PODCAzT 158: Catholicism and Capital Punishment

noosePope Francis recently made statements about capital punishment which are the cause of much discussion.  While invoking “development of doctrine” he seems to contradict established Church teaching about the death penalty.

It is as if His Holiness would harmonize these two statements:

  • Capital punishment is intrinsically evil.
  • Capital punishment is not intrinsically evil.

The principle of non-contradiction suggests to me that these statements cannot be reconciled.  But I’m a simple guy.

In my effort to understand the parameters of the issue, I have turned to a 2001 essay by Avery Card. Dulles in First Things called “Catholicism and Capital Punishment.

Take note especially of his point about the virtually unanimous consensus of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church on capital punishment.  Also, Dulles makes the observation that opposition to the death penalty has risen in direct relation to the decline in belief in an afterlife.   There are many other informative points in his clear piece.

Card. Dulles comes down strongly against application of the death penalty, but in a way that is consistent with the Church’s perennial teaching and in accord with reason.  I find him convincing.

This paragraph merits great consideration:

Arguments from the progress of ethical consciousness have been used to promote a number of alleged human rights that the Catholic Church consistently rejects in the name of Scripture and tradition. The magisterium appeals to these authorities as grounds for repudiating divorce, abortion, homosexual relations, and the ordination of women to the priesthood. If the Church feels herself bound by Scripture and tradition in these other areas, it seems inconsistent for Catholics to proclaim a “moral revolution” on the issue of capital punishment.

Along the way you will hear a snip of music from a fascinating modern piece by Garret Fisher called The Passion of Saint Thomas More.  It seemed appropriate to use it.


Also, I include at the end a snip of a lovely and soothing Chinese pentatonic rendering of the Ave Maria.  It is on an amazing disc.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Cosmos says:

    If this is what development of doctrine means, then the Church really has to stop talking about faith and reason. It’s just faith, and only those in the hierarchy with a special charism of the Holy Spirit have any access to its actual content. The rest of us just blindly assent to whatever happens to be in the “vault,” no matter what it is–knowing we can never know.

    In short, we’re just here to parrot whatever was said by whomever is currently in charge:

    “You are absolutely right, boss. Capital punishment is not intrinsically evil. Couldn’t have said it any better my self. No disagreeing with that logic . . . Now capital punishment is intrinsically evil? Well, of course it is. Wrong is wrong. Clear as day. Right as rain. Impressive as always.”

  2. MrTipsNZ says:

    If what I’ve read is accurate, Pope Francis is walking on shaky ground if he wishes to entirely do away with capital punishment. As Card. Dulles stated, capital punishment is an option for the State; but it should only be used when the good outweighs the evil effects. I would argue that society is now coming to the point again where such use is probably justified (eg. persistent, multiply convicted meth manufacturer/dealer who clearly has no concern for the carnage they cause).

    And his point on the rise of secular, Godless opposition to capital punishment has an ironical twist in that the very formation of such Godless societies depended on mass executions and slaughter (French revolution, Russian revolution, Chinese revolution, Che Guevara etc.).

  3. JabbaPapa says:

    A difficult topic, but it would be mistaken IMO not to centre one’s understanding of it around the Commndment, Thou shalt not kill ; the Lord’s mercy towards the adulterous woman ; Christ’s own execution from the death penalty.

  4. EC says:

    You might also find Dr. Feser’s article interesting (I am reading his book at the moment – fantastic, very thorough)…


  5. William Tighe says:

    JabbaPapa wrote:

    “A difficult topic, but it would be mistaken IMO not to centre one’s understanding of it around the Commndment, Thou shalt not kill ; the Lord’s mercy towards the adulterous woman ; Christ’s own execution from the death penalty.”

    I know of no such commandment; can you give me a source for it? Exodus 20:13 reads “Thou shalt do no murder” in Hebrew – despite the use of the word “kill” in both the King James and the Douai-Rheims version. The Hebrew lo tirtsah ; the Septuagint Greek ou phoneuseis ; and St. Jerome’s (Vulgate) Latin non occides , while they MAY mean more than “murder” in the narrowest sense of the word, do not include all killing, even deliberate killing. It is also worth recalling these words of Pope Pius XII:

    “Even when there is question of the execution of a condemned man, the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life … by his crime, he has already dispossessed himself of his right to life.” – Address to the First International Congress of Histopathology of the Nervous System, 14 September 1952, XIV, 328 .

    and these from the Roman Catechism issued after the Council of Trent:

    “The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder .… The murderer is the worst enemy of his species, and consequently of nature. To the utmost of his power he destroys the universal work of God by the destruction of man, since God declares that He created all things for man’s sake. Nay, as it is forbidden in Genesis to take human life, because God created man to his own image and likeness, he who makes away with God’s image offers great injury to God, and almost seems to lay violent hands on God Himself.”

