Does the Death Penalty Conflict with traditional Catholic Principles?

October 15, 2017
Source: District of the USA
A death penalty gurney in a Texas federal prison

It is often stated that the Catholic Church's teachings are at odds with the morality of the death penalty. We study the teaching of the Church on this issue.

Capital Punishment and Contemporary Catholicism

On April 20, 2017, Ledell Lee, convicted of the brutal murder of his neighbor, Mrs. Debra Reese, was executed in Arkansas, the state’s first execution since 2005. When asked what his wishes were for his last meal, Lee declined a meal but said he wished to receive Holy Communion before execution. He made no public statement before death, but his request to receive the Sacraments was indicative of a desire to die in a state of grace, at peace with God.

Before Lee’s execution, Bishop Anthony Taylor of Little Rock, Arkansas, Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Florida, chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference, and the Catholic Mobilizing Network, which describes its mission as “Ending the death penalty. Promoting restorative justice,” all wrote to the governor of Arkansas asking that Lee’s sentence be commuted to life imprisonment.

Opposition to the Death Penalty

These Catholic bishops and activists are not alone in their opposition to the death penalty. In June of 2016, Pope Francis sent a video message of support to the 6th World Congress against the Death Penalty in which he said,

Nowadays the death penalty is unacceptable, however grave the crime of the convicted person. It is an offence to the inviolability of life and to the dignity of the human person; it likewise contradicts God’s plan for individuals and society, and his merciful justice.”

In 1999 John Paul II said,

The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life in every situation. A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.”

Yet less than a century ago, Pius XII articulated a very different position. He said,

Even in the case of the death penalty the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. Rather public authority limits itself to depriving the offender of the good of life in expiation for his guilt, after he, through his crime, deprived himself of his own right to life”
(Address to the First International Congress of Histopathology of the Nervous System, September 14, 1952).

What then does the Church teach about capital punishment? Is it permitted, and under what circumstances?

The Catechism of the Council of Trent tells us,

Far from being guilty of breaking this commandment [Thou shall not kill], 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 purpose is fulfilled when the legitimate authority of the State is exercised by taking the guilty lives of those who have taken innocent lives”
(Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent, 1566, Part III, 5, n. 4.).

This contrasts starkly with Pope Francis’s words, “The commandment “Thou shalt not kill” has absolute value and applies both to the innocent and to the guilty” (Message to the 6th World Congress against the Death Penalty).

St. Thomas Aquinas gives two main reasons for the use of capital punishment. One is the common good:

Now every individual person is related to the entire society as a part to the whole. Therefore if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and healthful that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since ‘a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump’ (1 Cor. 5:6).”
(Summa Theologiae, II, II, q. 64, art. 2)

His other consideration is the good of the criminal.

They…have at that critical point of death the opportunity to be converted to God through repentance. And if they are so obstinate that even at the point of death their heart does not draw back from malice, it is possible to make a quite probable judgment that they would never come away from evil”
(Summa contra gentiles, Book III, chapter 146).

The Good of the Criminal

On July 26, 2017, Ronald Phillips, convicted of the particularly horrible murder of a child, was executed in Ohio. The day of his execution, he reportedly spent several hours with a spiritual adviser and took time to read the Bible. Just before death, he made his first public expression of regret since his incarceration, asking forgiveness of his victim’s family. He had previously unsuccessfully sought clemency on grounds of his youth at the time (he was 19) and his difficult childhood.

While some claim that the death penalty puts an end to the possibility of the criminal repenting later on, St. Thomas does not admit this objection.

The fact that the evil ones, as long as they live, can be corrected from their errors does not prohibit that they may be justly executed, for the danger which threatens from their way of life is greater and more certain than the good which may be expected from their improvement.”

Both Phillips’s case and that of Ledell Lee illustrate St. Thomas’s point: imminent death brings home to the criminal the gravity of his crime and leads him to repentance. Samuel Johnson was the author of the oft-quoted aphorism to the effect that nothing concentrates the mind like a sentence of hanging. Of course, in Samuel Johnson’s day, executions were carried out rather more promptly than they are in the United States nowadays: a criminal can languish for decades on death row, and it is said that nearly a quarter of death row inmates die of natural causes while waiting for execution or appealing their sentences.

