Catholic Arguments For and Against the Death Penalty

“Genesis 9:6 says, ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.’ Read that last part again, ‘for God made man in his own image.’ Retribution isn’t a matter of petty revenge or a simple matter of balancing some cosmic scales. Murder is such a heinous crime precisely because it defaces the image of God in another person.”

I know the Death Penalty isn’t a new topic for this forum, but this article hopefully has a new and interesting approach for those interested in it:

Catholic Arguments For and Against the Death Penalty

I personally tend to be convinced by the first two arguments in favor of the death penalty.

Quoting the Old Testament (e.g., Genesis 9:6) is not a valid approach to this question. There we read that one should be put to death for adultery or even for doing work on the Sabbath. Jesus told us different.

The wrongful execution of an innocent person is an injustice that can never be rectified. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty, 144 men and women have been released from death row nationally.

Exodus 21:17
And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death.

Unless you accept things like this as valid punishments, you can’t use the Old Testament to support the death penalty.

The death penalty is immoral in western society today.

I prefer Cardinal Avery Dulles’ explanation.

Cardinal Dulles was himself not in favor of the use of the death penalty but understood that capital punishment is not itself a violation of Church teaching nor a violation of the right to life.

There is plenty of support that rationalizing a Catholic’s support or opposition to the death penalty.

If capital punishment is used for the reason that it is the ONLY avenue available to prevent an evil person from taking the life of someone else, a Catholic can support it…the argument that will go on is whether something as simple as life in prison, in isolation, without parole, mitigates this fear, and therefore a Catholic might have justifiable hesitation to support it.

But the real rub is, what is the intent of a Catholic’s support for the death penalty. If it for vengeance, anger, fear, outrage, God will know that person’s heart. All the justification to other men is meaningless. God will deal with those people. In this case, it could be argued that “Whatever you did to him, you did to me,” includes the death penalty.

God told us, he takes no delight in the death of the wicked, but would rather see them convert. Some might argue that an execution takes away the opportunity of conversion.

I used to be open to a society having the death penalty. As I get older and maybe a bit wiser, I am not so sure society is served by the current system. Both the unrealistic amount of time it takes to work through the legal system, but more importantly the brokenness of our system.

As stated in the linked article, we can ensure that prisoners are kept away from society for life, which is ultimately the goal of taking someone’s life, with our current system.

There are a few things Catholics cannot argue about regarding the death penalty. Catholics cannot make the claim that the death penalty is immoral, because the Church has always upheld the inherent morality of capital punishment. On this point, it differs from abortion and euthanasia, both of which are inherently evil.

What Catholics CAN argue about is whether it should still be imposed, according to the prudential judgement laid down in Evangelium Vitae. Catholics can argue either side without falling into sin or rendering themselves ineligible to receive Holy Communion.


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.”

By “there” you presumably mean in the Old Testament, not Genesis 9:6 in particular, which simply says that murderers are to be put to death. We can read this a little more broadly (as the Church, historically, always has) as laying down a general principle: that human life is sacred precisely because of its conformity to the rational nature of God, and that the illicit taking of human life is a crime of the highest magnitude which merits the highest punishment. Subsequent passages in the OT (i.e., in Deuteronomy and Leviticus and elsewhere) don’t presume to lay out moral principles, they just extrapolate the general principle to particular cases. Obviously, general moral principles cannot change, even if the circumstances of their application can; so the fact that both of them appear in the OT is not in itself evidence that we have to either accept both or reject both.

Wouldn’t the release of innocent people from death row be evidence that the system and its safeguards are working? (Nice username by the way, I loved FF8!)

This doesn’t make much sense. “Morality” has two sources: the natural and the divine laws. Both of these are essentially unchangeable, the former being rooted in changeless human nature and the latter in changeless divine nature. If the death penalty was morally permissible yesterday, it is morally permissible today.

Of course that doesn’t mean the death penalty is necessarily good, because moral permissibility is a necessary but insufficient condition for deciding whether or not a particular course of action ought to be undertaken. By way of example, it is morally permissible for a man to make love to his wife, even if it were a terrible idea for prudential reasons (i.e., she is currently gravely ill and pregnancy could kill her). I read the Church as saying that the death penalty should be avoided for prudential reasons, i.e., because modern society no longer has a clear conception of the state as a dispenser of divine justice (or even a clear conception of “justice”), so that execution of criminals tends to conduce, not to an appreciation of divine justice, but to a valorization of the wrath of the mob and the supreme power of the totalitarian state. And I happen to agree with that assessment and with the conclusion that comes from it. But that is certainly different from saying “the death penalty is immoral today,” which, beyond being a non sequitur, is at odds with what the Church teaches.

It might. But it might also be an occasion for conversion – since the prospect of impending death tends to liberate people from worldly attachments that might be an impediment to conversion. Personally, I would be very happy to know the exact hour of my death, and to have access to the Sacraments immediately beforehand.

I understand what you are saying but I think it is incorrect.

The death penalty is a lot like just war doctrine. We would not say fighting a just war is immoral but we would say fighting an unjust war is immoral.

On the same token, using the death penalty justly (when it is the only way to protect society) is a moral act.

But using the death penalty unjustly (when it is used despite other means of protecting society) it is immoral.

The latter is the case for most of western society. It is certainly true for the US.

