We’ve been bishops in 3 death penalty states. It’s time to stop federal executions for good

America has published an eloquent open letter signed by Archbishop Paul S. Coakley, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, and Bishop Frank J. Dewane. The bishops both reiterate the Church’s unequivocal position on the death penalty in general and address its application in the United States in particular. This is a timely intervention at a moment when the federal government is seeking to resume federal executions while some within the Church, including in the United States, continue to dissent from the Church’s teaching.

Cited in the letter:

The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life in every situation. A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform (cf. Evangelium Vitae, 27). I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.

John Paul II, Homily, St. Louis (January 27 1999)


From the article:

As bishops of the Catholic Church, we have a moral obligation to teach the faith…

Teaching the faith should not include ignoring the Fathers, Doctors, and doctrines promulgated for 2000 years. How do we justify holding a position now that was considered a heresy before? Are the bishops saying the heretics were right and the church was wrong?

The Catholic bishops of the United States have consistently called for an end to the death penalty for decades.

Yes they have, just as the church has consistently recognized the validity of the death penalty for millennia.

Pope Francis has strongly emphasized that the death penalty is unacceptable and is an affront to the Gospel and to the respect for life and human dignity

This is a bit of a problem given that it is scripture itself that the church referred to in coming to its essentially unanimous position that capital punishment is in fact legitimate.

This is ironic given that the new position repudiates this in that it no longer matters whether society has the means to protect itself or not. Even if society cannot protect itself it no longer has the right to execute prisoners (according to the latest change).


You obviously have problems with quite a few things that the bishops say in their letter. Perhaps you had better take it up with them. I am sure that any one of those bishops would be happy to explain their position to you if you asked. Personally, I am going to assume that the bishops know what they are talking about. Archbishop Gregory, who has five degrees and is a former president of the USCCB, actually served on the USCCB doctrine committee, which I should imagine requires quite some understanding of Catholic doctrine. Bishop Dewane was formerly under secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which at the time held the Church’s brief for addressing human rights violations, including the death penalty, around the world. He is now chairman of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, which has the remit to address death penalty issues domestically. He is also consultant to the USCCB Ad Hoc Committee against Racism, which is an aspect of the death penalty highlighted in the letter.

I am not sure why you are so keen on finding faults with the Church’s teaching on the death penalty. ,. . . Is it because you don’t approve of Pope Francis and this is a way of showing up what you think are his faults? . . .


Taken out of context, i can certainly understand your frustration.


No count on that. I ahve written a formal letter to one of the authors of this letter asking his stance on the Amazonian synod and the activities involved at the Vatican during the synod and I never heard a peep. I even wrote in the letter that I would be pulling my large contribution to the capital campaign if I didn’t receive an answer. I know this sounds harsh, but I wrote it in a nice manner.


Being part of the USCCB is not something I would use in support of a positiion.

The issue is that the death penalty in the Catholic Church has been licit and a form of justice. Now, it seems like the bishops say the Church was wrong and in grave error for 95% of its formation. That can’t happen


No it isn’t saying that at all.

Do you not believe that societies can advance beyond the death penalty even if it “could” be used?

Do you believe that all the millennia of the death penalty across many cultures has accomplished a specific goal?

After all these millennia, can we move beyond this practice?

“Because we can“ isn’t really a good reason to continue employing the death penalty when we can legitimately meet the state’s interest in another way.


It is worth reading something that the Vatican issued at the time:


Of particular importance are these paragraphs:

  1. The new revision of number 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church , approved by Pope Francis, situates itself in continuity with the preceding Magisterium while bringing forth a coherent development of Catholic doctrine.[12] The new text, following the footsteps of the teaching of John Paul II in Evangelium vitæ , affirms that ending the life of a criminal as punishment for a crime is inadmissible because it attacks the dignity of the person, a dignity that is not lost even after having committed the most serious crimes. This conclusion is reached taking into account the new understanding of penal sanctions applied by the modern State, which should be oriented above all to the rehabilitation and social reintegration of the criminal. Finally, given that modern society possesses more efficient detention systems, the death penalty becomes unnecessary as protection for the life of innocent people. Certainly, it remains the duty of public authorities to defend the life of citizens, as has always been taught by the Magisterium and is confirmed by the Catechism of the Catholic Church in numbers 2265 and 2266.

