Death Penalty Debate Continues
by Sebastian R. Fama

I read Kevin Tierney's comments on my death penalty article with great interest. He said that someone who commits a heinous act, such as Timothy McVeigh needs to be punished. I agree! But the question is to what degree are we responsible for his punishment? And to what degree is God responsible? Kevin, are you afraid that if we don’t kill those guilty of heinous crimes that they will be getting away with something? What if we never caught Timothy McVeigh? Would that mean that he got away with his crime? No matter what we do or don’t do everyone will receive the punishment they deserve. Attendance on Judgment Day is still mandatory. We serve a just God who will call everyone to account for their actions.


Besides, life in prison is a punishment.   I believe our primary responsibility is to protect society. The reason is simple. If we don’t lock up murderers they will keep on murdering. That is the obvious priority of the catechism. The Catechism of the Council of Trent is in full agreement with our present catechism. However, the emphasis on protecting society is a little more explicit. In the section on the 5th commandment, under the heading “Execution of Criminals,” we read the following:  


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 (CCT).  


Note that the emphasis is on protecting society. “The end of the Commandment is the preservation and security of human life.”


You say the Church should not be taking sides on issues that faithful Catholics can disagree upon. The quote I used from Evangelium Vitae quotes the Catechism. I probably should have cited the paragraph to make the point a little clearer:


If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person (CCC 2267).  


I have always thought of the Catechism as being a statement of the Catholic faith. The authority of encyclicals was stated by Pius XII in the encyclical Humani Generis :


Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: "He who heareth you, heareth me"; and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine . But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians (no. 20).


Evangelium Vitae is an encyclical and thus the view of the Church. What faithful Catholics can disagree upon is exactly when “bloodless means” are sufficient. You mentioned then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter to the U.S. bishops. I don’t believe he was contradicting Evangelium Vitae or the Catechism. Note the wording in paragraph 3:


If a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.


Abortion and euthanasia are never allowed. War and capital punishment are allowed under certain circumstances. Honest people can differ when determining if the circumstances are correct. That is why Catholics with differing opinions on this issue can still present themselves for communion. Cardinal Ratzinger is not talking about people who reject Church teaching. He is talking about people who differ in their opinions on its application . Once again note the wording:  “at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment ”… “it may still be permissible… to have recourse to capital punishment”… “There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about …applying the death penalty”.


For the sake of argument let us say that I am wrong about Cardinal Ratzinger’s intent. You still wouldn’t have a case. You refer to the Cardinals letter as “authoritative.” Apparently you didn’t think Evangelium Vitae and Humani Generis  were authoritative. I find that rather curious. You reject the clear teaching of two encyclicals which are infallible in nature, while at the same time adhering to a letter to the U.S. bishops which is not infallible in nature. Even a letter from the pope to a group of bishops is not infallible in nature. With all due respects, I think you are picking and choosing to suit yourself.  


You stated that “the Church has explicitly sanctioned the death penalty’s licitness.” I agree! The Church does allow for the death penalty. We just saw that in the quote from the Catechism. However, the Catechism also sets down conditions for its use. There is no contradiction here.


You quoted Romans 13:4 (lest they rightly suffer the condemnation of the State and the sword). Once again this presents no problem. Romans makes a general statement and the Catechism gets specific. If bloodless means are sufficient they should be used. If they are not sufficient capital punishment can be used. You quoted Evangelium Vitae :


Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent. 


You then wrote:


This is something that in his competence he [John Paul II] cannot know, but is rather his opinion. Varying regions have different systems, as well as different circumstances. Let us take for example the Blind Sheik, the original mastermind of the first WTC bombings. Sentenced to prison, he then facilitated through his attorney messages to his terrorist underlings. Though those plans were foiled, it was clear that with him still alive, society was placed at an extreme danger.


I realize that there are different conditions in different countries. If a particular country cannot insure the safety of its citizens by imprisoning a murderer then they may execute him. There is no problem here. In the case of the blind sheik, if he is still a danger to society while he is locked up, give him the death penalty.


