Is Church Teaching on the Death Penalty a Defined Doctrine?

“Heresy is the obstinate doubt or denial, after baptism, of a defined Catholic doctrine.”
~catholic.com/quickquestions/apart-from-abortion-are-there-other-sins-that-incur-automatic-excommunication

Would it be heretical to deny Church teachings on the death penalty? I totally agree with the Church here and on everything else, but I’d still be interested to know… :slight_smile: What does “defined Catholic doctrine” mean?

No. Catholics can be anti-death penalty, even though the Church believes it is acceptable in some circumstances to use capital punishment. One can deny that those circumstances exist in the modern developed world, as they mainly involve preventing further crime. The death penalty should never be used for retribution, as it often is. I’m a supporter of the “consistent life ethic”, as it is called: no abortion, no euthanasia (including capital punishment).

The Catholic Church does not teach that the death penalty is intrinsically evil. Individuals and the state may take human life in defense of human life, but this must always be seen as an absolute last resort.

The Catechism teaches:

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.”

The death penalty is wrong. There is plenty of evidence that suggests it is not an effective method of crime control. The death penalty is no different than an other murder.

Pope Benedict XI said

  1. Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. 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. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.

ewtn.com/library/curia/cdfworthycom.htm

Depends upon what you mean by “deny” the Church’s teaching on the death penalty. What do you mean?

I would point out that there have been Doctors of the Church who have supported the use of the death penalty in the right circumstances.

See:
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thought_of_Thomas_Aquinas
catholic.com/magazine/articles/did-the-church-change-its-teaching-on-the-death-penalty

Imagine you say that the death penalty is right for all those who commit murder.

This isn’t all that hard to imagine. It is after all what God himself said.
*Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man. *(Gn 9:6)
Ender

That would not be right according to the Catechism 2267 (as posted above by PaulfromIowa). How could execution be the last resort in every case of murder?

And then Christ came, abolishing the lex talionis.

That particular passage is more difficult to comprehend that it might first appear. It isn’t hard to understand the words, the question is: what kind of a teaching is it? There is very good reason to believe that it is prudential. That is, what is being said is not that capital punishment should not be used but only that it should not be used in modern societies, and not because it is wrong but because it is inadvisable.

How could execution be the last resort in every case of murder?

It shouldn’t be thought of as a last resort but as the just punishment for the crime. Crime deserves punishment and the more serious the crime the more severe the punishment must be. The ultimate punishment reflects the heinous nature of the ultimate crime.

Ender

This is a common perception but it reflects a skewed understanding of what Christ taught. The church at least has never taught this.* … when Our Lord says: “You have heard that it hath been said of old, an eye for an eye, etc.,” He does not condemn that law, nor forbid a magistrate to inflict the poena talionis, but He condemns the perverse interpretation of the Pharisees, and forbids in private citizens the desire for and the seeking of vengeance. For God promulgates the holy law that the magistrate may punish the wicked by the poena talionis; *(St. Robert Bellarmine, De Laicis, ch 13)
It is a grave misunderstanding to believe that we are not held accountable for our actions or that sins do not deserve punishment. Even though we repent of our sins and are forgiven, this still does not exempt us from punishment. It appears to be a common belief that our actions are not only forgiven but overlooked. That is not so.

Ender

When I posted it, I was afraid my comment was too brief and might be misunderstood. The post to which I replied suggested hypothetically that every murder might be punishable by death. It is easy to imagine cases in which the aggressor will not repeat the crime, and therefore the death penalty is not necessary in order to protect human lives, society, or the common good. What if the murderer is truly sorry and wishes to lead a virtuous life from this point forward? What if the murderer erroneously thought she was justified on the basis of self defense (e.g., an abusive husband said “I’m gonna kill you” but the danger was not imminent and so there were non-lethal alternatives)? Therefore I was objecting to the absolute nature of the original wording of Clem’s hypothesis that “the death penalty is right for all those who commit murder.”

On a separate note, I disagree with your view that we should think of capital punishment as “the just punishment for the crime.” You read correctly that the teaching is prudential, as we see the following phrases:
[LIST]
*]“defending human lives”
*]“defend and protect people’s safety”
*]“the common good”
*]“preventing crime”
*]“rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm”
[/LIST]
I do not see that the Catechism advocates or even allows capital punishment in order to “punish” or to serve justice in the sense of retaliation (“an eye for an eye”).

I recognize that separate acts of murder may have extenuating circumstances and I accept that capital punishment should not be automatically applied in each case. That said, absent those circumstances I also believe execution should be the default punishment for at least the crime of murder.

