Church Teachings on the Death Penalty

What is the official position of the Church on the death penalty and if there is, is it dogmatic?

The Church is always pro-life and only God has the authority to take life. In other words, the Church is against the death penalty. The issue came up here in California last November and my parish posted flyers and made announcements about voting against the death penalty.

From the *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 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

Pope John Paul II said that the Catechism of the Catholic Church is “a sure norm for teaching the faith” so I think it should be believed.

The Church teaches that murderers may be morally executed if there is no other way of protecting human life. The Church’s teaching regarding the immorality of the death penalty in other situations is authoritative but not infallible. I believe that the teaching allowing the death penalty within the aforementioned conditions is infallible. I should also note that a lawful execution of a murderer is not murder even if he could be otherwise contained, since such execution violates charity, but not justice.

POST 1 of 2

The reality is that the CCC is significantly different from the traditional teachings. Because of this change, Pope Benedict stated that Catholics could not be morally bound to the newer interpretation. So that you can see the differences, here is the language on the Death Penalty from the first edition of the CCC which acknowledged the traditional teachings.

Compare this with the teaching just a few years later in the second edition of the CCC:

[quote=CCC Second Edition]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. (2306)

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 with 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 definitively 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.”68
[/quote]

Notice in the second edition, there is no mention of punishment and the right of the state to carry it out or relation to the correction of the guilty party.

… continued in post #2.

POST 2 of 2

We can see these changes clearly when compared to the traditional positions of the Church.

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 1, Epist. 6, C. 3. 8, ad Exsuperium, Episcopum Tolosanum, 20 February 405, PL 20,495)

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.

(Innocent III, DS 795/425)

Pius XII

Even in the case of the death penalty the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. Rather public authority limits itself to depriving the offender of the good of life in expiation for his guilt, after he, through his crime, deprived himself of his own right to life.

(Pius XII, Address to the First International Congress of Histopathology of the Nervous System, 14 September 1952, XIV, 328)

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 [Thy shall not kill], 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.

In the Psalms we find a vindication of this right: “Morning by morning I will destroy all the wicked in the land, cutting off all evildoers from the city of the Lord” (Ps. 101:8).

(Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent, 1566, Part III, 5, n. 4)

St. Augustine

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.

The agent who executes the killing does not commit homicide; he is an instrument as is the sword with which he cuts. Therefore, it is in no way contrary to the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ to wage war at God’s bidding, or for the representatives of public authority to put criminals to death, according to the law, that is, the will of the most just reason.

(The City of God, Book 1, chapter 21)

St. Thomas Aquinas

It is written: “Wizards thou shalt not suffer to live” (Ex. 22:18); and: “In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land” (Ps. 100:8). …

Every part is directed to the whole, as imperfect to perfect, wherefore every part exists naturally for the sake of the whole. For this reason we see that if the health of the whole human body demands the excision of a member, because it became putrid or infectious to the other members, it would be both praiseworthy and healthful to have it cut away. Now every individual person is related to the entire society as a part to the whole. Therefore if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and healthful that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since "a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:6).

(Summa Theologiae, II, II, q. 64, art. 2)

“When, however, they fall into very great wickedness, and become incurable, we ought no longer to show them friendliness. It is for this reason that both Divine and human laws command such like sinners to be put to death, because there is greater likelihood of their harming others than of their mending their ways. Nevertheless the judge puts this into effect, not out of hatred for the sinners, but out of the love of charity, by reason of which he prefers the public good to the life of the individual. Moreover the death inflicted by the judge profits the sinner, if he be converted, unto the expiation of his crime; and, if he be not converted, it profits so as to put an end to the sin, because the sinner is thus deprived of the power to sin any more.”

(Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 25, A. 6, Obj. 2)

The fact that the evil ones, as long as they live, can be corrected from their errors does not prohibit that they may be justly executed, for the danger which threatens from their way of life is greater and more certain than the good which may be expected from their improvement.

They also have at that critical point of death the opportunity to be converted to God through repentance. And if they are so obstinate that even at the point of death their heart does not draw back from malice, it is possible to make a quite probable judgment that they would never come away from evil.”

(Summa contra gentiles, Book III, chapter 146)

Having said all of that, I personally accept the current teaching and believe it to be consistent with the culture of life that the Church stands for. However, I also recognize that if a Catholic holds to the traditional teachings, they are free to do so in good conscience. In addition, I wish they would have left the language alone in this area between the first and second editions of the CCC as I believe the first edition to be far more clear in its teaching and I appreciate the fact that it acknowledges and presents the traditional teachings of the Church more completely than the second edition does.

