The Death Penalty – being “vindictive” in the Church’s Magisterium

Fr. George Rutler has a fascinating and mind-concentrating bit at the site of Crisis.  I hope it will encourage both you and others.   Go check out Crisis for sure, but lest anyone in laziness not click over there, here is the piece so that you have less excuse to let your short attention span wander away from this interesting topic concerning the dignity of life… and getting to heaven even after you have been very naughty.

I hope you will read this carefully and think about it.  I really hope you will think for a while before posting comments.  For example, think about what you are going to do with your spare time after I ban you from commenting when you leap to conclusions about my view of capital punishment based the mere fact that I posted this thought provoking and informative piece.

Hanging Concentrates the Mind

by Rev. George W. Rutler

Capital punishment does not inspire roaring humor in healthy minds, so wit on the subject tends to be sardonic.  Two of the most famous examples, of course, are: “In this country it is wise to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others,”  and “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

The first, “pour encourager les autres,”  is in “Candide” where Voltaire alludes to the death by firing squad of Admiral John Byng in 1757 for having let Mincorca fall to the French.  The second was Samuel Johnson’s response to the hanging of an Anglican clergyman and royal chaplain William Dodd for a loan scam.  Byng’s death was the last instance of shooting an officer for incompetence, while Dodd’s was the last hanging at Tyburn for forgery. Dodd’s unsuccessful appeal for clemency was ghostwritten by Dr. Johnson.

It is not my concern here to take a position on capital punishment which the Catechism (# 2266) acknowledges is not an intrinsic evil and is rightly part of the state’s authority. This is nuanced by the same Catechism’s proposition that its use  today would be “rare, if not practically non-existent. (#2267)”  As a highly unusual insertion of a prudential opinion in a catechetical formula, this would seem to be more mercurial in application than the doctrine of the legitimacy of the death penalty.  What is oddly lacking, however, is reference to capital punishment as medicinal as well as punitive. Tradition has understood that the spiritual aspect of the death penalty is to “concentrate the mind” so that the victim dies in a state of grace.  Simply put, the less I believe heartily in eternal life, the more disheartened I shall be about entering “a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

That finale to “A Tale of Two Cities” appeared thirteen years after “Pictures from Italy” in which Dickens described an execution he watched in Rome during the pontificate of Gregory XVI with its chaotic judicial system: “It was an ugly, filthy, careless, sickening spectacle, meaning nothing but butchery,” But Dickens noted the presence of monks accompanied by trumpets  holding a crucifix draped in black before the twenty-six year old highwayman who had killed a Bavarian countess making a pilgrimage to Rome.   The execution was delayed until his wife was brought to him and he at last received absolution.  Back in London three years after writing that account, he witnessed in  Southwark the hanging of Fredrick and Marie Manning, the last husband and wife jointly to be executed in England. His reaction was similar to that in Rome save that he thought the crowd of 30,000 more unruly and there was no mention of a religious tone.

[And now let’s get into the Church and capital punishment… and I am aware that The Bitter Pill has something on the death penalty in their current number.] In Rome in 1817, Pius VII reigning, Lord Byron saw three robbers beheaded in the Piazza del Popolo, and he  also noted the priests attending those about to die, with banners and prayers in procession. The swift fall of the guillotine was an improvement upon the “vulgar and ungentlemanly” gallows in England.  Although Dr. Joseph Ignace Guillotin had promoted the use of the “Guillotine,” first called the “Louisson,” for its relative painlessness, a precursor was in use in Edinburgh in the mid sixteenth century. Regarded as a humane improvement, it was common in many European countries and was used in the Papal States for 369 executions from 1814 to 1870. Giovanni Battista Bugatti was the official papal executioner from 1796 to 1865, having used an axe before the French introduced the guillotine during their occupation of Rome. Under papal rule, there were three normal sites for executions: the Piazza di Ponte Angelo, Piazzo del Popolo, and Via del Cerchi.  Shooting was a common form of punishment in the brief Austrian receivership of Rome under the Hapsburg Queen Maria Carolina.  Thus we have the firing squad scene in the last act of  “Tosca.”  While the harshest punishment, hanging and drawing and quartering is often thought of as peculiar to England, it was more common in the Papal States. The last to be killed that way in England were some Jacobite officers in 1745. The sentence was imposed  on several Chartist rioters in 1839 but they were given the option of transportation to Australia, which they accepted.  When the pope regained possession of the Papal States in 1814, hanging, drawing and quartering was imposed eleven times until it ended in 1817.  For particularly heinous crimes, crushing the head with a mallet, the “mazzatello” continued until 1870.   [Nah… it continued well into the 1980’s and ’90’s in liberal seminaries.]

The nickname of the papal executioner Bugatti was Mastro Titta,  a slang for Master of Justice (Maestro di Giustizia.)  He wore a red cloak and showed ceremonial deference to his victims. Pope Pius IX [of blessed memory] let him retire at the age of 85 with a considerable pension. This pope, beatified by John Paul II in 2000, was unflinching in the importance with which he invested public executions as an “encouragement” to others. On June 12, 1855 a deranged hat maker and political subversive  named Anotonio De Felici chased the Cardinal Secretary of State with a large fork. Cardinal Antonelli escaped unscathed and appealed to the Pope to commute the sentence from beheading to life imprisonment on the grounds of the man’s mental imbalance but was refused. Mastro Titta had been retired four years and replaced by his apprentice Antonio Balducci when the final executions in Rome took place on November 24, 1868.  Giuseppe Monti and Gaetano Tognetti had been convicted to killing twenty-five Zouave soldiers in the Borgo. The executions ceased, not out of any policy of penal reform, but because of the loss of the Papal States.  Agatino Bellomo was the last to be executed in the Papal States, in Palestrina, on July 9, 1870.  When Blessed Pius IX was asked to grant a stay of execution for those condemned in 1868, the Pope firmly replied, “I cannot, and I do not want to.”  He certainly could have by law, which he embodied as state sovereign with ”plenitudo potestatis,”  but by enigmatically saying that he could not, he probably was declaring this a high matter of conscience in the interest of Augustinian tranquility of order as explained by such as Bellarmine, Liguori, Thomas More and Suarez.  [The famed tranquilitas ordinis… I wonder what George Weigel, who was here at the Legatus Summit, would opine.]

When a papal butler was recently arrested, [and for weeks people ran around like guillotined chickens] many were surprised that the Vatican City even had a jail. The Lateran treaty of 1929 provided for the execution of anyone attempting to assassinate  the Pope within the Vatican.  In 1969 capital punishment was quietly removed from the “fundamental law” of the Vatican, without comment and only in Latin,  and did not come to public attention until 1971.

The grandson of St. Elizabeth Anne Seton,  Archbishop Robert Seton, long-lived but less loved, wrote that during the course of a holiday in France as a boy, the ceremonious spectacle of a man being beheaded inspired him greatly to think of the dignity of life.  He was especially close to Leo XIII and St. Pius X who in 1905 reiterated the Roman Catechism of St. Pius V with reference to capital punishment:  “Far from being guilty of breaking this commandment (to do no murder) 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 is part of the the Magisterium.]

The medicinal reason for inflicting punishment, [PAY ATTENTION…] goes beyond preventing the criminal from repeating his crime and protecting society, to encouraging the guilty to repent and die in a state of grace. The vindictive reasoning also has this interest in mind: for by expiating the disorder caused by the crime, the moral debt of the guilty is lessened. [Latin vindico does not have to do only with being “vindictive” or “vengeful”.  It is also “to set free, emancipate”.] In the early years of the nineteenth century. St. Vincent Pallotti frequently assisted the condemned to the scaffold, as St. Catherine had done in Siena. He was edified by the many holy deaths he saw, while helping the Archfraternity of San Giovanni, under the patronage of his friend the English Cardinal Acton.  Headquartered in the Church of San Giovanni Decollato (St. John the Beheaded),  [I was once involved in a Mass there on the feast itself and have decided ever since that it, too, should be one of my name-day feasts.] their rule  was to urge the condemned to a good confession, followed by an exhortation and Holy Communion followed by the grant of a plenary indulgenceThe whole population of Rome was instructed to fast and pray for the intention of the criminal’s soul.  [Can you imagine such a thing today?  Can you see such an announcement on Fox News?  “Everyone is urged to pray in a particularly intense way this evening in a vigil until Midnight, Central Time, before the execution of X.  He confessed his sins, received Communion and the plenary indulgence.”  What would Twitter do with that?]

