrate the ability to keep dangerous criminals off of the street.

Given that, how can we have any faith whatsoever in the system’s ability to keep us safe from the most dangerous and violent of criminals?

Hello Ender, I understand and respect your position, but my intention has been to promote the current Catholic teaching. I initially asked if I was portraying it accurately. You disagreed. Your issue is not with my interpretation but with the current teaching itself. Unlike at least one other here, I do not feel your Catholicity is in question as a result, but here I am presenting the Church’s current view, not what you would like it to be.

There are occasional escapes from prison by inmates…is that what you mean? If a dangerous and violent offender gets life…why would there be a need for the DP? What happens in many cases, is that violent offenders who don’t murder their victims, get out in 10-20 years, and they might be MORE VIOLENT than when they went into prison. But, that being said, every person despite their actions deserves the right to life. As Catholics, it’s good to believe this. You don’t have to believe it, but the Church’s stance is based upon believing that ‘most’ people could be rehabilitated. Everyone deserves an opportunity to know God, to come to His Son. That might take years of a person sitting behind bars, to find God, but he/she was given the chance.

I think the Church purposely leaves the capital punishment area a little ambiguous. The Church gives credit and the authority to the state (whether actual state or federal) to determine which cases are deemed death penalty cases and those that aren’t. Its also within the state’s authority to execute these penalties. We don’t have to disagree w/ the state nor do we have to agree. We simply have to have Christian charity and respect for life, while allowing the state its authority.

I, personally, would not like to be involved in the jury decision to sentence some one to death. In my job, I present evidence in death penalty cases and that makes me somewhat uncomfortable, but I trust the justice system and the authority of the state to deal w/ offenders in my (and society’s) best interest. I don’t think anyone in the justice system - even in a state like TX w/ a high rate of execution - enjoys the death penalty. However, the authorities (and a jury of the offender’s peers) deem that person to be a danger to society beyond the safety of a prison. Its not just one person’s decision - nor is it an easy decision for anyone involved.

However, I don’t necessarily agree that the death penalty should be done away with altogether either. I think in some instances, the death penalty is warranted to ensure that society is kept from being harmed by violent criminals. If the justice system was re-worked & violent criminals didn’t get out of ‘life’ sentences early, the death penalty wouldn’t be warranted as often, but IMO it would still have a place. The reason I say that last is that there are some violent offenders who have no remorse & no respect for any human life. Some of these offenders present serious danger to their prison society - other inmates & guards, etc. Therefore, even while incarcerated, these offenders are capable of causing harm to their society - even if placed on strict confinement and limited contact w/ others. There is always going to be some human contact & its just a matter of time for some of these offenders to act out again. They have 24 hrs a day to think of ways to escape and/or wreak havoc - especially when kept in isolation. This last I have heard from prison workers that I know (case workers/psychologists/guards/etc).

No, I am addressing the criminals that are released early for no other reason then because the jails are too crowded.
Escapees however also make an interesting point.

Correct in many cases. And since our legal system does not protect the public from this…
If life in prison really meant the person spent the rest of their life in prison, then the DP would be unnecessary.

***I’ll have to digest this, you bring up a VERY interesting point about crowded prisons.

What needs to take place is helping these criminals to becoming rehabilitated. Treating adults like caged animals…who’s idea was this, that somehow treating people like animals would produce a benefit to society? Often, these non violent offenders come out of prison and become violent. It’s a scary world we live in. I am not an advocate of the DP, but you do bring up some interesting points. ***

What needs to take place is helping these criminals to becoming rehabilitated.

I, personally, am not entirely sure that rehabilitation is entirely possible for all offenders. Many seem to think that there is nothing wrong w/ their actions that got them into prison to begin with. Therefore, they do not work at being rehabilitated while incarcerated. Rehabilitation is not a one-sided proposition - the inmate must work w/ counsellors, psychologists, etc in order for it to be acheived. If the intiative of the offender/inmate isn’t high enough, rehabilitation is not going to happen. For an average to above average intelligence offender/inmate, it is very easy to manipulate the rehabilitation system to their advantage, get released, & continue on their merry criminal ways.

My personal opinion is that offenders/inmates should still be working on chain gangs. It works as a deterrent (who wants to dig holes, just to fill them up again day after day after day, etc). It also gives them something to do besides contemplate how to escape and/or commit the perfect crime later. It makes them more tired so there isn’t as much energy left-over for them to beat up on others.

Assuming you’re willing to persist in holding an opinion counter to the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the American Bishops, there still remains a major ethical concern that I’m not seeing addressed. 131 people have been released from death row since 1973 WITH EVIDENCE OF THEIR INNOCENCE. I’m not talking about people getting out on a technicality. I’m talking about innocence.

God’s justice is perfect, and ours is far from perfect.

Furthermore inmates have plenty of time to reflect on their crimes and to develop repentance. Dead inmates? Not so much.

131 people have been released from death row since 1973 WITH EVIDENCE OF THEIR INNOCENCE.

You’re looking at that statistic as a negative. I see it as a positive sign that our justice system is doing its best to ensure that innocent people aren’t convicted &/or executed. With the advent and further development of DNA analysis (as well as more scientific basis for evidence), there are fewer & fewer chances for wrongful conviction. This is morally good as well as good for the justice system.

What’s the counter statistic? How many people since 1973 have been executed w/ evidence of their guilt? How many people since 1973 have been released contrary to evidence of their guilt & gone on to commit further crimes? How many people since 1973 have been aquitted with evidence of their innocence?

The justice system is not perfect. I know that & I think everyone does. However, it does the best it can to protect society. The fact that I’m not diametrically opposed to the death penalty is not contrary to the Church’s teaching on this matter. We are allowed to give the state this authority and trust the state to work to the best of its ability to prevent travesties of justice. I don’t campaign for or against the death penalty. However, I am not opposed to the death penalty as a last resort, so if the choice were between two otherwise equally morally sound individuals to be elected, I’d probably select the one that believed in rare/justified use of the death penalty.

My lay apostolate is ministering to federal inmates providing RCIA to inquirers and Bible study for Catholics who have received the sacraments of initiation.

Make no mistake; in federal prison security has priority over rehabilitation. However, the BOP seeks and recruits more Catholic Chaplain volunteers to enter their facilities due to the rising overall population of nominal Catholics, primarily Hispanic, incarcerated in the system.

In mid-year 2008, over 1% of our population of 15-64 year olds was in prison. 5% of all blacks males, 2% of all Hispanics males, and 0.7% of all white males are incarcerated.

It seems to me we do not have a prison population problem – that is only a symptom which manifests a deep cultural problem in our country’s value system which puts the material over and against the spiritual.

Your opinion, it seems to me, lacks charity and promotes a rash judgment regarding the interior disposition of inmates and denies the Holy Spirit’s ability to convert the most hardened criminal. Both the lack of charity toward and rash judgment about others are not Catholic dispositions (see your Catechism). I challenge you to pray for the grace to volunteer as a Catholic Chaplain Volunteer and make a difference in effecting a higher rate of rehabilitation for more good is done by becoming an instrument of the Holy Spirit in praying and dialoguing with these men than having them chipping rocks on their own.


[quote=Catechism of the Catholic Church]**2267 **Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

As you can see, the Church is against the death penalty in pretty much every case.

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