Catholics are bound to accept the Church’s teachings. Claims that there have been changes in the Church’s teaching are false. Note that the teaching has been clarified and certain theologians have held opinions which have been overruled, but no magestarial teachings have been changed.

This has been discussed on here many many times. In addition, as noted above, Pope Benedict personally spoke on this issue. Though he was and remains supportive of abolishing the death penalty, he has acknowledged the traditional teachings of the Church, and clearly stated that Catholics who accept the traditional teachings of the Church are not bound to accept the newer interpretations. He has even acknowledged the change in the Catechism of the Catholic Church from the first to the second edition. He speaks on this in his interviews with Peter Seewald. In addition, I showed above the differences in teachings from various catechisms and popes throughout Church history.

As I have already noted, my own personal beliefs are in line with the modern interpretation of the 5th Commandment. However, when one examines the traditional teachings of the Church in this area, not to mention simply looking at Church history (The Vatican had the death penalty on its books until 1969).

A great breakdown of the history and complexity of Church teachings on Capital Punishment can be found in Cardinal Avery Dulles’ Catholicism and Capital Punishment. catholiceducation.org/articles/religion/re0461.html

Finally, as I noted above, this has been discussed scores of times here on CAF. Here are just a few answers, where additional information, and references can be found.
forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=752411&highlight=death+penalty
forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=755004&highlight=death+penalty
forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=731436&highlight=death+penalty
forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=720514&highlight=death+penalty
forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=710508&highlight=death+penalty
forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=698949&highlight=death+penalty
forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=600162&highlight=death+penalty
forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=666813&highlight=death+penalty
forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=665738&highlight=death+penalty
forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=663194&highlight=death+penalty
forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=658533&highlight=death+penalty
forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=634848&highlight=death+penalty
forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=630208&highlight=death+penalty

And he didn’t acknowledge the hermeneutic of discontinuity that you’re peddling.

Do you have a link to his comments; I am unfamiliar with them?

Your citations of traditional church teaching on this subject are extensive. You’ve obviously investigated the subject so I thought you might be interested in additional comments. *It is lawful to put a man to death by public authority: it is even a duty of princes and of judges to condemn to death criminals who deserve it; and it is the duty of the officers of justice to execute the sentence ; God himself wishes malefactors to be punished. *(St. Alphonsus de Liguori - [Doctor of the Church] - Complete Ascetical Works, Vol XV)

*One of the chief heretical tenets of the Anabaptists and of the Trinitarians of the present day is, that it is not lawful for Christians to exercise magisterial power, nor should body-guards, tribunals, judgments, the right of capital punishment, etc., be maintained among Christians. *
(St. Robert Bellarmine [Doctor of the Church] - De Laicis, ch 2)

*It is lawful for a Christian magistrate to punish with death disturbers of the public peace. It is proved, first, from the Scriptures, for in the law of nature, of Moses, and of the Gospels, we have precepts and examples of this. 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. *
(Ibid, ch 13)

How doth the Scripture teach that willful murder is revenged?
*In most grievous manner doubtless, as Almighty God sheweth in these words, wherein he rebuked Cain the first man: (a) What hast thou done? saith he, the voice of the blood of thy brother crieth to me from the earth. Now therefore shalt thou be cursed upon earth. And in another place God’s own voice doth testify. (b) Whoever shall shed man’s blood, his blood shall be shed also, for to the image of God was man made. The kingly psalmist singeth: Men © of blood shall not live half their days. For this is a very heinous wickedness, and he doeth a most horrible injury to his neighbor, that bereaveth him of his life without lawful (d) authority. For which cause, Christ himself saith also. (e) All that take the sword, shall perish with the sword. *(St. Peter Canisius [Doctor of the Church] - A Sum of Christian Doctrine, ch 5)
You already mentioned the Catechism of Trent as well as the 1992 version of the current catechism but - not surprisingly - the catechism of Pius X (1905), the Baltimore catechism (1891), the Douay catechism (1649), the catechism of Robert Bellarmine (1598), and the catechism of St. Thomas (c 1260) all took exactly the same position on this point.

Ender

What is dogmatic is that the state has the power to inflict it. If you deny this power absolutely, you’ve strayed from the doctrine of the Church. However, its use can be argued against for other reasons.

In addition to the various Catechism references, I recommend this article as it explains a lot of the principles involved in more detail:

catholicpamphlets.net/pamphlets/CAPITAL%20PUNISHMENT.pdf

The hermeneutic of continuity is the key to understanding here. Past church discussions on the death penalty focused on explaining precisely why it can be warranted in some cases against criticisms that it wasn’t. Those defenses occurred in a time and place in history when there often was no alternative that safely protected the populace against the unjust aggressor (see Just War theory upon which the DP teaching really rests).