All other considerations of the machinery of death aside, this paramount regard for the human soul is quaint only if belief in eternal life is vague. Pope Pius XII was so eager for vindictive penalties that he lent the help of a Jesuit archivist to assist the prosecutors at the Nuremberg trials. He personally told the chief United States prosecutor, Robert Jackson:  “Not only do we approve of the trial, but we desire that the guilty be punished as quickly as possible.”  This was not in spite of, but issuing from, his understanding of the dual role of healing and vindication. This is essential doctrine on the subject and, in the “development of doctrine” on its application, it is the Type,” as Newman would say, that is to be preserved.   All this should not be remaindered as historical curiosities, for, as [Venerable] Pope Pius XII said, “the coercive power of legitimate human authority” has its roots in “the sources of revelation and traditional doctrine” and so it must not be said “that these sources only contain ideas which are conditioned by historical circumstances” for they have “a general and abiding validity.” (Acta Apostolica Sedis, 1955, pp.81-82).

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. maryh says:

    It reminds me of the film “Dead Man Walking.” In the film at least, it looked like the only thing that made the murderer reconsider what he had done was being faced with his execution.

  2. Fr_Sotelo says:

    San Giovanni Decollato–il mio compleanno!

  3. Jason Keener says:

    For quite awhile now, I have sensed some discontinuity between the Church’s current opinion on the death penalty and what seems to be a firmly established older teaching. I believe the death penalty should be used more often today as a means to deter crime and as a way to offer a criminal the opportunity to repent and even expiate his/her sins. At one point in time, the civil government believed it had every right to hand out the death penalty, even in the name of God. After all, in justice, those who are guilty of serious crimes deserve a serious punishment.

    It seems that Pope John Paul II made the prudential decision that in today’s world the dignity of life is supported better by the almost non-use of the death penalty. With all due respect to the late Supreme Pontiff, I am not sure I agree. The more frequent use of the death penalty would, I think, deter members of society from committing serious crimes and would offer society a reminder that there is something even worse than the death penalty, the loss of one’s eternal soul. Moreover, through their heinous crimes, some people have so disfigured their human dignity that the death penalty is the only appropriate “closing act” for such an earthly life. Of course, with grace and repentance, even the worst among us have the ability to repair their relationship with God.

    If anyone is interested, the late Cardinal Dulles wrote an interesting article about the death penalty and the development of doctrine surrounding it in Catholic teaching. Just google it.

  4. The other side of this coin, though, is that executing a person could interrupt the process of repentence prematurely. It leads to the next question– namely, why does God allow any of us to run around sinning instead of striking us down on the spot? I am much more comfortable with the thought of a sinner sitting in a jail cell until his natural death, being given whatever time God thinks is necessary to repent.

  5. AnAmericanMother says:

    The problem is, he won’t.
    With the temptations available in prison (surprising, I know, but there you are), an apparently endless succession of long gray days ahead, and not knowing when his “number will be up”, he will not consider his end.
    Moreover, the hope of parole or obtaining a reversal, commutation, or modification of his sentence will concentrate his mind on attempting to manipulate the machinery of the law, rather than considering the fate of his immortal soul.

  6. MarrakeshEspresso says:

    Good article, Father, and plenty there to think about. It’s great to read someone actually expressing a really balanced view of the issue.

    I have often tended towards being in favour of capital punishment for proven-beyond-doubt heinous crimes against the person, even though it’s abolished where I live, and we seem to have replaced it with slap-on-the-wrist suspended sentences and mini-jail-terms for a whole range of crimes. As P J O’Rourke said, it takes years of liberal education to produce people who think killing proven criminals is wrong, but killing the innocent unborn is OK.

    But again, I think it would take a re-Christianisation of our society as a whole before we could expect even to be ALLOWED to let a priest in to see all the condemned, and help miracles to happen. These days, a priest must surely have to run the gauntlet of about a zillion different government agencies, all dedicated to ‘protecting’ the individual criminal’s ‘freedom’ from being interfered with by meddlesome clerics and sky-pilots with hidden agendas.

    Yes, there are stories of repentant life-servers, like Myra Hindley. But there are also the life-servers who suicide in jail, which seems to be more common.

  7. benedetta says:

    Today happens to be the birthday of Charles Dickens, as well as the feast day of St. Josephine Bakhita.

    In the play King Henry IV Part One we read this:

    But, I prithee, sweet
    wag, shall there be gallows standing in England when
    thou art king? and resolution thus fobbed as it is
    with the rusty curb of old father antic the law? Do
    not thou, when thou art king, hang a thief.
    No; thou shalt.
    Shall I? O rare! By the Lord, I’ll be a brave judge.
    Thou judgest false already: I mean, thou shalt have
    the hanging of the thieves and so become a rare hangman.

  8. mamajen says:

    Hmmm…this is a very interesting perspective that had never crossed my mind before.

    I am not really sure what to think of the death penalty. The idea of purposely killing another human being, particularly when it is planned out, just doesn’t sit well with me. I could never do it (Mind you, I’m one who can’t even step on an ant). That said, I have never considered myself to be against the death penalty either. I like the idea expressed in this article that the death penalty should be about helping the criminal rather than seeking revenge.

  9. Y2Y says:

    I fully agree with the public and frequent use of the death penalty, for a wide variety of offences. Frankly, I believe that the criminal justice system should be geared towards exterminating as many criminals as possible.

  10. MissOH says:

    A very interesting article and one I will read again. Our American experience colors everything.

  11. Fabula Rasa says:

    It’s a subject for sober thought, and you’re right Father, this is a unique perspective that I had never thought of. I admit my own opinion of capital punishment was formed early by reading Dostoevsky; it’s a subject he dwells on in The Brothers Karamazov (which my beloved Russian professor referred to as The Fifth Gospel) but elaborates more fully in The Idiot. Below is Prince Myshkin, movingly and memorably, on the subject, when asked if the guillotine was not far kinder than hanging:

    “I believe that to execute a man for murder is to punish him immeasurably more dreadfully than is equivalent to his crime. A murder by sentence is far more dreadful than a murder committed by a criminal. The man who is attacked by robbers at night, in a dark wood, or anywhere, undoubtedly hopes and hopes that he may yet escape until the very moment of his death. There are plenty of instances of a man running away, or imploring for mercy—at all events hoping on in some degree—even after his throat was cut. But in the case of an execution, that last hope—having which it is so immeasurably less dreadful to die,—is taken away from the wretch and CERTAINTY substituted in its place! There is his sentence, and with it that terrible certainty that he cannot possibly escape death—which, I consider, must be the most dreadful anguish in the world. You may place a soldier before a cannon’s mouth in battle, and fire upon him—and he will still hope. But read to that same soldier his death-sentence, and he will either go mad or burst into tears. Who dares to say that any man can suffer this without going mad? No, no! it is an abuse, a shame, it is unnecessary — why should such a thing exist? Doubtless there may be men who have been sentenced, who have suffered this mental anguish for a while and then have been reprieved; perhaps such men may have been able to relate their feelings afterwards. Our Lord Christ spoke of this anguish and dread. No! no! no! No man should be treated so, no man, no man!”

