The Death Penalty and the Church
by Kevin Tierney

Hello Sebastian,


As one Catholic apologist to another, I think a few of the details in regards to the death penalty are a bit off. If one cannot have an intellectual rationale for the usage of capital punishment, then it comes from not actually studying the evidence for the issue, including the biblical mandates for it or the acknowledgment of such authority (St. Paul talks about this in Romans) as a reason why Christians should do well to follow the law, lest they rightly suffer the condemnation of the State and the sword.


The rational side of the equation is that in committing a heinous act against the public good, as in the case of the Oklahoma City bombers, he had to be punished for his crime. That's all the intellectual rationale that is needed. It's then the detractors argument to say that either the act wasn't heinous, or that the death penalty isn't deserving for such heinous acts, or that there's a degree of heinous acts which allow it, and those that don't.


As far as the petition the Bishop launched, while it might be the height of disrespect to tell him to "Mind his own business", the Church should not be taking sides on issues that faithful Catholics can disagree upon. (Benedict XVI reaffirmed this in Deus Caritas Est , as well as his authoritative pronouncement to Cardinal McCarrick during the 2004 elections.) As then-Cardinal Ratzinger noted, since there can be legitimate difference of opinion on the death penalty, this is not something for the Church to take one side or the other. The most they can say is that while the death penalty should be used in some cases, this isn't one of them. (And even then neutrality is the traditional course.)


"The Church was commissioned by Christ to teach on matters of faith and morals. Whether or not to take someone’s life undoubtedly qualifies. If the Church chose to be silent on this issue she would be neglecting her mission." (Capital Punishment: Emotions or Principles)


On the issue of faith or morals, the Church has explicitly sanctioned the death penalty's licitness. That's about the only time faith or morals enters the equation, at least as far as the Magisterium is concerned. While not proclaimed definitively, it is the teaching and Tradition of the Church,-- indeed I would argue through her Ordinary Magisterium, the Church demonstrates the lawfulness of the death penalty.


Since outlawing the death penalty as a Catholic position is not the mind of the Church, if a bishop presents it as such he is clearly misusing the office Christ entrusted to him. This is why JPII never called for it's abolition from a Catholic standpoint, merely from the standpoint of a very learned theologian in the person of himself who happened to be Supreme Pontiff. His opinions are worthy of great respect, but can be disputed, and in this manner relatively easily.


The statement of JPII is a prudential one, equal in weight to his assertion that the Didache is the oldest Christian work post-scriptures we have, that he laid out in the same encyclical.


"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 "(Evangelium Vitae)


This is something that in his competence as pope, the Holy Father 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 World Trade Center 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.


One could argue that the man should receive solitary for the rest of his life (where he would most likely go mad). However, then it is no longer about the rehabilitation of the criminal (the primary end as today's opponents of the death penalty argue) but rather the punishment of the criminal (as is the traditional understanding in Western jurisprudence, as well as the majority of Catholic thinkers throughout the ages, though, one must concede not everyone felt this way.)


You then, I believe, proof-text Romans 12. Indeed, the individual Christian is not to take revenge, and that is why the Church has always condemned vigilante justice as an insult to the rule of law. However, one of the ways God gives revenge is through the death penalty, the power he gave to Moses (and hence the State) to protect society, and punish the offenders. Just as God gives the Church (his creation) the power to punish people (with suspensions, excommunications, etc) so does he give the power to the State (which he also created) to punish the offenders of the civil sphere. (Anywhere from fines to imprisonment to when necessary the death penalty.) Why Paul can state in Romans 13:


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.


As one can see, when the death penalty is visited on the guilty, indeed the State is acting as God's minister of vengeance. The "Vengeance is mine" applies to the individual, not the right of the State. When we support the death penalty, we support the right of the State to do so.


Many of their cases 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. (Capital Punishment: Emotions or Principles)


You assume, but with absolutely no evidence. Death penalty proponents have been waiting for this "smoking gun" from the detractors, and they haven't found one in centuries. If anything, the eventual overturning of convictions is proof that simply safeguards need to be in place, and at least in America, they are in place in spades.


As far as the costs, now you want it both ways. 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. Not to mention you are arguing from a utilitarian standpoint, that which is financially expedient. But this in itself utterly undercuts what JPII himself said on the death penalty, that the issue is not about fiscal expedience, but rather the dignity of the human person. Or is there a price one can put on dignity?


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Kevin Tierney is a Catholic apologist and writer, whose work can be found at 



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