The Catholic magisterium in recent years has become increasingly vocal in opposing the practice of capital punishment. Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae declared that “as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system,” cases in which the execution of the offender would be absolutely necessary “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” Again at St. Louis in January 1999 the Pope appealed for a consensus to end the death penalty on the ground that it was “both cruel and unnecessary.” The bishops of many countries have spoken to the same effect.

The United States bishops, for their part, had already declared in their majority statement of 1980 that “in the conditions of contemporary American society, the legitimate purposes of punishment do not justify the imposition of the death penalty.” Since that time they have repeatedly intervened to ask for clemency in particular cases. Like the Pope, the bishops do not rule out capital punishment altogether, but they say that it is not justifiable as practiced in the United States today.

In coming to this prudential conclusion, the magisterium is not changing the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine remains what it has been: that the State, in principle, has the right to impose the death penalty on persons convicted of very serious crimes. But the classical tradition held that the State should not exercise this right when the evil effects outweigh the good effects. Thus the principle still leaves open the question whether and when the death penalty ought to be applied. The Pope and the bishops, using their prudential judgment, have concluded that in contemporary society, at least in countries like our own, the death penalty ought not to be invoked, because, on balance, it does more harm than good. I personally support this position.

In a brief compass I have touched on numerous and complex problems. To indicate what I have tried to establish, I should like to propose, as a final summary, ten theses that encapsulate the Church’s doctrine, as I understand it.

1) The purpose of punishment in secular courts is fourfold: the rehabilitation of the criminal, the protection of society from the criminal, the deterrence of other potential criminals, and retributive justice.

2) Just retribution, which seeks to establish the right order of things, should not be confused with vindictiveness, which is reprehensible.

3) Punishment may and should be administered with respect and love for the person punished.

4) The person who does evil may deserve death. According to the biblical accounts, God sometimes administers the penalty himself and sometimes directs others to do so.

5) Individuals and private groups may not take it upon themselves to inflict death as a penalty.

6) The State has the right, in principle, to inflict capital punishment in cases where there is no doubt about the gravity of the offense and the guilt of the accused.

7) The death penalty should not be imposed if the purposes of punishment can be equally well or better achieved by bloodless means, such as imprisonment.

8) The sentence of death may be improper if it has serious negative effects on society, such as miscarriages of justice, the increase of vindictiveness, or disrespect for the value of innocent human life.

9) Persons who specially represent the Church, such as clergy and religious, in view of their specific vocation, should abstain from pronouncing or executing the sentence of death.

10) Catholics, in seeking to form their judgment as to whether the death penalty is to be supported as a general policy, or in a given situation, should be attentive to the guidance of the pope and the bishops. Current Catholic teaching should be understood, as I have sought to understand it, in continuity with Scripture and tradition.

Avery Cardinal Dulles, “Catholicism & Capital Punishment” (2001)

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In practice, then, a delicate balance between justice and mercy must be maintained. The State’s primary responsibility is for justice, although it may at times temper justice with mercy. The Church rather represents the mercy of God. Showing forth the divine forgiveness that comes from Jesus Christ, the Church is deliberately indulgent toward offenders, but it too must on occasion impose penalties. The Code of Canon Law contains an entire book devoted to crime and punishment. It would be clearly inappropriate for the Church, as a spiritual society, to execute criminals, but the State is a different type of society. It cannot be expected to act as a Church. In a predominantly Christian society, however, the State should be encouraged to lean toward mercy provided that it does not thereby violate the demands of justice.

It is sometimes asked whether a judge or executioner can impose or carry out the death penalty with love. It seems to me quite obvious that such officeholders can carry out their duty without hatred for the criminal, but rather with love, respect, and compassion. In enforcing the law, they may take comfort in believing that death is not the final evil; they may pray and hope that the convict will attain eternal life with God.

The four objections are therefore of different weight. The first of them, dealing with miscarriages of justice, is relatively strong; the second and third, dealing with vindictiveness and with the consistent ethic of life, have some probable force. The fourth objection, dealing with forgiveness, is relatively weak. But taken together, the four may suffice to tip the scale against the use of the death penalty.

Avery Cardinal Dulles, “Catholicism & Capital Punishment” (2001)

Finally, some hold that the death penalty is incompatible with the teaching of Jesus on forgiveness. This argument is complex at best, since the quoted sayings of Jesus have reference to forgiveness on the part of individual persons who have suffered injury. It is indeed praiseworthy for victims of crime to forgive their debtors, but such personal pardon does not absolve offenders from their obligations in justice. John Paul II points out that “reparation for evil and scandal, compensation for injury, and satisfaction for insult are conditions for forgiveness.”

The relationship of the State to the criminal is not the same as that of a victim to an assailant. Governors and judges are responsible for maintaining a just public order. Their primary obligation is toward justice, but under certain conditions they may exercise clemency. In a careful discussion of this matter Pius XII concluded that the State ought not to issue pardons except when it is morally certain that the ends of punishment have been achieved. Under these conditions, requirements of public policy may warrant a partial or full remission of punishment. If clemency were granted to all convicts, the nation’s prisons would be instantly emptied, but society would not be well served.