  12. JKnott says:

    Fr Rutler’s interesting article made me think of St. Therese praying for the criminal Pranzini.
    Here it is from Wikipedia
    “During the summer, French newspapers were filled with the story of Henri Pranzini, convicted of the brutal murder of two women and a child. To the outraged public Pranzini represented all that threatened the decent way of life in France. In July and August 1887 Thérèse prayed hard for the conversion of Pranzini, so his soul could be saved, yet Pranzini showed no remorse. At the end of August, the newspapers reported that just as Pranzini’s neck was placed on the guillotine, he had grabbed a crucifix and kissed it three times. Thérèse was ecstatic and believed that her prayers had saved him. She continued to pray for Pranzini after his death.”

  13. contrarian says:

    A brilliant piece by Rev. Rutler. His thesis–that the belief in the justice of capital punishment death wanes in proportion to firm (or clear, as opposed to vague) belief in the afterlife (and what might be called ‘divine’ justice)–seems…well, I want to say ‘obviously true’, but I don’t want to sound too confrontational or needlessly contentious. Well…it’s obviously true.

    At the very least, so as to not sound too contentious: while the correlation between ‘orthodox’ belief and belief in the justice of the death penalty might be complicated, especially among the Americanized and neo-conservative Catholics, the correlation between belief in the injustice of the death penalty and belief in ‘liberal’ Catholicism should be perfect and exception-free.

    Sure enough, I don’t think I could name a single ‘spirit of Vatican II’ Catholic who believes in the justice of the death penalty.

  14. redselchie says:

    I don’t know. I’m a nurse that works in a prison – a faith/character based one, at that, and I see inmates “concentrating their minds” on their actions and the spiritual consequences of those actions, every day. We’ve had great success in reducing the recidivism rates in Florida, with the faith based programs being one of the many reasons for it. We have a huge waiting list to get into the faith based programs, too.

    Even with the classes and programs we have in place here, there are large periods of time where the inmate has nothing to do, other than to think. Yes, there will always be some who only think of ways to get out of their sentences, but I think you’d be surprised by how many actually use that time serious reflection and “soul work.”

    An interesting flip side to this, is a subject matter called Restorative Justice. There was a couple recently in our parish who was on Good Morning America, talking of Restorative Justice, and how it worked in dealing with the man whom they thought would become their son-in-law, but who turned out to be the murderer of their daughter. Their story is a touching one; I’m not sure I could be as forgiving as that family has been. If you’re interested, their story can be found here –

  15. maryh says:

    Someone under a sentence of death does have to confront the reality of death in a way we otherwise tend to ignore. Except that if we’re Catholics, we shouldn’t. We should always be mindful that death could come at any time and be prepared for it. Speaking of which, tomorrow it’s time to go to confession …

    But can a death sentence have this medicinal effect if the person under the death sentence ends up concentrating all his efforts on getting an appeal? How much time does he have to really face the fact of his own death if he’s hoping for a last-minute pardon or reprieve down to the last second? And can it have that effect if he is already sure there is no afterlife, or that “God will understand?”

    I’m against the death penalty in a country like the US because we have the resources to keep others safe without killing the criminal, and because there is always a chance of a wrong verdict. And also, because I believe it is what the Magisterium calls us to right now. True, it is a prudential, not a doctrinal teaching, (is that the correct way to put it?) but I would not oppose it unless I reasoned that it truly didn’t apply here, and I think it does make it easier to defend the pro-life position when I’m against capital punishment.

    I always liked Cardinal Bernardin’s “Seamless Garment of Life” idea, even when I was away from the Church. I thought, “at least the Catholic Church is consistent.” I never thought of it as an excuse to justify putting abortion “on the back burner,” but it looks like it’s been used that way by some people.

  16. fvhale says:

    Leaving aside the spectacle of public executions, I must say that I found the second the most interesting paragraph of the essay:

    It is not my concern here to take a position on capital punishment which the Catechism (# 2266) acknowledges is not an intrinsic evil and is rightly part of the state’s authority. This is nuanced by the same Catechism’s proposition that its use today would be “rare, if not practically non-existent. (#2267)” As a highly unusual insertion of a prudential opinion in a catechetical formula, this would seem to be more mercurial in application than the doctrine of the legitimacy of the death penalty. What is oddly lacking, however, is reference to capital punishment as medicinal as well as punitive. Tradition has understood that the spiritual aspect of the death penalty is to “concentrate the mind” so that the victim dies in a state of grace. Simply put, the less I believe heartily in eternal life, the more disheartened I shall be about entering “a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

    I think that the attitude toward capital punishment expressed in the Catechism, and in the various references of Bl. Pope John Paul II and our modern bishops derives from the fact that, over the centuries, there has been a great shift in who is doing the executing.

    No longer do we have executions directed by the Church, with priests and monks caring for the soul, and prisoners receiving sacraments, especially penance, before their end. Beginning in the early 20th century, and definitely in the experience of Pope John Paul II, “capital punishment” was most often carried out by godless, totalitarian states, or by occupying armies during the many wars of the 20th century. In short, “capital punishment” became a primary tool of the godless and oppressive, to be inflicted on enemies political, ethnic, social and religious in warped justice. For several years now the leaders in application of the death penalty have been countries such as China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, Syria. I doubt that any of these executions would have had the “medicinal” effects to which the article alludes on the soul of the victim.

    Times have changed.

  17. Charles E Flynn says:

    All very nice, until the state learns for a fact that it has executed an innocent man. That could be why the catechism includes its prudential opinion about the use of capital punishment. Research has found that neither memory or eyewitness testimony is as reliable as one might hope.

    Speak, Memory, by Oliver Sacks. Search on the page for the term:


  18. Geoffrey says:

    As a teenager sometime in the 1990s, I was watching live media coverage of the execution of a woman in Texas. Of course the actual event was not filmed, but rather the camera’s were covering the action outside: protesters and supporters; one side advocating life in prison, the other side clamoring for “justice”.

    The whole incident felt very ghoulish and left me with a feeling of immense disgust. I firmly believe in the Church’s teaching that capital punishment is a legitimate power of the state (depending on the state in question), but I also firmly believe in Blessed John Paul the Great’s admonition that capital punishment is becoming increasingly unnecessary in the 21st century.

  19. St. Epaphras says:

    A good explanation of the traditional Catholic view of capital punishment is given in this sermon on Audio Sancto’s website.

  20. lmo1968 says:

    Citation #2267 is worth looking at in its entirety:

    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.

    That “if” negates almost all capital punishment cases in the U.S. since we have other ways of effectively defending human lives.

    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 are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

    I.E., we don’t “exterminate” them.

    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 non-existent.

    Leaves no doubt as to where a properly formed conscience would stand on this issue.

  21. JacobWall says:

    I can’t say that I’ve been convinced about the death penalty (either way) but I can say that this excellent article has once again given me a better historical perspective. So much of history is now given to us distorted beyond recognition, more often than not intentionally distorted by people with a progressive agenda; if they can make the past look evil, than they can justify aggressively promoting their “progressive” change. And they accomplish this well, unfortunately.

    After reading this, the issue of primary interest to me isn’t capital punishment (although that would come as a close second); what interests me is that these same executions are used as “evidence” of cruelty, injustice and inhumanity, showing that we need to do away with the Church (for those attempting to destroy the from without) or that we need to do away with the Church’s past (for those attempting to destroy from within.) In both cases, seeing the “medicinal” purpose of executions, and the great trouble the priests and religious present took for the care of the criminal’s soul, their arguments fall apart.

    (The argument that “popes in the past were bad people, so we should stop using Latin,” is already absurd in itself, showing a complete lack of logic and reason, but that’s a different point.)

    In the years just prior to joining the Church, one of several key driving forces that moved me towards Catholicism and a more conservative perspective was seeing how progressives had blatantly and brutally distorted history to their own ends. I won’t list my personal examples here, but I continue to find such instances in unrelated places and histories. The recurring theme is there is a major upheaval; progressives come out on the top. They re-write history to make ensure that no one doubts that their new ideas are the best. They teach it to children in schools. What always surprises me the most is how willing Christians are to buy into this new, re-written history (myself included,) and worst of all, even use these lies when they feel it.