  6. wmeyer says:

    Puts me in mind of Abp. Sheens’s words: “Right is right, even if no one is right, and wrong is wrong, even when everyone is wrong.”

    And that, in a nutshell is why we have unchanging doctrine.

    Also, the statement from Pope Pius XII, by way of Joseph Shaw: “Even when it is a question of the execution of a condemned man, the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. In this case it is reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned person of the enjoyment of life in expiation of his crime when, by his crime, he has already disposed himself of his right to live.”

    I think that, as ever, the doctrinal position is rather clear, while recent declarations, as so often, are lacking in clarity, as well as in force.

  7. Ultrarunner says:

    Jenga. The official game of Vatican City.

  8. Ages says:

    My personal opposition to the death penalty is not so much that it’s intrinsically unjust, but that I do not trust the state—in particular a secular, nay godless state—to carry out such an awesome power justly. That being the case, I cannot support it.

    One innocent person being unjustly deprived of his life, even one in a million, in my view, outweighs the value of depriving criminals of theirs. (Especially when in modernity we have the means to keep people locked away and away from society without killing them.)

  9. SenexCalvus says:

    Needless to say, I offer these few words as a simple layman. I abhor capital punishment. My own sense is that it does far more harm to the executioner than justice to the executed, and for that reason alone I am opposed to it. I acknowledge, though, that my personal abhorrence of capital punishment is more sentimental than rational. My sentiment, I again admit, is born of my cultural conditioning, and by no means would I even suggest that the traditional arguments in support of the right (and often duty) of the state to execute bestial criminals no longer hold. I am deeply sympathetic to the feelings of Pope Bergoglio on this question, as I am on many other such issues, but his visceral response to this critical question is no more valid than my own. If Sacred Scripture, as viewed through the eyes of the Fathers of the Church, is no longer the criterion of Truth, then we might all just as as well become Quakers. And I might reiterate the obvious inference that if this particular pontiff can issue authoritative statements that plainly contradict those of his predecessors, we had all better become Quakers. The problem with Pope Bergoglio’s statement lies, of course, in that it presupposes that the spirit of the world is the criterion by which Revelation should be judged. I get it, but it’s still wrong. The spirit of the world is the Father of Lies.

  10. greg3064 says:

    @ Ages

    One innocent person being unjustly deprived of his life, even one in a million, in my view, outweighs the value of depriving criminals of theirs.

    I would make just one comment. We can grant this, but whether doing so counts against or for capital punishment is an empirical question. Capital punishment may have some deterrent effect, and even if it doesn’t, it tends to keep dangerous criminals behind bars. (For instance, a criminal may accept a plea bargain for life without parole, to avoid capital punishment, but would not do so if capital punishment were not on the books.) So if innocent lives are the deciding factor, it is not obvious that abolishing capital punishment is the best way to protect them. Given that capital punishment is used very rarely anyway, and there is no unequivocal evidence that anyone executed in the past few decades has been innocent, the positive defensive effects of capital punishment need only be rather modest.

  11. stephen c says:

    There are people who are against capital punishment for sinful reasons: maybe they consider themselves enlightened men or women of the world, who know enough to be good judges: but maybe they are actually merely proud and privileged rich people who pride themselves on their belief that their hearts are full of mercy, but who have a frighteningly small lack of compassion for the innocent victims of the murderers and rapists of the world, and who have no friends who work as prison guards (some of whom, every year, are subjected to murder attempts, sometimes successful, by people on death row). (I know Saint John Paul said there is no need in the modern world for the death penalty but he also said there was no need to criticize the evil person who did so much harm to the wonderful people associated with the Legionaries of Christ. Papolatry has been wrong for a long time). I also believe -having known a few of them well enough to make this sad guess – that some opponents of capital punishment believe that they are almost angelic, and that if they were to do something wrong, it would be evil to subject them to the just punishment they deserve: not that they would do anything so wrong, but when one believes one is almost angelic, that is the sort of logic one is subjected to. Most opponents of the death penalty are not in those groups. But some are, I think. As far as I know, I have never been convinced that any prominent and vocal opponent of the death penalty, as it is practiced today, really ever had true compassion in his or her heart for the victims of the very evil people who do so many vicious things in this world. I may have missed one or two or more, and I hope I did. My best guess is that most of them repent of their lack of compassion for the innocent, at some time before they die. It would seem more than absurd that someone would persist in such a sinful attitude when faced with their own death. But then again, how many people who know abortion is wrong, but who think abortion is something we should not speak too much of, are going to clearly repent before they die? How many women who have had abortions, or men who helped women to have abortions, and who have not repented in their old age, are going to repent before they die? Not enough, unless it is all of them. But it is not exactly the sort of thing you think about when you feel the wave of nausea that begins the five second heart attack that ends your life, is it?