  2. All of this shows that the new formulation of number 2267 of the Catechism expresses an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium. These teachings, in fact, can be explained in the light of the primary responsibility of the public authority to protect the common good in a social context in which the penal sanctions were understood differently, and had developed in an environment in which it was more difficult to guarantee that the criminal could not repeat his crime.

[12] Cf. Vincent of Lérins, Commonitorium , cap. 23: PL 50, 667-669. In reference to the death penalty, treating the stipulations of the precepts of the Decalogue, the Pontifical Biblical Commission spoke of the “refinement” of the moral positions of the Church: “In the course of history and of the development of civilization, the Church too, meditating on the Scriptures, has refined her moral stance on the death penalty and on war, which is now becoming more and more absolute. Underlying this stance, which may seem radical, is the same anthropological basis, the fundamental dignity of the human person, created in the image of God.” ( The Bible and Morality: Biblical Roots of Christian Conduct , 2008, n. 98).

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I’m opposed to the death penalty in practice but in principle there is nothing wrong with it. I oppose taking it off the table completely but it should be reserved for truly heinous crimes where guilt is certain beyond any doubt.


Their principles were correct. What has changed is (a) the circumstances of nations and especially the state of the penal system and (b) what is known about cause-and-effect with regards to the effect of state use of capital punishment and the capacity of human courts to deliver just verdicts.

The validity of the death penalty rests on two features: the need to protect future victims by deterring other criminals and the presumption that this punishment will be meted out fairly.

The problem is that it can be demonstrated that the punishment is not meted out fairly. It falls disproportionately on the poor and the disadvantaged. It also does not serve as a deterrent. The murder rate is not changed by whether offenders are facing life without parole or the death penalty if they are caught and convicted.

In the absence of evidence to the contrary, the presumption that the death penalty would serve as a greater deterrent than life in prison was a rational presumption. Now, however, we have evidence to the contrary. It does not serve as a deterrent compared to sentences of life in prison.

I can think of only one case in which the death penalty would be legitimate: the prisoner who is so dangerous to others that other people cannot be protected from a mortal threat, even in prison, without holding the offender under such strict conditions that a lifetime under those conditions would constitute torture. If the only two ways to prevent someone from commiting another murder really is torturing someone until their natural death or giving them capital punishment, there is an argument for capital punishment. I just don’t know that this situation ever exists: that is, that the conditions of incarceration would be so bad as to amount to a slow and tortured death instead of an immediate death. (Well, the other situation would be one in which the nation is incapable of incarcerating someone securely for life, but I don’t see that as changing now.)

Otherwise, however, the bishops have come to the conclusion that the evidence does not support the previous premise that the conditions necessary to warrant the death penalty exist. They are NOT saying that the Church was wrong for millenia about the principles necessary to decide the question. They are saying that the Church now has the evidence necessary to decide based on concrete facts rather than having to rely on theory or isolated anecdotes, which was all the Church had to go on in the past.

PS Let’s not forget this problem, too: that is, that the number of persons sentenced to death who were wrongly convicted has been conservatively estimated to be 1 in 25.

Excerpt: We present a conservative estimate of the proportion of erroneous convictions of defendants sentenced to death in the United States from 1973 through 2004, 4.1%.


I’m not a fan of the death penalty in any means.

However, the Bishops and Pope is saying that it is not licit to use. period. That is what I have an issue with. Maybe it is my fault but I read their statements saying it is intrinsically evil. Something can’t go from being licit to illicit with the stroke of a pen. Either it has always been evil or it isn’t


The problem with this question is that Pope Francis’s change to the Catechism does not deal with the circumstances of society, but the dignity and inviolability of the human person. If the death penalty was licit in previous eras, then it must be licit today; if it was compatible with human dignity in previous eras, then it must be compatible with human dignity today. The only way around this objection would be to claim that either people in past eras lacked human dignity, or that the Doctors, Fathers, and Supreme Pontiffs of previous eras promulgated teachings against human dignity. Both of these statements are insulting and absurd, so this interpretation can be discarded completely.

It is not about meeting the interests of the State, but to restore order to the individual’s soul and to society, thus safeguarding the common good. God Himself positively prescribes capital punishment in Genesis 9:6, so the lawful use of capital punishment by the State belongs properly to the natural law of justice. By applying the severest punishment to criminals who deserve it, the State does not overlook human dignity, but rather acknowledges and respects it. The application of punishment presupposes that the individual is a moral agent, capable of choosing between good and evil.

Not applying a just and proportionate punishment implies that the person is not truly free, and the denial of man’s status as a moral agent is insulting to both himself and to his Creator.