    So have I been convinced that capital punishment is a good thing? No. (Although I leave the possibility that I could be.) What I am convinced of by this article is that executions ordered by the Pope and Catholic rulers had a side to them (medicinal, healing, causing repentance) which was very humane, fair, just and concerned for the well being of the criminal – for this reason that side is never taught in history classes, since it would undermine the progressive agenda.

  22. Andrew Saucci says: The other side of this coin, though, is that executing a person could interrupt the process of repentence prematurely. It leads to the next question– namely, why does God allow any of us to run around sinning instead of striking us down on the spot? I am much more comfortable with the thought of a sinner sitting in a jail cell until his natural death, being given whatever time God thinks is necessary to repent.

    Is it that easy to short-circuit God’s mercy? If the state may legitimately set a date for execution, and if the legitimate exercise of state authority is an expression of God’s will, then the condemned is indeed given all the time he needs to repent, and not a minute less. Perhaps just one minute more might be his eternal undoing.

    Some opposition to capital punishment is reasoned and principled, but it seems that worldly opposition to capital punishment proceeds mostly from the belief that this life is all there is, and that therefore absolutely nothing worse can happen to a person than physical death.

  23. LisaP. says:

    Just had the “once saved, always saved” conversation with a Protestant friend. I’m a firm believer that we can move away from God and return to God at any time in our lives. But if our salvation can be lost simply by chance, because we didn’t happen to hang around ten minutes more and would have repented if we did — or if it can be gained by chance, because a piano suddenly hung over our heads so we had the chance to repent before it fell — doesn’t that make salvation just as arbitrary as my Protestant friend thinks I think it is?

    No, it’s got to be that God clearly makes sure we know what we are choosing and get to choose for that final decision. How he places all that in time is up to him, but surely if I’m in the state legislature I’m not sending a man to hell by instituting or by withdrawing the death penalty.

    Now, for any one man, a hanging threat may be the thing God uses to make his choice clear; or a decade in prison may be the thing. But there will surely be a thing. So we should decide for or against the death penalty based on practical community needs, not based on the supposition that one way or the other will save more souls.

  24. dominic1955 says:

    I remember reading an account of an execution during the height of the Spanish Inquisition. In this case, it seemed like a legitimate condemnation. The condemned, on being led to the pyre (they were to be burnt) converted and they were greeted like brothers by the executioners and others present and their “reward” was being strangled rather than burnt alive. At time it shocked me, but the more and more I’ve read over the years and I’ve come to the opposite conclusion. I don’t think the people who lived back then were so barbarous or backwards or uncaring-I think we’ve lost much of our nerve. We’ve fallen for the soft-barbarism of basically not wanting to do anything messy or uncomfortable. We also do not like to think. There are vastly different mindsets at work between the “old” way and the “new”. In my reading and study, I have become much more accustomed to the “old” way, but mostly vicariously because that world no longer exists and I can only “experience” it through study.

    What I don’t get about current Church “teaching” is-where exactly did the “old way” go wrong? It is not as if the best and brightest of all of Christendom seriously worked out all the errors of previous scholastics and doctors and roundly defeated their positions. With this issue, along with the “old” Mass, and the “old” theology-it basically just got set aside by the ’60s ecclesiastical version of Andy Warhol’s “Superstars”. What’s new is hip and happening and “relevant”. What’s “old” is bad, and dusty and stodgey and irrelevant-but not defeated. That might have “worked”, but nothing really changed-it seems just like so much smoke and mirrors or Emperor’s New Clothes.

    Miss Moore has a good point, some of the argument against capital punishment flows from a very materialistic perspective-this life is all there is and so deprivation of it is beyond the pale of cruel. I see that sometimes amongst religious opponents to capital punishment-is it *really* mercy, or is it that you don’t really believe in all that “pie-in-the-sky” stuff? Much of modern religion (amongst Catholics too) has become little less than materialist moralizing with some pious veneer.

  25. Fr. Z,

    My biggest ‘issue’, if you would call it that, with the death penalty is not whether it is intrinsically good or bad. I think it is well enough established in Catholic thought that it can be permissible or even good. Rather, I have serious doubts as to whether or not modern justice systems are either morally legitimate or competent to have such power. There have been so many miscarriages of justice, frankly every day another judge or police department or lawyer calls attention to their moral bankruptcy. I guess I have lost faith in the modern criminal justice system as a whole, not to mention the modern state. Because of that, I do not trust them to treat the death penalty with the careful moral evaluation and dread of death that it properly deserves.

    Thanks for posting a fair an balanced piece. :)


  26. Eric says:

    not so fast lmo1968.

    What if the “unjust aggressor” is not the aforementioned “guilty party?”

    This could mean that death needs to remain a legal option so that a person that has already commited crimes that would send them away for the rest of their life doesn’t kill any witnesses.

    What keeps an “unjust aggresor” that is already facing life imprisonment for a lesser crime from murdering any witness to that crime? What would that criminal have to loose in commiting that murder? In fact, he would have a lot to gain by eliminating anyone that would be able bear witness against him. Making capital punishment illegal would if fact incentivise murder.

    A properly formed conscience relies heavily on the cardinal virtue of prudence. Bold letters not withstanding.

  27. lmo1968 says:

    Eric, If I understand you correctly, you are offering two arguments against a properly formed conscience interpreting capital punishment to be wrong in the U.S.:

    1.) a very vague and unlikely scenario (that somebody somewhere accused of murder may be more likely to kill witnesses if they were going to be sentenced to “only” life imprisonment rather than death):. I don’t see how facing a life sentence instead of death would incentivize an “unjust aggressor” to commit murder of witnesses. If the person was facing a possible death sentence, they may well conclude that having nothing else to lose they might as well get their revenge and kill the witnesses. This scenario is neither here nor there in the death penalty discussion from the CCC’s point of view.

    2.) AND that the U.S. has no means of preventing such scenario from happening.
    But the Catechism does not say the death penalty should not be used if it is needed. It says that states may use it if there is no other way to protect people; that is, “If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means.”

    Nota bene: It doesn’t mention the death penalty as being “medicinal” in any sense.

    It’s pretty clear that the CCC is saying that the death penalty is wrong in almost every sense it is applied in the U.S. and other western nations given that we have other ways to protect public safety.

    Yep, I bolded it. I don’t have access to a fancy red font here. ;)

  28. SeanC says:

    Excellent and thought provoking article.

  29. Phil_NL says:

    The death penalty, for me, always has had a component of ‘Look God, we have a real piece of work here, one so bad we cannot handle this evil here on earth. We trust you do better.’

    At end of the day, punishment – capital or otherwise – is not primarily about the culprit (even though touchy-feely liberals, especially in corner of the globe, think otherwise). The prime interest of the state is that the lawbreaking stops, not just by that particular criminal, but by all criminals, as they see there will be punishment severe enough to make then reconsider. Many people are kept on the straight and narrow simply by that thought alone. A close second is that some comfort, some sense of justice would be given to the victims and society as a whole (though this rarely can be adequate, the attempt must be made). However, incarceration may not be sufficient for these purposes, as argued above and as the Cathechism recognizes. (In fact, it baffles me how the current situation is much different from the nineteenth century, in that our justice systems are if anything better, penal options are if anything more limited, but man is still the same, capable of the same evil).

    So at the end of the day, the imposition of a death penalty is, in my view, not medicinal as a prime purpose – the responsibility of the state prevents such considerations to take precedence. But of course, it may work this way as a secondary purpose, and this is of course of prime importance to the guy about to be executed. It is therefore quite fitting to assist the condemned spiritually; the state may be bound not to forgive and exact punishment, God nor individuals are bound in the same way.

    Which makes it logical, rather than inconsistent, to have capital punishment and at the same time pray for a last minute conversion. It follows from the different responsibilities of the state (to maintain law and order) and individuals (to be charitable and forgiving). A distinction that, for a while, was more clear in earlier times than it is in ours.