The Church has been careful to emphasize the need for due process and true justice. Innocent III said,

The secular power can without mortal sin carry out a sentence of death, provided it proceeds in imposing the penalty not from hatred but with judgment, not carelessly but with due solicitude.”

Whether due process is consistently available in the American criminal justice system is a matter of debate. By all accounts it is in desperate need of reform. One high-profile (and well-informed, thanks to his own sojourn in the United States’ jail system) commentator on this issue was newspaper publisher Conrad Black, who has among other issues emphasized the need to address the huge number of inmates in the prison system and the high rate of recidivism, partly due (in his opinion) to a culture in which convicts become dependent on the system.

The Good of Society

Recidivism, needless to say, does not arise in cases where capital punishment has been carried out. The chief reason for Catholic theologians to approve of the death penalty is the common good and the protection of society. Would life imprisonment suffice to keep society safe from the gravely violent criminal? Yes, supposing he actually is imprisoned for life. Some advocates of capital punishment question the justice of obliging society, which as a whole can be considered a victim of the crime, to take on the burden of guarding and supporting its attacker for the duration of his natural existence, when by his actions he has forfeited his right to life. St. Thomas judges that society may rightly execute him.

Therefore if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good”
(Summa Theologica, IIa-IIae, Q. 64, art. 2.).

St. Thomas is careful to specify that this must only be done by the proper authority.

However, this right belongs only to the one entrusted with the care of the whole community -- just as a doctor may cut off an infected limb, since he has been entrusted with the care of the health of the whole body”
(Summa Theologiae, II-II, Q. 64, art. 3.).

The Catechism of the Council of Trent’s ruling says that the common good requires not only the protection of innocent members of society, but further, the punishment of the guilty, implying a distinction between the two. It states, “The power of life and death is permitted to certain civil magistrates because theirs is the responsibility under law to punish the guilty and protect the innocent.” 

Does a consistent opinion exist between (Clockwise) St. Thomas Aquinas, Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis, and Justice Antonin Scalia?

 Contemporary Catholic Opposition to the Death Penalty

A number of contemporary Catholics—including Pope Francis, who told the World Congress Against the Death Penalty, “[Capital punishment] does not render justice to victims, but instead fosters vengeance”—appear to believe capital punishment is synonymous with revenge, something forbidden by Our Lord: “But I say to you not to resist the evildoer; on the contrary, if someone strike thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:38-39).

St. Augustine, in writing about the death penalty, felt that it was important to distinguish between the individual who administers the death penalty and the authority he represents, namely the public authority and ultimately God.

The agent who executes the killing does not commit homicide; he is an instrument as is the sword with which he cuts. Therefore, it is in no way contrary to the commandment, 'Thou shalt not kill' to wage war at God's bidding, or for the representatives of public authority to put criminals to death, according to the law, that is, the will of the most just reason”
(The City of God, Book 1, chapter 21).

The 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), promulgated by John Paul II, appears to state that the death penalty, although theoretically permissible, should not in practice be used, as we see in paragraph 2267:

 (T)he 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.”

This strikes a very different note from St. Thomas, who implies that through his crime the criminal loses his human dignity:

Although it be evil in itself to kill a man so long as he preserve his dignity, yet it may be good to kill a man who has sinned, even as it is to kill a beast. For a bad man is worse than a beast, and is more harmful"
(Summa Theologiae, II-II, Q. 64, art. 2).

And Pius XII, as quoted above, categorically states that a criminal may forfeit his right to life.

The CCC continues,

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’”
(John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae 56. 69).

 This statement seems to be at variance with St. Thomas, who, as quoted previously, feels that the criminal’s best opportunity for redeeming himself is immediately before death.

Punishment vs. Prevention

The CCC addresses the notion of punishment as a moral corrective for the individual in a previous paragraph (2266), saying,

Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people's safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.”