  12. JabbaPapa says:

    William Tighe :

    I know of no such commandment; can you give me a source for it? Exodus 20:13 reads “Thou shalt do no murder” in Hebrew – despite the use of the word “kill” in both the King James and the Douai-Rheims version

    The verb used in the Biblical Hebrew provides no such distinction between the meanings kill and murder, as it’s a single verb covering both concepts.

    As such, to translate the verb referring in general to killing by the verb “to murder” is a partisan, ideological decision, and frankly constitutes a mistranslation.


    In the final analysis, I would agree with Segal’s conclusion that “the translation ‘Thou shalt not kill’ was not the result of simple ignorance on the side of Jerome or the King James’ English translators. Rather, it reflects their legitimate determination to [translate] accurately the broader range of meanings of the Hebrew root.” This is not to say that “Thou shalt not kill” is the better or more accurate translation. It is simply to say that, first of all, not all languages make an absolutely clear distinction between killing and murdering, and secondly, that, as is often true of translation, one’s interpretation depends on prior attitudes. To an opponent of capital punishment, killing a murderer is murder too; to a proponent of abortion, killing a fetus is not. It is not the meaning of the Sixth Commandment that will in most cases determine how we think about such things. It is how we think about them that will determine what we make of the Sixth Commandment.

    and — http://www.crivoice.org/terms/t-kill.html

    Also, there are several places in Deuteronomy (4:41-42, 19:3-6) as well as 15 or so other passages scattered throughout Numbers and Joshua that use the word to refer to unintentional killing or causing accidental death, what in English we call, manslaughter (Num 35:6-31, Josh 20:3-5). While the English language uses different terms with different nuances to distinguish different types of killing, the same word in Hebrew can refer to all without distinction in the word itself. The term ratsach can have the connotation of “murder” or “assassinate” (Jud 20:4, 1 Kings 21:19, 2 Kings 6:32). However, that meaning is usually determined by clear markers in context. The term can also mean something much milder, “to beat” or “to assault” (Psalm 62:3)


    Personally, and IMO objectively, I think “You shall not slay” would probably be the most literal translation available in the English language — bearing in mind that the English verb “to slay” would be difficult to translate into many other modern languages as well.

    The following blog is helpful, though a little confusing — https://mennoknight.wordpress.com/2009/04/30/the-whole-killing-vs-murder-contradiction/

    But it DOES point out that the verb harag is the normal Hebrew for “to murder” ; whereas the verb used in the Commandment refers to a broader range of meanings, including manslaughter, killing via negligence, and such things in our modern times as killing from being drunk behind the wheel, from medical incompetence, and so on.

    Harag on the other hand is the verb used in Genesis {4:8} Dixitque Cain ad Abel fratrem suum: Egrediamur foras. Cumque essent in agro, consurrexit Cain adversus fratrem suum Abel, et interfecit eum. — {4:8} And Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go outside.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and he put him to death. as well as in Exodus {2:15} Audivitque Pharao sermonem hunc, et quærebat occidere Moysen — {2:15} And Pharaoh heard this talk, and he sought to kill Moses. — it clearly indicates the meaning of murdering whereas the verb used in the Commandment does not.

  13. JabbaPapa says:

    Anyway, these translation questions lead not to any open questions whereby Catholics are free to interpret the Commandment howsoever we might wish.



    You shall not kill.

    You have heard that it was said to the men of old, “You shall not kill: and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment.

    2258 “Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being.”


    2267 Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

    If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

    Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

    The debate around the death penalty has always been a difficult one, given that there has never been any Catholic consensus concerning it — but we are in any case bound by the teaching of the Catechism, not by whatever personal opinions we might create out of personal readings from Scripture, as the Protestants behave, nor from any worldly sources.