  30. Phil_NL says:

    In that third line, it should have been “in my corner of the globe”

  31. Supertradmum says:

    Two points which are from the two opposing views: one, are we not all under a death sentence and do not executions remind all of us of our end, bringing us up short from the mad, crazy lives of endless activities without thought? Are these not salutary for a civilization?

    Second, and on the other hand, as in the famous movie for television, The Scarlet and the Black, based on a real story, the SS commander Herbert Kappler, a fierce man who was infamous for the Fosse Ardeatine Massacre, was converted to Catholicism in prison, partly because of the continued visits of Msgr. Hugh O’Flaherty, his one time nemesis. There is something to be said for giving people time to convert.

  32. Matt R says:

    Might I add that Texas is a poor example of a state using the death penalty, if one follows Fr Rutler’s reasoning? It is after all, following the English Protestant model so abhorred by the writers he mentions.
    Fr Rutler has successfully convinced me towards supporting the death penalty, even in the USA.

  33. Imrahil says:

    It often strook me that while the Church is opposed to the Death penalty, and is so for good reasons, there’s still a strangeness to notice. In public discourse, it is not these good reasons the death penalty is argued against with. In public discourse, we have to basically disagree with any argument that is brought forward against it.

    Public discourse tends to evolve around the principle that “by inflicting the death penalty, the State makes itself an equal to the murderer”. An assertion to which there is simply one answer. No. He does not. For good or for evil (thank you both Rev’d dear @Fr Z and dear @Fabula rasa for your very interesting pieces; indeed, as to Dostoevsky, the mercy of czarist Russians is touching enough, when Raskolnikov could by told by a police officer “why not confess? eight years of Siberia, and you can begin a new life!”). But he does not. Only a society that has somewhat lost view of the thing that is called guilt seems to think otherwise.

    That those against the death penalty tend to read their opinion into every paragraph of constitutions where they see a chance to do so, often enough contrary to the obvious intent of the constitution fathers, does not help to make them seem more sympathetic.

    On the other hand, the extreme arguments in favor of the death penalty, also, cannot imho be upheld by a Christian.
    To quote Immanuel Kant (also to show where Enlightenment, taken to the extreme, leads to, and a point Christians by instinct will distance themselves from):
    “In case he murdered he must die. There is no surrogate to satisfy justice here. There is no equality between however sorrowful a life, and death, thus no equality of crime and retaliation either, except by death – in a juridial procedure performed, yet freed from all maltreatment which would make Mankind a fright in the suffering person. Even if civil society dissolved (e.g. the people inhabiting an island decided to separate and disperse in all the world), the last murderer interred in prison would need to be executed beforehand, so that anyone may receive what his deeds are worth, and no blood guilt resteth on the people who did not insist on this punishment. For it can be seen as partiking in this public injury to justice.” (Metaphysics of Morals, 455)
    To which also one thing is to be said. No. Even the death penalty cannot equate the murder, and cannot give life back to the one murdered. And justice is, in fact, injured by every single little crime; and it is satisfied by Our Lord’s Most Precious Blood; sufficiently, and by It alone.

    This idea is around as well: “a murderer simply must be killed”. No. He need not.
    Indeed an interesting argument against the death penalty (imho) is that, once it is accepted, would not basically all crimes need to be punished with it? For all crimes injure society, and perhaps (at least by hypothesis in the thought-experiment) people can be deterred from them by this means. This seems to be the position by dear @Y2Y – let me say that clearly – cannot be upheld. I’ll cut references to previous holders of this opinion, but I’ll say one thing: Even the Nazis recognized that people sometimes get entangled into crime and should rather be helped out than all exterminated. (They only wanted to apply this to non-Jew fellow-Germans not opposing them politically and execute all others, but that is another issue.)

    Even more to be shunned is the argument that prisons are costly.

    So, of course, we must also reject most of the arguments that are brought in favor of the death penalty.

    What remains?

    The idea that the death penalty is legitimate if needed, and should not be used if not needed (for the murderer or other criminal is, yes, a valuable and loved member of Christian and civil society). What remains is basically what the Catechism says in 2266 and 2267, and what contains less prudential arguments that one may think, and more open to a plurality of outcomes than appears at first sight – if I may persue my hobby of hairsplitting. That the writers of the Catechism opposed the death penalty is beyond question, but did they actually write that explicitly down in the Catechism?

    When is the death penalty acceptable, according to the Catechism? If this is the only feasible way to defend the lives of men effectively against an unjust aggressor. Is it only me to read that this includes deterrence? (That the Catechism did not dwell on possible cases of unbloody treason still dangerous to the whole system of law, historically often punished capitally, is of secondary importance here.)

    What about it today? Today the cases when the elimination of the one guilty is absolutely necessary, are rare or practically not given. That is, albeit prudential, beyond doubt in the countries primarily in our view.

    But: “Absolutely necessary.” It is not absolutely necessary. Does the Catechism, however, say that the death penalty must be absolutely necessary that it can be inflicted? “Necessary”, yes. But what about relatively necessary? What if justice and the tranquillity of order work just fine without (which, again, is beyond question in our countries), but still by death penalty some further murders (some still take place after all) could be prevented? I do not see it did, it said (see quote above). Clear is, though: Legislators can decide not to have the death penalty if it is not absolutely necessary.

    I’ll say one more thing, though. There is this ancient tradition of “a year and a day” (one year, six weeks and three days). If we do have the death penalty, then after the first time of a sentence in court, something roughly this time should be enough for due further process of law (appeals, etc.), appeal to clemency, and spiritual preparation for death. To have someone imprisoned for years and years awaiting his execution is… both unduly hard to the criminal, and if there is a deterrent effect of the death penalty at all, ineffective insofar. Even possibly “cruel and unusual”.

  34. rtjl says:

    I am a supporter of the death penalty in theory but not in practice. I certainly believe that there are crimes so heinous that the death penalty is indeed the appropriate punishment but I am hesitant to place that power in the hands of any human authority. It can too easily be abused and misused for ends other than justice and even when it is not deliberately misused, human authorities are too prone to error. And the consequences or misuse or error are both severe and irreversible. In my own country , Canada, there has been no shortage of wrongful convictions in what would have been capital cases in recent history; David Milgarde, Donald Marshal, Steven Trescott, Guy Paul Morin, Thomas Sophonow… It can be argued that the death penalty should only be administered in cases where guilt is established with complete certain; but in theory all convictions are obtained only when guilt is “proven beyond the shadow of a reasonable doubt” and yet mistakes are clearly made. Yes, the death penalty is the only appropriate sentence in many cases, but the risks of making mistakes and executing innocent people are too high to actually administer it.

  35. Cheesesteak Expert says:

    Is not the historical Christian understanding of the state’s “right” to execute rooted in the state being Christian? What Fr.Rutler does not consider, then, is what “rights” the state has if it is aggressively anti-Christian, or even apathetically non-Christian. Methinks he plays into the hands of the enemies of the Church then, for how can a Christian state be endowed with the same as a non-Christian? And which Christian advocate of the state’s right to execute ever aware of a modern anti-Christian society?

  36. Imrahil says:

    Dear @Cheesesteak Expert,

    Is not the historical Christian understanding of the state’s “right” to execute rooted in the state being Christian?


    If the state is Christian that is good both because we know then that he’ll stict to true principles and probably will be more conscientious in application, but no, the principal right of the state to inflict any punishment (it is often forgotten that this includes also prison, fine, and even damages, at least where they surpass restitution), including the death penalty (if the state dares to use it, which may be an ungood choice), has nothing to do with the State being Christian.

    Caesar was not Christian when both Christ and (in manner-of-factly tone) St. Paul asserted he had this authority. Also, as far as I see Christian philosophers have not it seen necessary to appeal to a special* delegation by God to substantiate the State’s right to punish (and again that is any punishment).
    [*”Special”: Of course God is the author of Nature including its intrinsic order, and all legitimate authority can only come from Him.]

  37. Legisperitus says:

    Thank you, Father, for reminding us that expiation, and not “protecting society,” is the primary reason for all punishment. This is why prisons have historically been called “penitentiaries.”

