What must Catholics hold regarding the death penalty?
What may they hold?
Especially since the publication of St. John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical The Gospel of Life (see paragraphs 9, 27, 40, and 56), and in a renewed way following recent statements by Pope Francis and others tasked with speaking for him, Catholics have been debating the proper interpretation of the Church’s teaching on the death penalty.
I propose in this brief column to consider the following questions: What must Catholics hold regarding the death penalty? What may they hold? And how do I, as a Catholic moral theologian, interpret the Church’s teaching regarding this issue?
There seem to be widespread impressions that the Church once required Catholics to support capital punishment, or that the Church now (since 1995) forbids any support for it, or both. I don’t think that either of these impressions is correct; in fact, I don’t think that there is much that Catholics absolutely “must” hold regarding the death penalty.
On the one hand, the original Catholic Encyclopedia’s article on capital punishment, published more than a century ago, with Church approval, states that this punishment “is not contrary to” the Church’s teaching, and gives reasons for regarding it acceptable in principle. But the article also says that this doesn’t settle the question of its actual advisability, and recognizes reasonable arguments on both sides of this practical question.
Similarly, a long 1964 article in the important journal Irish Theological Quarterly treats the question of Catholicism and capital punishment as a complex one.
On the other hand, no recent pope has stated that the death penalty could never, in any (even only hypothetical) set of social conditions, be morally acceptable (as the intentional killing of the innocent—think abortion and euthanasia—could not). Accordingly, then-Cardinal Ratzinger commented in 2004 that there may be legitimate diversity of opinion among Catholics about “applying” the death penalty.
But Catholic teaching does require Catholics to hold that states have the right and duty to make a criminal “pay” a proportionate penalty for the very fact of having committed a crime. It also probably requires that we acknowledge that the use of the death penalty need not be a mortal sin (something by its nature gravely evil, and done with full knowledge that it is evil, as well as with real freedom).
In light of all that the Church has now taught about the death penalty, what positions are Catholics allowed to take regarding the issue? Some theologians who are sincerely committed to fidelity to the Church’s Magisterium have adopted the following view: States have the right to inflict the death penalty for very serious crimes. When a lesser punishment would be enough to prevent a criminal from being of further danger to society, then perhaps using the death penalty wouldn’t be the most prudent course of action in our “culture of death”—in which the taking of guilty lives might contribute to confusion about the need to respect innocent ones. Still, even when it isn’t strictly necessary for the defense of society, the use of the death penalty might, in some situations, be good.
Other theologians, equally faithful, have argued that the teaching of St. John Paul II points in the direction of a more radical development of doctrine, in which all intentional killing (killing as an end or as a means), even of criminals by the state—the death penalty—would be seen as a morally unacceptable violation of the basic good of human life (much as other intentional killing is).
Then, of course, there are a range of possible positions in between these. As I suggested above, I don’t think that the Church’s teaching absolutely rules out any of these positions. Therefore, I think that a Catholic who has studied the relevant doctrinal texts (especially The Gospel of Life) carefully may adopt whichever of these interpretations seems most convincing. None of them necessarily constitutes “dissent” from the Church’s doctrine. But they cannot all be correct.
Here is what my own study of the Church’s teaching, with its background (for example, in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas—and also, of course, in Sacred Scripture), has led me to think regarding the right interpretation. I don’t see St. John Paul II as pointing toward the view that the death penalty could never, in any conditions, be morally acceptable. Nor do I think that there would be good philosophical and theological grounds for such a development. On the contrary, I see good grounds for thinking that capital punishment could, even if only hypothetically, be morally acceptable, as in fact the Magisterium had previously indicated (though not in an unchangeable way). I think that Aquinas’s argument for the acceptability of capital punishment, for example, is reasonable (even though some claim that it isn’t), and I don’t think that John Paul II actually contradicts him (as some claim that he does).
At the same time, I think that there is a real and important development of the Church’s doctrine on the death penalty in The Gospel of Life. St. John Paul II is not simply “suggesting” in this encyclical that the death penalty ought not be used when the defense of society doesn’t require it. Nor is he taking the position that this limit might not need to be observed in cultures that are in better moral health than our own. Rather he is teaching that, as an additional matter of moral principle—complementing the principle of justice—we must make use of mercy when punishing. Mercy doesn’t leave people unprotected from violent criminals, but it also doesn’t punish a murderer with death when a long term of imprisonment would achieve this protection.
Catholics are free to try to make the case that St. John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis are mistaken in thinking that we can in fact protect society without using the death penalty (though I doubt that they are). But I think that it is now the teaching of the Church—of the sort to which the Catholic faithful ought to assent—that if capital punishment isn’t necessary to protect society, then, in order to reflect the “merciful justice” that God shows us, we must not use capital punishment.
Indeed, as John Paul II has explained in his 1980 encyclical On the Mercy of God, if we as a society try to have justice without mercy, we will end up with the opposite of justice: spite, hatred, cruelty. We will neither build nor maintain a “culture of life.”
Dr. Kevin E. Miller has taught moral theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville since 1999, where he is also an Associate of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life and a member of the Board of Directors of University Faculty for Life. His PhD in theology is from Marquette University.