  14. TonyO says:

    True development of doctrine doesn’t simply take the old doctrine, turn it on its head, and say, “there, we have ‘developed’ a new doctrine”. True development springs out of the old formulation of doctrine, keeps everything in the old that is perfect, and ADDS to the old formulation a new clarification. Most emphatically, it explains how the new formulation is not merely a contradiction to the old, it explicitly recognizes the former tensions that were at issue and actually addresses the reasons for the tension and RESOLVES them so that what formerly appeared to be a contradiction becomes clarified. Example: Jesus Christ is God. But also Jesus Christ is man. The resolution of the tension between these is that in the act of the Incarnation, God the Son takes on human nature, so that Jesus Christ is one (divine) Person in two natures united, and there is present no “human person” though he has human nature fully. Both of the original truths are affirmed, but not in such a way that any contradiction is affirmed (such as a false formulation ” ‘Jesus Christ is God’ and ‘Jesus Christ is not God but man’, ” which really is a contradiction. )

    If the pope wants to claim that the death penalty is intrinsically wrong in a “development of doctrine”, he needs to actually note the tension this presents with the old formulation, and then he needs to address the problem with something that CLARIFIES our understanding so that we can hold the old formulation as well as the new, without contradiction. He has – so far – not even attempted this sort of clarification. Contradiction isn’t development. The Church does not demand of the faithful that they hold directly contradictory statements, nor that they reject former doctrine in order to hold new teachings.

  15. Joe in Canada says:

    It reminded me of Mormonism, where “God” can change his mind, and then conveys this message to the President of the Church, who then conveys it to the Church. It also makes me wonder if the Pope is being played by some Americans who really want to cause damage to the Republicans.

  16. eamonob says:

    Dr. Feser was recently a guest on the Patrick Coffin show and they discussed this exact topic. Very interesting episode.

  17. MBinSTL says:

    @JabbaPapa, when you say “that there has never been any Catholic consensus concerning [the death penalty],” I wonder if you have read what the Catechism of the Council of Trent taught on this matter, in clear, precise language that leaves zero room for doubt. Also known as the Roman Catechism, it is one (and the first) of only two universal catechisms promulgated by the Holy See; the second was the 1997 Catechism, with which most of us are more familiar. The 1997 Catechism refers, citing Catechesi tradendae, to the Roman Catechism as “a work of the first rank as a summary of Christian teaching.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Prologue, Paragraph 9)

    Execution of Criminals
    “Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder. The end of the Commandment is the preservation and security of human life. Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing outrage and violence. Hence these words of David: ‘In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land, that I might cut off all the workers of iniquity from the city of the Lord.’ (Ps 101:8)”
    Catechism of the Council of Trent, Part III, 5, n. 4

    The text of the same (excellent) translation of the Roman Catechism is also available as a web page, hosted by the Internet Modern History Sourcebook.

    Note that the object of the act (by the civil authority) is avenging the crime with the fitting punishment. It naturally tends to the end of the Commandment prohibiting murder. Part of the confusion in the Church today seems to be an incomplete treatment of the moral object of the death penalty. The 1997 Catechism and Evangelium Vitae give the impression of starting with the effects of the act (protecting society from further harm by the criminal) and, given other options, preferring those. But that’s backwards, and effectively leaves untreated the more important questions pertaining to the fittingness of a punishment with respect to the crime committed, and the moral obligations and prerogative of civil authority regarding the same.

    An explanation as to why death is the fitting punishment for murder is not difficult. God gave it to us in Sacred Scripture:

    “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.”
    Genesis 9:6 (RSV)

    It is because of human nature — who and what man is. This truth, that God made man in his own image, does not change over time. Therefore, death is the inherently fitting punishment for murder regardless of historical circumstances. The basic principle in place, other considerations can and should be made by civil authority, relating to prudence and mercy.

  18. JabbaPapa says:

    MBinSTL :

    @JabbaPapa, when you say “that there has never been any Catholic consensus concerning [the death penalty],” I wonder if you have read

    The very fact that you are arguing with me demonstrates my point.

    We remain in our Catholic duty of obedience to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which does NOT support the idea that “death is the inherently fitting punishment for murder“. It’s actually quite sectarian to suggest any such thing.

    You cannot say that death might be “inherently fitting” for any reasons whatsoever, because you have exactly ZERO rights to impose your personal ideologies against the very Grace of God-given Life itself !!

    Or what, is the death penalty “inherently fitting” if a woman should have conceived after a rape, or if some genetic or developmental flaw might have been discovered, or any other such “justifications” for abortions or so-called “euthanasia” ?

    regardless of historical circumstances

    urrrgh !!! that’s just the pathway to totalitarianism ….

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