    It’s also worth considering that particularly heinous criminals often get “whacked” by their fellow inmates when they’re not expecting it (think Geoffrey Dahmer) and thus lose their opportunity to repent and convert much more surely than they would if they knew when their hour was coming.

    Also, I sometimes wonder whether we are to understand that the efficacy of modern penal systems in 1995 was a part of the sacred deposit of faith entrusted to the Apostles.

  38. The Masked Chicken says:

    I have no problem with the article. Capital Punishment has many different uses.

    One paragraph, did , however, raise a flag:

    ” On June 12, 1855 a deranged hat maker and political subversive named Anotonio De Felici chased the Cardinal Secretary of State with a large fork. Cardinal Antonelli escaped unscathed and appealed to the Pope to commute the sentence from beheading to life imprisonment on the grounds of the man’s mental imbalance but was refused. ”

    There are several problems, here:

    a. The Cardinal was not harmed
    b. The man was deranged, so either understanding or consent or both were reduced
    c. What, exactly, is medicinal to a man who cannot understand the nature of his crime nor control his responses? Even in a confessional, this man would be recognized as having reduced guilt.
    d. The imposition of Capital Punishment by a Pope is not an infallible act. It is a prudential one. In this case, I think Pope Pius IX failed, since, even in 1855, mental illness was a recognized aspect of the moral assignment of guilt.

    I do not see the justification for Capital Punishment in this case. I cannot even see how a valid argument can be made.

    Consider another, more recent example: there was a man, a school teacher, who was about to be arrested for sexual offenses (child porn, making advances to his step-daughter, etc.), who went to a Virginia hospital just before the incarceration complaining that he was about to rape his landlady. They did not believe him, but the hospital had a psychologist examine him. The psychologist was sufficiently suspicious that he had a neurologist examine him. The neurologist was suspicious, so they has an MRI performed. They found an egg-shaped tumor growing through the bottom of his skull to his pre-frontal cortex. When the tumor was removed, his behavior changed back to normal.

    I ask you, what is medicinal, punitive, or compensatory about putting such a man to death? Unless Pope Pius IX were certain that the man, above, were responsible for his actions (and I do not know the case enough to say), how is he justified for allowing the execution to continue?

    In order for there to be repentance, there has to be at least the same degree of awareness as is needed to commit the sin. I am not saying that people do not commit imputable evil deeds. I am just saying that some people might not be as culpable as it first seems.

    The case with Pope Pius IX puzzles me.

    The Chicken

  39. Christine says:

    An excellent article by Fr. Rutler. There is indeed a correlation between loss of the eternal perspective and increased agitation against the death penalty. After all, when eternity no longer factors into the equation, then physical death becomes the worst thing in the world and therefore to be avoided at all costs, even among the worst criminals.

    I actually find it far more cruel to make a man spend the rest of his natural life sitting in a prison cell surrounded by reprobates, where it is far more often the case that the criminal turns *worse* rather than better.

    MamaJen wrote: “The idea of purposely killing another human being, particularly when it is planned out, just doesn’t sit well with me. I could never do it.”

    Judging by your name, I assume you have children. If a man kidnapped your child and threatened to do abominable things to him, I have little doubt you’d find the ability to kill pretty quickly.

  40. acardnal says:

    The Church does NOT oppose the death penalty. This is a canard.

    CCC 2267 states, “the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty. . . .”

  41. Joe in Canada says:

    Supertradmum: what a coincidence! I just watched The Scarlet and the Black last night, and was struck by the same thing.

    I thought – and think – the Catechism is clear on this. The Catechism is also clear on the medicinal purpose of punishment, and does not specify that the death penalty serves this.

  42. acardnal says:

    Clarification: I did not state above at 8:14 am that clearly. (I haven’t had a chance to drink any coffee yet.) Let me restate:

    To state, as some have here, that the Church opposes the death penalty is not true.

    CCC 2267 states, “the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty. . . .”

    It should be rare. But to state categorically that the Church opposes the death penalty is a canard.

  43. Imrahil says:

    Dear @Legisperitus,

    both are true.

    The primary means of a punishment, once inflicted, is expiation.

    But: No punishment, the satisfaction element of the Sacrament of Penance excepted (which rightly tends to be little), must ever be inflicted or ordained by statute unless there is also yet another reason besides expiation. Mine is the revenge, saith the Lord.

    This “other reason” usually is the upholding of law as a means of general prevention, itself serving as a means to withhold harm from the law’s subjects.

  44. Imrahil says:

    [“harm” in my last paragraph: Possibly also spiritual harm or the harm of an offense against a universally-agreed rule of decent society. I’m not saying that the socalled victimless crimes should not be punished, without wishing to begin a discussion when precisely they should.]

  45. LisaP. says:

    It’s worth noting since Johnson and Dickens have both been mentioned that the situation with capital punishment was different in their times; what I’ve read from them protesting it often referred to the death penalty used for financial crimes. It’s relatively recently that execution has been reserved for murderers, and particularly murderers with some additionally heinous circumstances to their crimes. Also of interest is that the idea of incarceration, long term, is a pretty recent one, also. Public humiliation (stocks), physical punishment (lashes or cutting off limbs), even shipping folks off to penal colonies — these were more “normal”. I’ve heard folks speculate that the early colonists would have found our modern prison system absurdly inhumane. Don’t think that objectively that’s an unreasonable view.

  46. tcreek says:

    Several years back I created a fairly extensive web site about the Catholic Church’s historical teaching about capital punishment. It includes comments by Fr. Rutler back in 2002. I don’t know if it is permissible to link it here but …

  47. robtbrown says:

    Imrahil says:

    It often strook me that while the Church is opposed to the Death penalty, and is so for good reasons, there’s still a strangeness to notice.

    There is no way anyone can hold that the Church is opposed to the Death penalty. That is because JPII acknowledged that it is a legitimate exercise of the authority of the state.

    A few comments while noting that I never get into arguments for or against capital punishment. Both sides have legitimate reasons for their positions.

    1. The lack of reference in the catechism to the medicinal aspect of CP was noted very soon after the change was made.

    2. We Americans have the insular tendency of speaking of American bishops as if they are the only bishops in the Church. The same is true of the Church in America–as if it is the Church.

    3. Justice is rendering to others according to their due–thus it is a good. Just punishment, therefore, is intrinsically medicinal, no matter how severe it may be.

    4. Judges and juries must administer justice according to the law. Except for the obligation to follow this principle, the conscience has little to do with the process.

    BTW, there are 5 prisons in my home town, and Hickcock and Smith (cf. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood) are buried in the same cemetery as my parents–I understand Capote paid for the headstones. I knew generally where they were buried (in a low area), but have had absolutely no desire to visit their graves. They were, however, recently exhumed to take DNA samples re unsolved murders in Florida so it’s possible now to see from the road which graves are theirs.

  48. lmo1968 says:

    acardnal, I don’t know if you are referring to me, but since I am the one who cited the CCC, I will respond.

    First, I never said the Church opposes the death penalty categorically. If you reread my post I cite #2267 of the CCC in its entirety which acknowledges that states that have no other way to protect and defend the public have recourse to the death penalty.

    But, the CCC does say the death penalty should be rare, and not in the Clintonian sense that it should be ” safe, legal, and rare”. The CCC states that instances where the death penalty may apply “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” The CCC does stop short of a categorical rejection of the death penalty, but only barely.

  49. robtbrown says:

    One other point: IMHO, the rule of evidence in capital cases should be much more strict than those in other cases.

  50. robtbrown says:

    lmo1968 says:

    But, the CCC does say the death penalty should be rare, and not in the Clintonian sense that it should be ” safe, legal, and rare”. The CCC states that instances where the death penalty may apply “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” The CCC does stop short of a categorical rejection of the death penalty, but only barely.

    1. The Church cannot universally reject capital punishment because it would be an a priori rejection of the principle of self defense.