I do not accept that capital punishment should be limited to only those cases where the criminal represents a continuing threat to the public. His punishment should be determined by the crime he has committed, not the one we fear he may commit in the future. If the punishment is not just for what he has done it can surely not be just for what he has yet to do.

On a separate note, I disagree with your view that we should think of capital punishment as “the just punishment for the crime.”

If it is an unjust punishment then the church has been unjust for 2000 years since she has always recognized the right of nations to apply it.

I do not see that the Catechism advocates or even allows capital punishment in order to “punish” or to serve justice in the sense of retaliation (“an eye for an eye”).

That is a problem with 2267. We have just seen in 2266 that the primary objective of punishment (all punishment) is “to redress the disorder caused by the offense.” It is an unfortunately vague phrase which actually means: retribution.

What has gotten lost in the discussion of capital punishment is the very meaning of punishment itself.*For the fundamental demand of justice, whose role in morality is to maintain the existing equilibrium, when it is just, and to restore the balance when upset. It demands that by punishment the person responsible be forcibly brought to order; and the fulfillment of this demand proclaims the absolute supremacy of good over evil; right triumphs sovereignly over wrong. *(Pius XII)
****Ender


Interesting. I appreciate your clarifications. I am trying, not so much to accept, but to understand the idea of punishment to restore order. In your quotation of Pius XII, he wrote of “equilibrium” and “balance,” which suggests that good and evil are comparable forces which must in some sense be equalized. Evil must be met with good. Stronger evil must be met with stronger good.

I am curious about the notion that good must manifest itself in the same way as evil. That is what “an eye for an eye” means to me. If one life is taken for evil, then one life must be taken for good, as if to balance the ledger. Is that how we love those who have done us harm? Can we forgive only after obtaining payback? Is that how good triumphs over evil?

I must think further about this.

It is a question of justice. Good acts merit reward, evil acts deserve punishment.We speak of merit and demerit, in relation to retribution, rendered according to justice. Now, retribution according to justice is rendered to a man, by reason of his having done something to another’s advantage or hurt. It must, moreover, be observed that every individual member of a society is, in a fashion, a part and member of the whole society. Wherefore, any good or evil, done to the member of a society, redounds on the whole society: thus, who hurts the hand, hurts the man. When, therefore, anyone does good or evil to another individual, there is a twofold measure of merit or demerit in his action: first, in respect of the retribution owed to him by the individual to whom he has done good or harm; secondly, in respect of the retribution owed to him by the whole of society. Now when a man ordains his action directly for the good or evil of the whole society, retribution is owed to him, before and above all, by the whole society; secondarily, by all the parts of society. (Aquinas ST I-II 21 3)*
*

I am curious about the notion that good must manifest itself in the same way as evil. That is what “an eye for an eye” means to me. If one life is taken for evil, then one life must be taken for good, as if to balance the ledger.

Again, it is a matter of justice. If I commit a small act of good and you commit a very grand act should we be rewarded the same? It seems evident that the greater the good the greater the reward and in the same way the greater the sin the greater the punishment.Punishment is proportionate to sin in point of severity, both in Divine and in human judgments. (Ibid 87,3,1)

Is that how we love those who have done us harm? Can we forgive only after obtaining payback? Is that how good triumphs over evil?

Don’t equate the obligations of the individual with those of the state; they are very different. The individual has the obligation to forgive and is forbidden to exact revenge while vengeance is the obligation of the state.*Legitimate public authority has the right and **duty **to inflict penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime. (CCC 2266)

Vengeance consists in the infliction of a penal evil on one who has sinned.* (Ibid II-II 108,1)

He who takes vengeance on the wicked in keeping with his rank and position does not usurp what belongs to God but makes use of the power granted him by God. For it is written (Romans 13:4) of the earthly prince that “he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” (Ibid 108,1,1)
Ender

It seems to me, if one makes the absolute statement that the state has no right to ever administer the death penalty, it would be heresy, since the authority of the state to administer the death penalty is part of public revelation (it is found in Scripture and Tradition). That being said, one can oppose the application of the death penalty for other reasons because the opposing absolute is not affirmed by the Church–ie that the death penalty must always be applied in certain circumstances.

Church teaching on the death penalty has been very clearly defined. It is plainly stated in 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.”*

This is not debatable. If non-lethal means are available to protect society then we must use non-lethal means. We are not free to disagree.

This is not a doctrine but an application of doctrine to our moral behavior. It is moral teaching based on what we believe, but it is not a statement about what we believe.

-Tim-

It is a heresy to hold that the state lacks the right to employ capital punishment and the church has referred to it as such.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, De Laicis, ch 2)
Ender

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