But the last 150 years really are different than the rest of history in that politics and economics are stable enough to allow indefinate and reliable incarceration and isolation in many cases. That new situation required a new look and here we are. Same moral basis, differing cultural circumstances, adapted interpretation of the same principles.

This is a very interesting and generally well thought out article although I take exception to this point: *“Is Capital Punishment Necessary Today? The answer to this question will depend on that given to the further question: Is capital punishment an effective deterrent today?”

*One would hope that capital punishment would act as a deterrent but whether it does or not is irrelevant to whether its use is justified since deterrence, like the protection of society, is only a secondary objective of punishment and it is the satisfaction of the primary objective that determines what punishment is both allowed and necessary.

Ender

It is often alleged that only recently have societies been able to incarcerate people indefinitely but this claim lacks any substance; no one has even tried to support this assertion. In fact it seems to be quite untrue. The Romans appeared to have little trouble controlling their slaves and prisoners. It may be that prisoners condemned to work in the mines for the remainder of their lives didn’t actually live all that long but it is certainly true that the Romans managed large numbers of convicts over great periods of time.

Nor did the Fifth Lateran Council (Session 9, 1514) see any problem with the imposition of life sentences:If he has been caught committing blasphemy in public more than twice, he is to be compelled to stand for a whole day in front of the entrance of the principal church, wearing a hood signifying his infamy; but if he has fallen several times into the same fault, he is to be condemned to permanent imprisonment or to the galleys, at the decision of the appointed judge.
Ender

I will see if I can find them again. I have an audio book of the interview with Seewald so I will have to go back through that and find the comments so that I can quote him accurately.

Your citations of traditional church teaching on this subject are extensive. You’ve obviously investigated the subject so I thought you might be interested in additional comments.

Thanks. I got many of the citations and quotes from things you have posted in the past, so if anyone is to get credit on this it ought to be you. The only thing I did this time that I hadn’t seen you bring out before is the differences in the first and second editions of the Catechism. I will definitely look through the additional citations you have provided.

Peace,

The Church’s teaching is clear, regardless of anyone’s opinions or misconstruing of then Cardinal Ratzinger’s words.

The church’s teaching is indeed clear and has been so for 2000 years:“The traditional teaching of the church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty.”
Ender

Other traditional Church teaching that hasn’t changed over 2,000 years:

Thou shalt not kill…
Turn the other cheek…
How many times should I forgive…?
Let he who is without sin cast the first stone…

etc…

And what HAS changed in the last 2,000 years is that recent Popes have said that in the West cases of Capital Punishment should be exceedingly rare.

Yes, and you’ll say that is subject to prudential judgment, and I’ll say that whenever a Pope speaks that 99.99999999% of the time we should prudentially judge that the Pope is correct etc.

And you’ll say that Popes are not allowed to change doctrine and that whenever they do… etc.,

And I’ll say that whenever a Pope speaks we should 99.999999% of the time seek to understand the continuity of the teaching not its discontinuity.

And then we might argue that in the USA capital punishment is necessary because of the state of the prisons, that some drug dealers can run crime rings from within the system, and then I might say that if the state focused on education, reducing poverty and discrimination that “capital” crimes will decrease.

etc., etc., etc.

Bottom line for me: Pope John Paul I’Is and Pope Benedict’s arguments were good enough for me. In the words of a poet…

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

[RIGHT]John Donne[/RIGHT]

Very true … and all of these teachings have existed side by side, for 2000 years, with the acceptance of capital punishment as a just penalty for certain crimes, so clearly the traditions you list have been accounted for in that teaching.

And what HAS changed in the last 2,000 years is that recent Popes have said that in the West cases of Capital Punishment should be exceedingly rare. Yes, and you’ll say that is subject to prudential judgment…

True again; I think most people understand the nature of this assertion.

And you’ll say that Popes are not allowed to change doctrine and that whenever they do… etc… And I’ll say that whenever a Pope speaks we should 99.999999% of the time seek to understand the continuity of the teaching not its discontinuity.

If this was a doctrine it would be new and it would be a discontinuity. It is not a discontinuity because the doctrine has not changed. It is a practical objection, not moral one.In coming to this prudential conclusion, the magisterium is not changing the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine remains what it has been: that the State, in principle, has the right to impose the death penalty on persons convicted of very serious crimes. (Cardinal Dulles)
Ender

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