Why does the US and so many of its citizens continue to support the death penalty?

Exactly four weeks ago, I posted an open letter in which three Catholic bishops appeal for an end to the federal death penalty in the United States. Immediately (i.e. from the very first response), this thread became a debate about exactly what the Church’s teaching on the death penalty is and whether the pope has the authority to change that teaching. That thread now runs to 261 posts (which I am no longer reading) and I absolutely do not wish to begin another thread on this topic. Indeed, I did not intend to begin a thread on that topic in the first place. Rather, my original topic was hijacked by a small number of contributors interested in pursuing their own peculiar agenda.

What I am asking is, rather, whether anybody can provide an explanation for why the United States, almost uniquely among comparably developed countries, persists in its use of the death penalty. This issue struck me, for example, when I was watching a documentary about the Cheshire, Connecticut, home invasion murders. The husband and father of the victims, William Petit, emerged as a passionate advocate for the death penalty, despite the position of his own denomination, the United Methodist Church. Even Jennifer Hawke-Petit’s father, the Reverend Richard Hawke, seemingly ended up accepting the death penalty in this case.

In 2009 the governor of Connecticut vetoed a bill abolishing the state death penalty, and in 2012 the General Assembly agreed on a compromise that would abolish the death penalty for all future crimes (the state supreme court nonetheless ruled that the death penalty is unconstitutional in all cases). I was astonished that even in Connecticut the death penalty was vehemently supported by politicians, journalists, and the public.

The death penalty has been abolished in law or in practice by 142 countries, including all western countries and virtually all of the world’s most developed countries, including every country in the Americas (except the United States itself), every country in Europe except Belarus, and every country in Oceania, as well as all but 10 countries in Africa and many Asian countries, such as Israel, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Macau. With the notable exception of Japan, and perhaps a few others such as Taiwan, most countries that continue to use the death penalty are hardline Islamic regimes, communist dictatorships, or simply very undeveloped. India, with a population of more than 1.3 billion, has executed only four people since 1999, three of them for terrorism. The Gambia has executed nobody since 2012 (when it was ruled by Yahya Jammeh) and is now in the process of formally abolishing the death penalty.

Is anybody able to provide any suggestions as to why the United States is so resistant toward the idea of abolishing the death penalty, given that this places us very much at odds with all otherwise comparable nations in the world?

I generally oppose the death penalty

However, there are cases where it can and should be used

  1. if a convict serving a life sentence assaults a prison guard or staff member, or assaults and kills a fellow inmate.

  2. if a convict orders a contract on the outside, to kill another person or persons. Gang leaders and mob leaders do this.

  3. if a parolee kills a cop.


I support it because I feel it is right. I know my conscience is against current church theology but I can’t see it any other way for victims.

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A minority of Catholics support the death penalty but not a majority.

CAF is not real life.

In general, more Americans support the death penalty than in many other countries because

A) our culture has a highly individualistic background, springing from a combination of influential ideas in politics and in religious denominations. We attracted some of the most radical and adventurous and desperate people from other countries, and they had children and raised them with their values and mindset, and so on and so forth.

B) We weren’t ravaged by WW2 and we weren’t sensitized to death and violence the way that Europe and some other places were. A lot of the social reforms in Europe were boosted in the aftermath of the World Wars.

Fortunately, USA has become increasingly against the death penalty but it has been on its own historical path and is unique from any other country.


I oppose the death penalty in practice but support it in principle. There are crimes where death is a just punishment. My opposition stems from the fact that innocent people have been executed for crimes they didn’t commit. I see nothing immoral about using execution as a punishment in itself, I just don’t trust us to get right 100% of the time.


The question, therefore, is why you think that this should be the case in the United States when it would not be the case in comparable societies such as virtually the whole of Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the whole of Latin America, South Africa, Israel, Hong Kong, Macau, South Korea, and so on. As I have shown, even in India it is highly unlikely the somebody would be executed under those circumstances, since nobody has been executed for a crime other than terrorism since 2004, despite India’s enormous population and terrible poverty.

It’s somewhat beside the point, since what I am really addressing is why the United States still has the death penalty, but some of your examples seem rather arbitrary. Why execute a prisoner serving a life sentence who assaults a guard but not a prisoner serving a 50-year sentence who does the same thing? Why execute a paroled offender who kills a police officer but not a paroled offender who kills another other person, including, for example, another category of public employee?

I feel that this seems to be a peculiarly American way of looking at things. Americans often justify the death penalty in terms of achieving justice for victims, whereas 142 other countries around the world, including all western countries, seem to be capable of achieving justice by non-lethal means. Many Americans seem to have an almost religious sense of the necessity of a blood sacrifice to atone for guilt, whereas Canadians, Europeans, etc. seem to be content with imprisonment.