No, that is not true. The principles that allowed the use of the death penalty were legitimate. The problem is that the rationally-presumed cause-and-effect that underpinned them was faulty. It was a reasonable presumption. There was no direct evidence to be had, so the use of reason was the only way to make the decision. They had no choice but to make the decision about whether the situation warranted the penalty by using their reasoning.

The problem is that human beings don’t respond to legal boundaries in the way that it was reasonably presumed that they do. The only way the death penalty is acceptable would have been if human beings actually acted in the way that it was commonly supposed that they do. They don’t. Modern nations, moreover, have law enforcement resources and research at their disposal that previous generations did not have (and really could hardly have dreamed of having).

When we know better, we have to do better. That is the principle.

Actually, extending the period that the murderer will have to come to repent and amend their lives and turn to the Gospel is one of the strongest arguments against the death penalty.


See, I don’t see how they can say this in one sentence and then in the next say this doesn’t contradict previous doctrine.

the quote statement is not relevant to society

So Our Lord was wrong to tell those who wanted to stone the woman caught in the act of adultery that they needed to find someone who was without sin to throw the first stone? Was he denying their capacity to safeguard the common good?

We have evidence that the death penalty does nothing to safeguard the common good. It was entirely reasonable to suppose that it would, but the evidence says that humans contemplated murder don’t act in ways that reasonable persons think they ought to do.

The woman caught in the act of adultery also teaches another lesson: Society cherry-picks who gets the death penalty and who does not. Where was her consort? She wasn’t committing adultery by herself. Yet who was going to be exposed to the law and who was not? Human weakness saw the woman as the primary culprit in the crime. We see this same thing in past efforts to stop prostitution. The buyer was seldom exposed to the law. It was the seller, someone who was more likely making the transaction out of desperation, who was presumed to be the party that “society” needed “protection” from. Now it is realized that a very large fraction of prostitutes are trafficked, and are in fact the only victims in the entire sordid transaction of prostitution.

As for the regulations of Genesis, remember that life in prison isn’t possible for a people who live a nomadic herdsman lifestyle with no connection to an agricultural society that can run a prison. The bishops’ rejection of the death penalty rests on the existence of an alternative that protects society while sparing the life of the offender.

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Yes, I do, as I laid out in my response, and to the specifics of which you didn’t respond to one of them.

Archbishop Gregory, who has five degrees…

This is all about why what they say should be true, but if that was so then surely someone should be able to rebut my specific objections.

I am not sure why you are so keen on finding faults with the Church’s teaching on the death penalty.

I don’t find any fault with them at all. What I find fault with is particular interpretations of those doctrines that are not supportable.

Is it because you are just really keen on the state having the right to kill people in cold blood or is it because you don’t approve of Pope Francis and this is a way of showing up what you think are his faults? Or possibly both?

A more insulting judgment hardly seems possible. Did you not even consider the possibility that I believe my understanding - based as it is on 2000 years of church teaching and the virtually unanimous consent of the Fathers and Doctors - is accurate? You can’t even imagine that I might believe what I say?


Are you saying you do not believe the bishops teaching in concert with the Pope are competent to teach morals? This is a rather serious charge, friend. Just because you don’t accept their interpretation hardly means that their teaching is “not supportable.”

It isn’t exactly flattering to tell the bishops that their study of the matter is faulty because you are sticking to the assumption that yours must be accurate.

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And when it fails to do that should the death penalty be allowed?

Actually, it’s one of the most fallacious arguments dressed up in false charity:

“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).

I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to pretend that our modern, secular society knows better than the Angelic Doctor.

Strawman. While saying this, you fail to distinguish between the duty of individuals to turn the other cheek and the duty of the State to exercise justice.

Actually, God Himself was establishing a principle as part of the natural law of justice in that passage, to apply for all time. An omniscient God would be able to foresee the lifestyles of future generations of human beings, so your argument makes no sense.


Well, not unless there is evidence that the death penalty is so much more effective that it warrants taking human life in need of repentance. As it is, the evidence shows that it is not only not more effective but isn’t even handed out in a just manner.

Honestly, if some psychiatric medication doesn’t work, we aren’t going to go back to using frontal lobotomies in cases when we already know that frontal lobotomies cause damage all out of proportion to the problem. When it was thought those were necessary, it was not malpractice to use them. When there is evidence that such a drastic treatment does not work, no competent physician is going to try it no matter how badly other treatments are failing.

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