Catholic judges in death penalty cases


I have been a criminal defense lawyer for several years and am interest in becoming a judge. My only concern is that, as a devout Catholic, I would be facing a moral dilemma when hearing cases in which the prosecution seeks the death penalty. I live in an area that is heavily pro-death penalty, so I would almost be assured of being voted out if I kept ignoring the prosecution’s execution request.

Could someone please point me towards some more information? I tried Googling and found an academic paper on the issue, but not much else. Thank you :slight_smile:


A Catholic can, in good conscience, support the death penalty, or at least view it as a legitimate act of the State.

“For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment.” - Cardinal Ratzinger as head of the CDF.


There is no room for the death penalty when there are alternatives such as life in prison. There is no ambiguity on this.

Reference CCC 2267

***If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, ***

The Church is absolutely crystal clear on this. Catholics cannot support the death penalty in a modern society where there are non-lethal means of protecting innocent life.

Catholiclawyer0, the moral dilemma is real for a Catholic judge in a state which allows the death penalty. People are going to tell you that I am wrong, that I don’t know what I am talking about, that I misunderstand the meaning of certain words, so please read the catechism for yourself and seek council through your pastor at Church. Christ always speaks through legitimate authority of the Church.



So, you are saying there is no wiggle room, so to speak, as far as Catholic judges and the death penalty are concerned? Just want to make sure that I am understanding. Thank you :slight_smile:


That is my understanding, yes. I urge you to seek out council from the Church. I am nobody. This is a serious issue for a judge. Your pastor should be able to advise you.



That is something you’d be force to decide on a case by case basis as a judge. The death penalty is not like abortion - i.e. intrinsically evil, so there is room for prudential judgements made by those, like judges, in authority.

The full entry in paragraph 2267, cited in part by Tim above, of the CCC reads:

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 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 nonexistent."68

The CCC references Pope John Paul 2’s Evangelium Vitae paragraph 56, which reads:

This is the context in which to place the problem of the death penalty. On this matter there is a growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely. The problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God’s plan for man and society. The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is “to redress the disorder caused by the offence”.46 Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfils the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people’s safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behaviour and be rehabilitated. 47

It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender** except in cases of absolute necessity**: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.

In any event, the principle set forth in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church remains valid: “If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person”


Some people are very much mistaken in their belief that the Catholic Church teaches against the death penalty, against self defense, or against just war. In fact, the Church has always recognized the right of individuals and the state to use deadly force and it always will.

Read the entire Catechism section 2267. It repeats the Apostolic teaching but points out correctly that deadly force must always be a last resort.

Of course, if an individual judge cannot support the death penalty, he should be honest and recuse himself from such cases.


You’re entitled to your opinion. However, that can’t possibly be true, especially since criminals have been able to continue leading/directing their minions to do their bidding, from within the walls of prison. Mafia and other mob leaders continue to give directives to their people from within the walls of prison and continue to commit crimes from within the walls of prison. Murders and rapists continue to harm others from within the walls of prison. Drug dealers continue to deal from within the walls of prison. Take away all their contact from the outside world so that they can’t do that, and it’s labeled unfair and inhumane :eek:

A Catholic judge is bound by the law. If s/he isn’t capable of fulfilling his/her responsibilities as a protector of the public, then he shouldn’t accept the position in the first place.


I completely agree with the Church’s teaching on the death penalty. That being said, I think it important to keep in mind that even if a murderer is put in jail in this country, that hardly “prevents him from causing injury” to others. For example, corrections officers are at high risk:
Correctional Officers (CO’s) have the second highest mortality rate of any occupation.
33.5% of all assaults in prisons and jails are committed by inmates against staff.
A CO’s 58th birthday, on average, is their last.
A CO will be seriously assaulted at least twice in a 20 year career.

There are also on average about 20 inmate murders in prisons in this country every year. That number has been falling over the last 20 years pretty sharply, which is very good, but I think we need to keep in mind that convicted murderers are still dangerous, even in prison. IMO that means that there is some “wiggle room” on this issue, and it remains a “prudential judgment”.


This is definitely something you should talk to your pastor about.

I would also see if your state has either a Catholic Lawyer’s Guild or a St. Thomas More Society, where perhaps more experienced lawyers can assist you.

I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all answer here. In some state it is the jury who determines the penalty, in others the judge does the sentencing (with recommendations from the prosecution as you noted).