    2. Further, it is important to note that the relevant text is preceded by the phrase “nostris diebus”, i.e., in our days. What does that mean? In the days of JPII’s pontificate, now ended? Or in the days of the 20th century, also now ended? So the foggy norm he establishes is made even foggier by the phrases “nostris diebus”.

  51. Imrahil says:

    Dear @acardnal and @robtbrown,
    please choose from words such as “opposes” vs. “discourages”, or “the Church” vs. “the pastors of the Church in the responsible positions”, and the like, just the ones you wish. I did not intend that to be the point. The Church allows for the death penalty; the responsible pastors are regularly personally opposed to it and discourage from it, also in their capacity as such; that they do so has certainly no claim to infallibility. So much is beyond doubt, and those not antagonist to the death penalty, forgive my frankness, had better not deny it; I by no means wanted to play an obedience card in favor of opposing, only stating a fact that, well, it strook me there’s a strangeness to be noticed.

    Dear @robtbrown on your last post,
    true, but while any man will agree with what you say: Jurisdiction needs as a working principle, even if it were only as legal fiction, that it can safely determine whether or not a man has been guilty. Is “even more safe” terminologically possible?

    May sound strange, but I think it is nevertheless a problem.

  52. acardnal says:

    imrahil, you said, “while the Church is opposed to the Death penalty”. I understood this to be a categorical statement.

    Thanks for your clarification.

  53. wmeyer says:

    As acardnal has said, the Church does not oppose the death penalty. It does, however, advise that it be used rarely, and “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor”. Read that quotation with care. The one being put to death has been an unjust aggressor. One cannot consider the death penalty in a vacuum–the acts of the guilty are clearly a factor. So often these discussions entirely dismiss the gravity of the transgressions by the guilty, which is simply nonsense.

  54. Jean Marie says:

    What’s amazing to me is how some people can be against the death penalty yet support abortion. So many of our “catholic” politicians have this position and their logic escapes me. Or other catholics say that because they are against abortion, in order to be “consistent” they must oppose the death penalty too as though a murderer and an innocent child in its mother’s womb are on the moral plane. Personally, I do believe the death penalty can be justified, but only meted out to most horrific crimes like a serial murderer or for those who betray their country. It’s the only punishment that fits the depth of their crime. But again it does depend on who is in charge. In cases like the French Revolution, the executions that took place were not the just administration of the death penalty but mass murder. If you have an evil government, then the death penalty can and will be used as a weapon against those who they determine to be their “enemies.”

  55. wmeyer says:

    Jean Marie, I think that if you consider that for most politicians, their highest purpose is being re-elected, then their positions are more comprehensible. However, opposing the death penalty for those who are truly evil, and being in favor of abortion on demand does seem to me to be the embodiment of “abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”

    As the child in the womb, however, they are completely committed to the notion that there is no living child until birth. This, despite the evidence of science in the last few decades.

  56. lmo1968 says:

    robtbrown: I agree the Catholic Church cannot categorically oppose the death penalty for the reasons you stated. That conditional support turns to opposition where there are sufficient means for states to protect and defend the public short of executing criminals. The U.S. with its wealth, technology, police force and prison system does have other sufficient means to protect the public than execution.

    As to your question regarding “in these days”, it seems that taken in the context of the rest of the statement that the pope meant that as “now”, i.e., that historically perhaps nations did not have these sufficient means of protecting the public, but “in these days” (i.e., “now”) those means do exist, and thus the death penalty should be close to non-existent.

  57. PostCatholic says:

    I think I’d have preferred the word “expiatory” to “medicinal.”

    A problem with this particular argument is that requires the executing authority to have a religious belief, and thus it’s an unsuccessful argument in the United States.

    You do raise an issue as to whether a primary purpose of judicial sentencing ought to be corrective, as opposed to punitive.

  58. Imrahil says:

    Dear @acardnal,

    you’re welcome. Maybe I should become less colloquial when saying “the Church” and “opposes”…

  59. Imrahil says:

    If a man is in prison, he ought to be corrected there.

    Nevertheless, if correction were the primary purpose, in a majority of cases (well… maybe not organized drug traffic) the best thing would be to just leave out punishment altogether. (At least I heard so.)

    Still, we do not do that because we punish for a reason.

    Dear @PostCatholic, why cannot the United States executing (including execution of prison penalties btw., they also are expiatory) authority not have a religious belief? U.S. schoolchildren pledge to stay in unity as one nation under God, after all, and through all time the United States have been described as a Christian nation. (Albeit without specified denomination; but that including the problems it could bring is of secondary importance here.)

    Dear @lmo1968, I one read in a death-penalty-apologetic webpage of a study that the death penalty on murder is still deterrent enough to protect more innocent lives than other penalties in use today. I do not know if this is indeed the case, it being a partisan study; but suppose it is?

  60. Laura98 says:

    That was an excellent article, with lots of information I had not read before. I can say that having worked for the State Dept. of Corrections for several years, it was a real eye-opening experience. The real stories behind those broken lives, are just heart-breaking. Especially if it involves juveniles. On the other hand, a majority of these people have committed horrendous crimes of some sort, some are just drug offenses, but a lot are also violent offenders. IMHO, I think there are also some innocent people behind bars too (even though most claim to be innocent at some point…).

    Yes, there are some crimes so awful, that the death penalty is warranted. Yet, with our justice system today, in the US, I don’t see how it can be meted out in a just and fair manner. Some people get 20 or 30 years in prison for a drug offense, yet others get 5 or 10 years for rape or murder?

  61. PA mom says:

    This article gave me a lot to think about. I understand the Catechism’s stance (largely) against capital punishment in our society, and maybe it is so much for the sake of those who would be responsible for the executing as it is for those who would be executed.
    However, the whole prison scene deeply troubles me. I don’t see how the conditions right now can possibly do more than add rot to people already in grave danger spiritually, although I guess it sounds like there are some rare different programs.
    The idea that the taking of their life cracks open the facade that whatever was done should have been done is a powerful one. Much more thinking is necessary in our world, ironic isn’t it with so much education everywhere? May God convert those facing this situation.

  62. robtbrown says:


    That Justice is medicinal depends neither on the existence of God nor of any religion (see my comment above). And punitive and corrective are not mutually exclusive.

  63. robtbrown says:

    1. As far as I know, there is no English word “strook”. I assume Imrahil, who seems to be not working in his own language, means “struck”.

    2. To translate “nostris diebus” as “now” strengthens my point. What was “now” in the 90’s has become “then”. (And it makes no sense to translate it as “in these days”–even so, it would have no effect on the argument.) Moral doctrine concerns unchangeable principles or specific norms derived from those principles. It does not not produce situational norms that change or contradict those principles.

    3. It is not true that all responsible pastors oppose CP, but even if it were true, it wouldn’t make any difference. The Magisterium teaches that one can be for or against CP, and that is affirmed by JPII. No policy–which the JPII insertion is– can contradict that.

    This CP controversy reminds me of concelebration. On the one hand, Church documents insisted that priests were free not to concelebrate. On the other, the word came down from the top to pressure priests in community to concelebrate.

    4. Once again: Judges and juries mete out justice according to the law–not according to their own consciences.

  64. lmo1968 says:

    dear Imramhil, that is a good question. I don’t know how one would prove or disprove that.

  65. Eric says:

    Although JPII, as pope, was the competant authority on many things, I wouldn’t consider him, or any pope, to be an authority in determining “the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime.”

    BTW lmo1968, you totally missed my point earlier. I must not have explained my arguement clearly enough.

  66. Imrahil says:

    Dear @robtbrown ad 1, thank you very much.

    As far as the rest… not being magisterially binding doctrine in this sense is one thing, but even a “mere” Church policy is something to consider for a Church member. It is something one can oppose; but it is something one will at least think twice over before opposing. Also, to have to publicly (in the sense that includes smalltalk) oppose Church policy and having to deal with need for explanations, etc., or even, yes, in case of clergy and Church employees, pressure from the Church top, is something to be taken into account.

