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Catholic Church and capital punishment

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The teachings of Jesus focus on mercy, reconciliation and redemption; this recurring theme in the gospel message is invoked by the Catholic Church to oppose the death penalty. Church fathers such as Clement of Rome and Justin Martyr asserted that the taking of human life is incompatible with the gospel and exhorted Christians not to participate in capital punishment. The church's opposition to the death penalty declined after Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire. Augustine recognized the death penalty as a means of deterring the wicked and protecting the innocent. In the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas reaffirmed this position.



The following is a summary of Summa Contra Gentiles, Book 3, Chapter 146[1], which was written by Aquinas prior to writing the Summa Theologica. St. Thomas was a vocal supporter of the death penalty. This was based on the theory (found in natural moral law), that the state has not only the right, but the duty to protect its citizens from enemies, both from within, and without.

For those who have been appropriately appointed, there is no sin in administering punishment. For those who refuse to obey God's laws, it is correct for society to rebuke them with civil and criminal sanctions. No one sins working for justice, within the law. Actions that are necessary to preserve the good of society are not inherently evil. The common good of the whole society is greater and better than the good of any particular person. "The life of certain pestiferous men is an impediment to the common good which is the concord of human society. Therefore, certain men must be removed by death from the society of men." This is likened to the physician who must amputate a diseased limb, or a cancer, for the good of the whole person. He based this on I Corinthians 5, 6: "You know that a little leaven corrupts the whole lump of dough?" and I Corinthians 5, 13: "Put away the evil one from among yourselves"; Romans 13,4: "[it is said of earthly power that] he bears not the sword in vain: for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that does evil"; I Peter 2, 13-14: "Be subjected therefore to every human creature for God's sake: whether to be on the king as excelling, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of good." He believed these passages superseded the text of Exodus 20,13: "Thou shall not kill." This is mentioned again in Matthew 5,21. Also, it is argued that Matthew 13, 30: "Suffer both the weeds and the wheat to grow until the harvest." The harvest was interpreted as meaning the end of the world. This is explained by Matthew 13,38-40.

Aquinas acknowledged these passages could also be interpreted as meaning there should be no use of the death penalty if there was a chance of injuring the innocent. The prohibition "Thou shall not kill", was superseded by Exodus 22,18: "Wrongdoers you shall not suffer to live." The argument that evildoers should be allowed to live in the hope that they might be redeemed was rejected by Aquinas as frivolous. If they would not repent in the face of death, it was unreasonable to assume they would ever repent. "How many people are we to allow to be murdered while waiting for the repentance of the wrongdoer?", he asked, rhetorically. Using the death penalty for revenge, or retribution is a violation of natural moral law.

[It should be noted that many believe the correct interpretation of the commandment to be "Thou shalt not murder." This interpretation allows for Aquinas' belief that the death penalty is an acceptable practice as delivered by those in authority over such things, such as government, which is divinely appointed as to God's will.]

Under Pope John Paul II, the Catholic Church came to advocate incarceration, in lieu of the death penalty. It is still allowed for extreme cases.

Current teaching

Paul J. Surlis writes that Church teaching on the death penalty has been in transition.[1] The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the death penalty is permissible in cases of extreme gravity. The Church teaches that capital punishment is allowed if the "guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined" and if the death penalty is the only way to defend others against the guilty party.

However, if there are other means available to defend people from the "unjust aggressor", these means are preferred to the death penalty because they are considered to be more respectful of the dignity of the person and in keeping with the common good.[2](2267)

Because today's society makes possible effective means for preventing crime without execution, the Catechism declares that "the cases in which execution of the offender is an absolute necessity 'are very rare, if practically nonexistent.Template:'"[2]

In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae published in 1995, Pope John Paul II removed this public safety qualification and declared that, in today's modern society, capital punishment can scarcely ever be condoned.[1]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Suris, Paul J.. "Church Teaching and the Death Penalty". Retrieved 2009-05-05. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Paragraph number 2258–2330 (1994). "Catechism of the Catholic Church". Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Retrieved 27 December 2008. 

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