The correction of the guilty party to be desired in St. Thomas’s opinion was the criminal’s conversion to God through repentance. This, St. Thomas felt, was compatible with the death penalty. However, if one believes that correction is only valuable for this life, the death penalty is counter-productive.

The CCC continues, in paragraph 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…”
and so forth.

It appears here that the focus has shifted: we are no longer considering punishment but prevention, two very different things. The issue seems have boiled down to whether or not the criminal can be rendered incapable of further harm by other means.

Emmanuel Valenza points out in a 1984 Angelus article that where there is crime, punishment cannot be dissociated from true justice:

If the concept of due relation between crime and punishment is not considered, the question of justice is left out altogether. Once the question of justice is discarded, then the criminal is treated as something less than a person, an image of God. Instead of being treated as a person who is morally responsible for his actions, he becomes the object of experiments ("Let us see how he reacts in this environment") deals ("If you supply us with information, your sentence will be reduced"), and ridicule (when used as a scapegoat)”
(“Capital Punishment: A Catholic Perspective,” The Angelus, April 1984).

The late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia expressed his wholehearted disagreement with the CCC and Evangelum Vitae on these points in an article about the death penalty published by the journal First Things in 2002. Scalia does not express unreserved support for capital punishment, but he strongly believes that justice is primarily concerned with retribution, and only secondarily with prevention.

The Catholic Understanding of Death

He points out that Christianity views death very differently from atheism.

[F]or the believing Christian, death is no big deal. Intentionally killing an innocent person is a big deal: it is a grave sin, which causes one to lose his soul. But losing this life, in exchange for the next?...For the nonbeliever, on the other hand, to deprive a man of his life is to end his existence. What a horrible act!”

It is interesting to compare Scalia’s words with those of Pope Francis in his video message to the World Congress against the Death Penalty:

‘Rendering justice’ does not mean seeking punishment for its own sake, but ensuring that the basic purpose of all punishment is the rehabilitation of the offender. The question must be dealt with within the larger framework of a system of penal justice open to the possibility of the guilty party’s reinsertion in society. There is no fitting punishment without hope! Punishment for its own sake, without room for hope, is a form of torture, not of punishment.”

Does the death penalty deprive the criminal of hope? Of hope for the things of this world, certainly. But there are many instances of dying criminals who have discovered grounds for hope: a certain thief once hoped, “Remember me when thou shalt come into thy kingdom.”

Justice Scalia tells us how a Christian might feel about a death sentence:

Besides being less likely to regard death as an utterly cataclysmic punishment, the Christian is also more likely to regard punishment in general as deserved. The doctrine of free will—the ability of man to resist temptations to evil, which God will not permit beyond man’s capacity to resist—is central to the Christian doctrine of salvation and damnation, heaven and hell. The post-Freudian secularist, on the other hand, is more inclined to think that people are what their history and circumstances have made them, and there is little sense in assigning blame.”

From what the Catechism of the Council of Trent tells us, in combination with the teachings of many Popes and sainted theologians, it seems that while the necessity and suitability of capital punishment in a given situation remains a prudential decision for the public authorities, it is clear that traditional Catholic teachings permit the death penalty under certain conditions. One could argue that the rallying of modern Catholicism against capital punishment is at least in part due to the influence of what Scalia calls “the post-Freudian secularist,” inclined to diminish the moral responsibility of the criminal and seemingly blind to the possibility of expiation for sin and life after death.

The fifteenth-century French poet François Villon, a ne’er-do-well who frequently fell afoul of the law, composed his most famous work, The Ballad of the Hanged, in jail the night before he was to be executed. It is an entirely supernatural plea to Christ and Our Lady for mercy on his soul and to his fellowman for pity and prayers. His final stanza is remarkable for its humility and its hope:

Prince Jesus, who has command of all,
Do not let Hell gain lordship over us:
With it let us have no dealings.
Men, there is no mockery here;
Pray God that He will absolve us all.