So this is not a prudential judgement but instead the just application of a divine law.

As to the death penalty, blessed Jon Paul II got it right : today in current society cases in which the death penalty can be applied are very rare. If we read the above posted cathecism of the church and take each requisite that it imposes for death penalty to be licit: identity and responsibility fully determined (this is practically impossible in current society), only possible way of defending human lives (again currently there are many other ways of defending human life), and the use of non lethal means available (there are many non lethal means available), it is impossible in current society to apply the death penalty in a licit form. The only way in which you could probably apply licitly would be in the situation of a mass shooting in which the police kills the aggressor that would be the only circumstance in which we could argue that the death penalty is licit. Under any other circumstances, precisely because there are non lethal methods available, states have too many other ways to protect life and because it is possible to establish accurately responsibility and identity, as pope john Paul said dealth penalty should not be used

Which is quite a different statement than “the death is immoral in western society today.”

This doesn’t capture everything I’m saying, though, nor what the Church says. Because the Church never, previously, recognized that the death penalty could only be used “as a means of protecting society.” In fact she previously taught very nearly the opposite, that among the reasons for using the death penalty, protection of society was of secondary importance.

It is either the case that the Church has today repudiated the teachings of the Church of old, or else what the Church is saying today is not as simple as “it’s immoral, so don’t.”

More precisely, when the Church says that the death penalty should only be used when it is absolutely necessary for the protection of saying, she is emphatically not laying out a general moral principle, she is offering a prudential advisement about the application of the moral principle. She is saying that the conditions of today mean we should not use it unless necessary. Well, then we have to ask the question of why: what are the “conditions of today” that mean we shouldn’t use the death penalty unless we absolutely need to? We can’t answer “because we don’t need to” because that’s circular reasoning (and the ability to incarcerate prisoners or otherwise remove them from society is not new to this age, anyway).

The answer is that the conditions of today are such that execution of criminals can be a source of scandal, because modern man is so flagrant in his rebellion against God that he cannot understand capital punishment as the enactment of divine justice but as the enactment of his own personal wrath, and as the enactment of the power of the totalitarian state to end life at will. Hence it shouldn’t be used, unless absolutely necessary.

Again, that is a prudential response to the unique conditions of the here-and-now. It didn’t apply 500 years ago or 100 years ago, and it may not apply 100 or 500 years hence.

The death penalty was abolished in my Australian state 100 years ago and in the whole of Australia by 50 years ago. It was recognised as ‘unjust’ and an uncivilised measure, In no way is that considered to be a temporary measure until we can crank up the old guillotines in a blaze of glory again. We are constantly growing in awareness of what it means to be made in Gods image and the extent of our fraternity as people. Please God we never see a return to the death penalty as that would mark a severe retreat from both our civil and spiritual maturity.

Before I was Catholic, and when I was a big supporter of the death penalty, one thing changed my mind. A graphic of the world and where the death penalty is used.

Do we want to be on par with the Middle East, china, Afghanistan?

Or the rest of the civilized world!?

List of countries by number of executions:

The following 21 countries are believed by Amnesty International to have carried out executions in 2012: Afghanistan (14), Bangladesh (1), Belarus (3+), China (2000+), Gambia (9), India (1), Iran (314+), Iraq (129+), Japan (7), North Korea (6+), Pakistan (1), Palestine (6), Republic of China (6), Saudi Arabia (79+), Somalia (6+), South Sudan (5+), Sudan (19+), UAE (1), USA (43), Yemen (28+).[4]

Wow! Don’t you hate it when you are caught behaving like people you criticize?


That is not the death penalty. Police use lethal force as a means to stop the threat. The intent is not to kill the agressor, but to stop the threat. That’s one reason you shoot center mass. Biggest area to aim for though it’s not the most lethal (the head would probably be the most).

The purpose of the police is to take a person with whom there is probable cause to believe they commited a crime and bring them to the justice system. Police do not punish if acting properly.

I would also believe that the death penalty could be licit in remote societies that are still living primitively that do not have modern correctional facilities available.

Personally, I think the death penalty is moral but am not in favor of it in practice in first world nations due to the expense and problems with determining the guilt of some.

The ‘death penalty’ is but one application of death serving justice. St Augustine writes… " *The same divine authority that forbids the killing of a human being establishes certain exceptions, as when God authorizes killing by a general law or when He gives an explicit commission to an individual for a limited time." *

God allows for the taking of a life to prevent further loss of life. A policeman by virtue of his commission to protect and serve could legitimately aim to kill.

That is too broad an objection. Surely if the church quotes the Old Testament every Sunday at mass then what it says must still have application for us today. In fact, that part of Genesis is a statement by God himself, and it is hard to think of any reason why it should simply be ignored. In fact the church cites that passage quite frequently, and in this context.If the Pope were to deny that the death penalty could be an exercise of retributive justice, he would be overthrowing the tradition of two millennia of Catholic thought, denying the teaching of several previous popes, and contradicting the teaching of Scripture (notably in Genesis 9:5-6 and Romans 13:1-4). (Cardinal Dulles)

There we read that one should be put to death for adultery or even for doing work on the Sabbath. Jesus told us different.

Actually, Jesus never spoke against capital punishment even in this case where its use would seem barbarous to us.*Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. *(Mt 15: 3-6)

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