Having grown up in TX and now living in a non-death penalty state, I can say I’ve come a long way in how I view the death penalty.

Being a criminal defense attorney I am sure you see up close and personal all the ways that peoples’ rights are violated in our judicial process every day.

I would say as a judge you wouldn’t have to rule out the death penalty, but you would need some serious discernment and prudential judgment as to when you would apply it and when you would go with a lesser allowed sentence.

Personally, I could not sentence another person to death, I don’t think, and that’s a huge turn around from where I was 10 years ago.

As you grown in your career, and the longer you are exposed to the “justice” system, I think either the more jaded you will become or the more compassionate.

But, then I read a news article like the one yesterday in Madison, WI, where 6 armed home invaders gang-raped a 6 month’s pregnant woman, and I think-, “animals deserve to be put down.”

So, you know, I’m not perfect yet. :slight_smile:


The death penalty is not intrinsically evil so you could theoretically issue the death penalty. The problem is you need to do so only as a true last resort. In today’s modern society, that can be very difficult to do.

I would suggest you meet with a priest and talk it over. You may even want to consider getting a spiritual director and making monthly visits. That’s a great way to keep you in line with what the Church teaches and ensures you won’t make a mistake. Remember: You’re dealing with a person’s life so you want to be able to tell Jesus on judgement day that you did everything you could to try and follow church teaching.


Please talk to a priest about the matter, or is there any Catholic Law Society where you all meet and discuss things.

What ever you decide May the Lord Bless you with the Wisdom of Solomon .


You could become a judge in a court that does not hear felony cases.

And, in many states, the death penalty is a jury decision.


No chance!

How on earth can a Catholic sentence someone to death!



There certainly is a lot of confusion about what the Church teaches about capital punishment.

It is the opinion of recent popes that the state should not impose the death penalty for any crimes. Be mindful that the moral law is objective. It does not depend on what people think of it as times change. For example you will find historical evidence that the Church always
condemned abortion. There are early letters from the first century, the Didache, letter of Barnabas condemning abortion and the Church has done so until this day.

The same thing is true of sexual morals. Fornication, adultery, homosexual behavior, bestiality have always been condemned as grievous moral evils.

This is not the case with capital punishment. The Church has never until recently disapproved, much less condemned this as a moral evil. Pope Saint Pius V encouraged the death penalty for priests guilty of homosexual behavior.

Capital punishment was always seen as a legitimate punishment for certain crimes by the Church until recently. How could it be that if this is a moral evil no one noticed, popes or saints until this modern age that has become so corrupt and confused we think men can marry men and it is a civil right of mother’s to murder their innocent babies?


The bottom line for me is this…

the end of my life, Jesus is going to ask me if I was absolutely sure that the person had to die, ask me if there was any other alternative, and why I did not choose the alternative and let the person live. Jesus is going to remind me that he died for me, and for all, including rapists and murderers, and ask me if that was not a good enough reason to do everything I can to ensure that someone else lived and had a chance to be saved as I hope that I have been saved.

That’s the bottom line for me personally, and if I don’t take a human life, I won’t have to worry about all that. I don’t envy judges and police and soldiers.



I faced something somewhat similar. I sought council from my priest and was advised that the Catholic church does not support the use of the death penalty and nor should I.


Yopu need to read with a bit more understanding of nuance. Your quote is not, has not been, and unless changed, never will be an absolute. The very first word is “if” and that in and of itself indicates that it is not an absolute.

My son-in-law is a prison guard, and I pray for him daily, because he works in the big house; and some of the folks who end up at the big house are as amoral as they come. They will kill over something that any rational person would simply shrug their shoulders about and move on. Prison killings still go on, and there is no authority anywhere to put them in an 8 by 12 and throw away the key. John Paul, whom I respect extremely, had no clue as to the day-to-day life in a prison. He did not make an absolute; he made a qualified statement.

That qualified statement could be applied to a number of individuals who have been executed or who are waiting it; that is, there are some of them who are not at risk to murder again. There are others who will literally commit murder over an insult. And the prison guards and other prisoners have a moral right to not be murdered. There ismply is no way to guarantee that some of the folks on death row will not kill again. Death row inmates are segregated from the main population; lifers are not. And therein lies the mighty big “if” that John Paul wrote.


Where did you learn this bottom line for yourself, these particular things Jesus will ask you and remind you? Knowing what God will say to us at judgement is an amazing revelation.


That settles the matter.

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