    Then, what the “prudential Church” said is simply that CP is not absolutely necessary for the upkeep of society. That is prudential and something one can disagree with in conscience; however, I cannot manage to see how one can disagree with it in science (I managed to do an English pun…) – that is, as far as Europe (possibly excluding the Two Sicilies) and Northern America are concerned.

    On the other hand, as I said what if CP, while not necessary to the upkeep of legal peace, can hinder more murders than any other punishment? Then a legislative may not need to institute CP, but the Catechism (as it stands) seems to say it can.

    On one thing I do have to contradict you… that is, point 4. A judge or a juror mete out justice according to their conscience, in which they take the law into account. After all, that is what the Nuremberg Trials were primarily about…
    However, and I think that is where we might, perhaps, agree in practice, conscience itself (if well-formed) commands the judge and the juror not to jump in for the legislative. If a capital punishment really were so totally and absolutely immoral which modern emotions seem to hold, then yes, no judge ever could in conscience inflict it, and no juror ever could vote for it. But it is not; it may be (my words) “less good in its stand towards holiness of life, and unnecessary”, but it is not (my words) “breaking divine or natural law”. Hence, well-formed conscience commands the judge and juror to execute the law in this respect, and not substitute their private wishes for it. But it is conscience that does so.

    (It could well be imagined, though, that a judge and a juror have to swear an oath before trial that their conscience does not forbid them to disregard relevant law in any matter.)

    Dear @lmo1968, my question was: Suppose these studies are accurate, what follows for the moral stand towards CP?

    I am, as often, far more interested in the principal question than in the factual one.

    Even so, I think that while experiments as such would be immoral here, still the experiences with both CP and no-CP in plenty of states during the last decades, assisted by the usual scientific apparatus, can do a lot here. After all, scientific studies are not infallible generally, but still we use them.

  67. BillyHW says:

    1969: The year mercy got confused with permissiveness, and justice got confused with revenge.

  68. robtbrown says:


    1. The Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) at the time of the Nurem Trials called them “a fraud”. They are often considered an example of ex post facto prosecution. If they wanted to execute Nazi leaders, OK, but don’t use a show trial as a preface. BTW, Robt Jackson, the lead prosecutor and a member of SCOTUS, said that at the time of the trials the Allies were doing some of the things the Nazis were being tried for.

    You might know that Gen Curtis E LeMay said that if Japan had won the war, he would have been tried for war crimes for fire bombing Tokyo.

    You’re right that JPII’s policy on CP is worth considering. I did, and I found that I prefer Catholic doctrine, in which no one is obligated to be for or against CP.

    NB: I am advocating clarity of doctrinal teaching, not CP.

    3. And what you say about conscience and the judicial system is simply not correct. Anyone who is a judge or jury must mete out justice according to the law, not their conscience. If their conscience says the law is unjust, they still must decide according to what it says.

  69. Imrahil says:

    No, we seemingly won’t agree on that in theory (I already said that we in all forseeable realistic cases agree on practice), though I have not really any further arguments. Anyone who does anything must do so according to his conscience. If his conscience hinders him to act according to law, I see two things he could do (without the wish to debate or even an opinion which): act according to conscience as opposed to law; refrain from acting as a judge or juror (here), and, in the case of jurors drawn from the population by obligation, taking all punishments for their refusal upon them. There might perhaps be still other possibilites. But noone, ever, in any circumstance, may act against his conscience.

    Of course a conscience that does not say the judge and the juror have to obey the law is thoroughly ill-formed. A conscience that says that CP foreseen by law is so wicked that it would be a sin to inflict it (which is a view different from “the legislative had better abolish it”) is ill-formed also. Conscience is, after all, no a mere other name for my wishes. But whenever there actually is a case of conscience, conscience must be followed.

    As it were, I still do not think the Nuremberg Trials were a fraud (nor will you find many Germans who do)… Legal positivists quite rightly deduced from their point of view that they were; but our own theory is that of natural law, which is a bit different. Even though possibly some were not subjected to a trial who would have had deserved one as well.

  70. robtbrown says:


    I follow St Thomas’ understanding of conscience: It is the application of moral principles to specific acts or circumstances. In the case of a judge or jury it is the application of relevant positive law to the specific case. A jury doesn’t decide whether the defendant is good or bad but rather whether whether the prosecutor proved that positive law was broken.

    You might remember the dialogue from Man for All Seasons:

    Daughter and Fiancee: Arrest that man!
    Thomas More: Why?
    D&F: Because he’s bad.
    TM: That’s not against the law.
    D&F: It’s against God’s law.
    TM: Well, then God can arrest him.

    It is nonsense to say that whatever someone does, he does according to his conscience. There are hundreds of acts we regularly do that are morally neutral. And as a Thomist I think we are generally obligated to the higher good, but not sub poena peccati.

    And sometimes the law is followed simply because there are consequences to it being broken.

    This does not mean that natural law should not be important in legislating positive law.

    Germans, like most everyone else, don’t think that Nuremberg trials were a fraud simply because the thugs were punished.

  71. Imrahil says:

    Dear @robtbrown,

    we’re battling over words… still, when Thomas More said that (or could have…), he was correctly acting according to his well-formed conscience. I have said from the beginning that the well-formed conscience commands under normal circumstances that the law be followed.

    On the other hand, should conscience command to break the law (this is a hypothesis), then we are obliged to shoulder any consequences that follow therefrom.

    As to morally neutral acts, let us leave open whether it is an appropriate way of speaking that they are “done according to conscience” (we might say acc. to conscience allowing them, after all; still, often indeed we do not feel any moral decision). Anyway the act of a judge in sentencing to a penalty, and of a juror in voting over a verdict, is never morally neutral. It is simply not unimportant enough to be so. It is an act of justice if done rightly, an act of injustice if done wrongly.

    Natural law, indeed, should be important in legislating positive law. But more than that. In a morally binding sense as well as in a political and judicial sense (that is, in all senses except that of mere academic dispute), natural law is the only law there is. (See at length Fr. Johannes Messner, Social Ethics, original title “Natural Law”. I have no time to give accurate quotes, nor the book at hand.)

    That does not say, of course, that positive law should not be important. On the other hand, it is very important 1. as application, concretization and interpretation of natural law, 2. as command by the power enabled by natural law to give such orders, 3. because of the consequences (we are obliged to disregard them in the extreme case of a command directly violating conscience, but there is much room left).

    And natural law itself decides neatly between “prohibited” and “merely forbidden” (and possibly “merely discouraged”, although let us leave open whether this is part of law at all and not “mere morality”), of course, leaving the classification in detail mostly to positive law. Still, we follow this positive law because (and insofar) natural law by its own principles incorporates it. And we act according to (either natural or positive) law, because conscience commands us to do so.

  72. Imrahil says:

    When I said, “Natural law is the only law there is”, I mean, of course, essentially. with the right both to the name “law” and the binding force to our conscience is concerned. I do not deny that, besides the academic interest in discussing what positive law says as such*, even positive law is undeniably linked to the policemen’s bullets.

    But what makes the difference between a policeman and a robber, is natural law.

    [*There is no uninteresting matter. Proof: Assume there were any uninteresting matter. Then there would also be a most uninteresting matter. But the latter would be highly interesting due to this quality, which is a contradiction. — S.C.N.R.]

  73. robtbrown says:


    Let me preface my comments by saying that my grandfather was from Koblenz.

    1. No, Thomas More was speaking based on the nature of law and its respective jurisdiction. It has nothing to do with conscience. Police can only arrest when they suspect a law is being broken within their jurisdiction.

    2. I am not disputing the priority of natural law. Rather I am saying that unless there is human law corresponding to natural law, there is no legal jurisdiction according to human law.

    3. As I noted before, I am a Thomist. Your comments indicate that your approach is deontological, which IMHO leads to rigorism . . . which in turn provokes a reaction, which is laxism . . . which is now common in the Church. Both rigorism and laxism are, in the opinion of Garrigou LaGrange, relativism.

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