Let us return to the key condition laid out in Evangelium Vitae “ when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.” You attempted to refute my quotation from Romans 12:19 with Romans 13:3-4 which reads:


For princes are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good: and thou shalt have praise from the same. For he is God's minister to thee, for good. But if thou do that which is evil, fear: for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is God's minister: an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil.  


Perhaps I should have quoted verses 17-21 to clarify the context:


Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." No, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.


Evil is not when someone steps on your tomato plants. Evil is what Timothy McVeigh did. Peter tells us the same thing: “Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling” (1 Peter 3:9). Luke 6:27-28 makes a similar point: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you.” Which course of action do you think is more consistent with these verses? Life imprisonment or the death penalty?   The wording in Roman’s 13:4 seems to make your point. However, you can’t refute one verse of Scripture with another as Scripture never contradicts itself. It all works together to produce one consistent message. When there is a seeming contradiction a closer look is necessary to reconcile the verses.  


The death penalty is carried out under God’s authority when it is just and it serves God’s purposes. If not, as with the Nazis, it is a perversion of justice. Look at the context of Romans 13. Verse 3 says the following:


For rulers are not a terror to good conduct , but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good.


The context assumes that government is acting justly. Paul is making a general statement on crime and punishment. He is not saying that governments can do whatever they want. I also think that the prison system of Paul’s time was a bit more primitive than our own. This in itself would necessitate the greater use of capital punishment.


You say that government is “God’s minister of vengeance.” To a degree that is true. The question before us is, to what degree? The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible” says the following concerning Romans 13:  


Scripture teaches that God grants political authority to civil rulers. By design, governments provide society with goods and securities that individuals and families could not provide for themselves. Note, however, that the state obliges the obedience of the Christian only when it legislates in accord with divine law.


Scripture and the teachings of the Church constitute Divine Law. You said that Romans 12:19 had to do with vigilante justice. You are correct, Romans 12:19 does cover vigilante justice. I don’t have a problem with that. But it also makes my point about our leaving vengeance to the Lord. If I cheer on a government, which gets its power from me, when it kills criminals who no longer pose a threat to society, I am at odds with the verses which command:   "Repay no one evil for evil" (Romans 12:17). "Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling" (1 Peter 3:9).   "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you" (Luke 6:27-28).   So how do we reconcile Romans 13:4 with Roman’s 12:17, 1 Peter 3:9, and Luke 6:27-28? Precisely the way the Church has done in the Catechism. Capital punishment may be used but only if absolutely necessary.  


In my original article I wrote:


Many of their cases [death row inmates] are not so clear cut. In fact we know that some have been wrongly convicted. Subsequent evidence or a confession by the real killer has set a number of Death Row inmates free. The American Bar Association reported that in a four-year period, seventeen Death Row inmates had been found innocent and freed. I believe it is reasonable to assume that innocent men and women have been executed. 


You answered: “You assume but with absolutely no evidence.” Actually that in itself is some pretty good evidence. Most of the sentences that have been overturned can be attributed to DNA evidence. How about the cases where there is no DNA evidence? Why would you think that a jury could make a mistake in a case with DNA evidence but not in a case without it? And what about jury nullification? How do you infallibly defend against that? If someone is alive and you have discovered a mistake you can make it right. If they are dead it’s too late. 


When I mentioned the high cost of executing someone you said:


On the one hand, you don't want the innocent executed. So to remedy that, we develop safeguards to prevent this from occurring. Now those safeguards are too expensive, another reason we need to abolish the death penalty! You want to have it both ways. 


I am not trying to have it both ways. I am simply saying that it is a bad idea and it is more expensive. What I had in mind was the individual who is in favor of the death penalty “because the taxpayers shouldn’t have the expense of feeding and housing murderers.” Perhaps I should have been a bit clearer on that. I appreciate your feedback Kevin. However, based on the facts presented, I just don’t find your argument convincing.


Reprinted with express written consent from


Sebastian Fama is a Catholic Apologist and the creator of 



1. Sebastian (point)   2. Kevin (counter-point)   3. Sebastian (rebuttal)