What is proper catholic teaching on capital punishment?

question is in title

also how has the view developed?

are there other instances besides protection of the innocent?

My favorite treatment of the subject is this essay by Avery Cardinal Dulles. It summarizes the Biblical position as well as how the Church’s teaching has been elaborated through the centuries.


My understanding is that Capital Punishment is permitted ONLY IF the prisoner is a danger to society even when behind bars.

For example: if Hitler or Osama Bin Laden would have been captured and placed in prison, they would have still posed a danger to society.

The death penalty should not be used as “an eye of an eye” or to save tax payer money. It should only be used for the rare and most evil of criminals (most often war criminals) who can still influence evil or dangerous political unrest from behind bars.

The death penalty should also not be used to protect other criminals, as other means are possible, i.e. solitary confinement.

I might add, that we should all pray that all who are imprisoned have a conversion experience and turn to Christ in the time they have left on earth.
May God be merciful. :gopray:

In some states the death penalty is considered the 1st option. Namely, PA, Texas. They see it as an eye for an eye type deal.

Wow! Good article thanks for sharing.
I was struck with this statement.

The mounting opposition to the death penalty in Europe since the Enlightenment has gone hand in hand with a decline of faith in eternal life. In the nineteenth century the most consistent supporters of capital punishment were the Christian churches, and its most consistent opponents were groups hostile to the churches. When death came to be understood as the ultimate evil rather than as a stage on the way to eternal life, utilitarian philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham found it easy to dismiss capital punishment as “useless annihilation.”

Interesting thought.
This is what the Catechism states:

Capital Punishment

2266 The State’s effort to contain the spread of behaviors injurious to human rights and the fundamental rules of civil coexistence corresponds to the requirement of watching over the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime. the primary scope of the penalty is to redress the disorder caused by the offense. When his punishment is voluntarily accepted by the offender, it takes on the value of expiation. Moreover, punishment, in addition to preserving public order and the safety of persons, has a medicinal scope: as far as possible it should contribute to the correction of the offender.67

2267 The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.
"If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should 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.
"Today, in fact, given the means at the State’s disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender ‘today … are very rare, if not practically non-existent.’[John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56.]

It is the last paragraph that I find troubling. Today as opposed to the past I assume the State has at its disposal to render the one who committed the crime inoffensive.

  1. Why is it more now than in the past?
  2. Do we really have the capability to repress crime?
    That would mean that no murders would occur in prison but they do occur.
    That would mean that they would never be release from prison to harm anyone again,unfortunately that is not true.
  3. It seems to me that it isn’t as rare or non-existent as we should hope it would be.

thank you, this was pretty helpful

definitely a complicated issue, which sadly probably has been abused more than necessary

but how does this square with Jesus saying that eye for an eye no longer applied and retributive justice? I definitely don’t think he was saying criminals shouldn’t punished, but I don’t really know

It is the “dichotomy” of justice and mercy.

Justice means the penalty for a crime is equal to the crime itself. “An eye for an eye” is a doctrine of justice.

Mercy means the penalty for a crime is less than the crime itself.

But mercy does not require no punishment at all (which would offend all sense of justice).

In Catholic theology, purgatory is an expression of both justice and mercy. Those who die with venial (but not mortal) sin are not worthy of heaven (where nothing unclean can enter), but are not deserving of hell.

The duly delegated government of a nation has the responsibility for establishing the laws, including punishment for those convicted of a crime. It is, therefore, the prudential judgement of the government to make that decision. Various individuals in The Church have expressed different opinions on the subject, but it remains a matter of prudential judgment.

I have lived in both states ad never met anyone who held that position.

it’s a pretty serious issue, I feel like it’s more than prudential judgement

The eye for an eye justice of the old law was personal retribution - either person-to-person or family-to-family. Jesus said that we, as individuals, should instead turn the other cheek. He did not say that *the government *could not meet out justice. In fact, in the parables, sinners often are dealt with very severely, even killed, by those in power. I am not saying that CP is acceptable in our modern society, just that it wasn’t abrogated in the Gospels.

today we have bigger and better prisons.

  1. Do we really have the capability to repress crime?
    That would mean that no murders would occur in prison but they do occur.
    That would mean that they would never be release from prison to harm anyone again,unfortunately that is not true.

for one, we have better social programs to help the poor. So people in many parts of the world are not stealing bread like they did in the past. There are still parts of the world where people are starving, but in most parts of Europe and the Americas this doesn’t exist. When murders happen inside prison, there are options like solitary confinement, maximum security, etc. Society does not have to parole criminals. There are ways to keep them off the streets. Also just because a parole system is broken doesn’t mean you should kill the imamates

  1. It seems to me that it isn’t as rare or non-existent as we should hope it would be.

The death penalty is used too much. I think a big part of the problem is the judicial system isn’t working properly today in some parts of the world (like the US). Criminals should be afraid of going to jail. But today, many are not. Some prisoners might be shown too much mercy for their crimes in prison. They get TV, they get to socialize with other criminals, they get to work out, they get to play basketball (and even soccer, football and baseball in some parts of the world). It’s almost like boot camp in some places. And white collar prisons are almost like camps. But if prisons were tougher, then criminals would fear going to prison. Fear of punishment can keep people on the right path.

But it’s just not the judicial system, a lot of western society as become too liberal. Mercy is important, but not to the point where there is no justice. Same when raising children. I have this argument with my wife all the time. Children must know there are rules and when the rules are broken, there are consequences. And the consequences must be an appropriate deterrent. For example, if a child loves to be in his/her room, then a punishment of sending them to their room does no good.

Misallocated mercy is a bad thing. In the case of the justice system, I believe that prisons should be less merciful and the mercy is shown by not killing the prisoners.

I’ll probably get into strife saying this, but this conundrum is uniquely American where ‘the government’ is not seen as the voice of the people and administration of the common good… but as a separate entity; a necessary evil that may turn on ‘the people’ in tyranny one day. (Hence the major justification of defensive gun ownership by private citizens)

For the rest of us, ‘the State’ is merely the civil administration sentiment of the people. We obey laws and follow rules with the basic sense that they are for the good of all which benefits us as individuals in the long run. So there is no great stretch to understand how the peoples personal appreciation of Christian justice influences ‘the States’ application of justice.

 It has become more apparent to the Magisterium that the secular state doesn't in any fashion operate with the good of either the person or the society of persons as a goal when it administers punishments. Just as the contemporary state regards the murder of children with blithe indifference, so iit routinely executes people with indifference to the question of whether they were demonstrably innocent solely because it was not demonstrated according to what judges regard as proper procedure. 
As awareness of the gospel of life grows, it becomes far less clear that a state organized around a culture of death has the moral competence to inflict such a punishment.


Texas has executed about 0.9% of her murderers, then after about 11 years of appeal on average.

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