Yes, I am not entirely sure that I understand why an individualistic culture leads to such strong support for the death penalty, but I cannot escape the sense that this is the case. Perhaps it is because we have more of a conviction that criminality is solely the responsibility of the individual, whereas others, such as Canadians and Europeans, seem to see crime as something that results from problems in society.

I don’t think this really holds up. Canada didn’t experience the Second World War in the same way the Europe did, yet has an aversion to death and violence. Also, the countries that became the eastern bloc experienced more death and violence than anywhere, but after the war the USSR and its satellites used the death penalty prolifically.

Again, I wonder why this is such a common response from Americans. One does not hear nearly so many people from Poland or New Zealand saying that death is a just punishment.

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I think many people support it because to them, it is justice. They took a life, their life gets taken, plain and simple. I am not saying I agree, just saying what I hear from people that support it.

I too, have a problem with the death penalty for all of the times that the system has gotten it wrong. There are people that have sat in prison for long lengths of time, only to be later proven innocent.


It doesn’t go against historical church theology so you have that as well.

It’s a secondary reason.

Canada as a territory was culturally a hybrid of French and British from the beginning and it followed suit with many of the things Britain and France did, such as outlaw slavery earlier. Canada does to some extent take on the cultural attributes of the USA but this was not until much, much later in history.

The USSR was controlled by an authoritarian regime and authoritarian regimes love the death penalty. So does the USA but for slightly different reasons. Radical control and radical individualism both tend to lead to violence.

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You are absolutely correct. I’ve debated US pro CPers for 10 years or more on the internet. (Apart from people who believe that the protection of society depends on it) the fundamental justification is that authorities have a ‘divine right’ to kill if they deem it just. I believe it stems from the Protestant ‘Divine Right of Kings’ ideology. Absent a royal bloodline in the US, they default to belief that certain ‘elect’ who are confirmed by wealth, power and intelligence, have this divine right. They refuse to allow that the common good could be known and dictated by the general population ie the culture.

I know that may seem far fetched but I believe that the Church has come out strongly now on the death penalty (as opposed to anytime over the last century and a half that the death penalty has been abolished around the world)…to specifically denounce this type of thinking, especially as it is being claimed ‘Catholic’.

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I can’t speak for Europe, but here in MA when Mitt Romney was governor, he put together a commission to study capital punishment.

The commission was made up of doctors, clergy, psychologists and others

There recommendations were as I outlined.

The state legislature turned it down out of political reasons, being it’s predominately democrat and Romney is a Republican

Capital punishment should only be used when a criminal is so dangerous, that he/she is a threat to other humans while serving time in prison.

Recently, three criminals broke out of prison by killing two guards. Those convicts should’ve been put to death before they kill again.


I don’t see the issue with the death penalty.

There’s pretty strong Biblical support for the death penalty, as God made broad commands for it. And As much as people wish He had, He didn’t say “He who sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for he might hurt others and you don’t have the proper technology to restrain him.”

What he said was “He who sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in God’s image made He man” people always try and make the death penalty about something else, when what it’s about is justice. Justice isn’t a bad thing, given that it’s real justice.

The only good argument I hear against it (in theory) is that some innocent people may receive an irreversible punishment. That argument might have flown a century ago, but as technology develops, the chances of that are very low. And the argument doesn’t hold alot of water either way, because it implies that if someone innocent is sent to languish in prison for 30 years, and then is discovered to be innocent with the revelation of new evidence, that third of their life that has been accidentally taken away is somehow more reversible than a death sentence. And you can make the argument that treating someone like cattle for 40 years or more (depending on when they get a life sentence) is actually less humane than just executing them. Being honest, if a judge gave me the option between living in a cage for 30 years without being able to be with my wife or family, then getting to spend the last few years of my life bagging groceries in a world I didn’t recognize, or getting the death penalty, that’d be a hard choice.

I know there’s a set of Catholics who disagree with that, but I haven’t heard any personally convincing arguments to the contrary.


I think that what really needs to change is how prisons work and don’t work, but I do not want to derail this thread by discussing that.

Is the rate of violent crime peculiarly high in the US that people feel it [death penalty] is needed?

If a man kills another man in cold blood, I think the number of other people per 1000 that are doing the same thing is irrelevant to how bad that act was.

The problem is a convict serving a life sentence.

He has nothing to lose killing or assaulting a guard or even a nurse who provides him with a flu shot

Assaults on guards in max security prisons is on the rise.

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Good question.

A plausible answer.

Can any additional clues be drawn from the map of legislation? What forms the ideas of those that share the same view? Experience? History?

He has nothing to lose if he’s already serving the worst possible punishment the state is allowed to give

Not really

If he’s serving 10 years, he has a chance to turn his life around

Even convicts are offered training and education in order to rehabilitate them.

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