Avery Cardinal Dulles, “Catholicism & Capital Punishment” (2001)

The purposes of criminal punishment are rather unanimously delineated in the Catholic tradition. Punishment is held to have a variety of ends that may conveniently be reduced to the following four: rehabilitation, defense against the criminal, deterrence, and retribution. Granted that punishment has these four aims, we may now inquire whether the death penalty is the apt or necessary means to attain them.

Rehabilitation. Capital punishment does not reintegrate the criminal into society; rather, it cuts off any possible rehabilitation. The sentence of death, however, can and sometimes does move the condemned person to repentance and conversion. There is a large body of Christian literature on the value of prayers and pastoral ministry for convicts on death row or on the scaffold. In cases where the criminal seems incapable of being reintegrated into human society, the death penalty may be a way of achieving the criminal’s reconciliation with God.

Defense against the criminal. Capital punishment is obviously an effective way of preventing the wrongdoer from committing future crimes and protecting society from him. Whether execution is necessary is another question. One could no doubt imagine an extreme case in which the very fact that a criminal is alive constituted a threat that he might be released or escape and do further harm. But, as John Paul II remarks in Evangelium Vitae , modern improvements in the penal system have made it extremely rare for execution to be the only effective means of defending society against the criminal.

Deterrence. Executions, especially where they are painful, humiliating, and public, may create a sense of horror that would prevent others from being tempted to commit similar crimes. But the Fathers of the Church censured spectacles of violence such as those conducted at the Roman Colosseum. Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World explicitly disapproved of mutilation and torture as offensive to human dignity. In our day death is usually administered in private by relatively painless means, such as injections of drugs, and to that extent it may be less effective as a deterrent. Sociological evidence on the deterrent effect of the death penalty as currently practiced is ambiguous, conflicting, and far from probative.

Retribution. In principle, guilt calls for punishment. The graver the offense, the more severe the punishment ought to be. In Holy Scripture, as we have seen, death is regarded as the appropriate punishment for serious transgressions. Thomas Aquinas held that sin calls for the deprivation of some good, such as, in serious cases, the good of temporal or even eternal life. By consenting to the punishment of death, the wrongdoer is placed in a position to expiate his evil deeds and escape punishment in the next life. After noting this, St. Thomas adds that even if the malefactor is not repentant, he is benefited by being prevented from committing more sins. Retribution by the State has its limits because the State, unlike God, enjoys neither omniscience nor omnipotence. According to Christian faith, God “will render to every man according to his works” at the final judgment (Romans 2:6; cf. Matthew 16:27). Retribution by the State can only be a symbolic anticipation of God’s perfect justice.

For the symbolism to be authentic, the society must believe in the existence of a transcendent order of justice, which the State has an obligation to protect. This has been true in the past, but in our day the State is generally viewed simply as an instrument of the will of the governed. In this modern perspective, the death penalty expresses not the divine judgment on objective evil but rather the collective anger of the group. The retributive goal of punishment is misconstrued as a self-assertive act of vengeance.

The death penalty, we may conclude, has different values in relation to each of the four ends of punishment. It does not rehabilitate the criminal but may be an occasion for bringing about salutary repentance. It is an effective but rarely, if ever, a necessary means of defending society against the criminal. Whether it serves to deter others from similar crimes is a disputed question, difficult to settle. Its retributive value is impaired by lack of clarity about the role of the State. In general, then, capital punishment has some limited value but its necessity is open to doubt.

Avery Cardinal Dulles, “Catholicism & Capital Punishment” (2001)

The Catholic magisterium does not, and never has, advocated unqualified abolition of the death penalty. I know of no official statement from popes or bishops, whether in the past or in the present, that denies the right of the State to execute offenders at least in certain extreme cases. […] Catholic authorities justify the right of the State to inflict capital punishment on the ground that the State does not act on its own authority but as the agent of God, who is supreme lord of life and death. In so holding they can properly appeal to Scripture. Paul holds that the ruler is God’s minister in executing God’s wrath against the evildoer (Romans 13:4). Peter admonishes Christians to be subject to emperors and governors, who have been sent by God to punish those who do wrong (1 Peter 2:13). Jesus, as already noted, apparently recognized that Pilate’s authority over his life came from God (John 19:11).

Pius XII, in a further clarification of the standard argument, holds that when the State, acting by its ministerial power, uses the death penalty, it does not exercise dominion over human life but only recognizes that the criminal, by a kind of moral suicide, has deprived himself of the right to life. In the Pope’s words,

 Even when there is question of the execution of a condemned man, the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. In this case it is reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned person of the enjoyment of life in expiation of his crime when, by his crime, he has already dispossessed himself of his right to life.

In light of all this it seems safe to conclude that the death penalty is not in itself a violation of the right to life. The real issue for Catholics is to determine the circumstances under which that penalty ought to be applied.

Avery Cardinal Dulles, “Catholicism & Capital Punishment” (2001)

Summarizing the verdict of Scripture and tradition, we can glean some settled points of doctrine. It is agreed that crime deserves punishment in this life and not only in the next. In addition, it is agreed that the State has authority to administer appropriate punishment to those judged guilty of crimes and that this punishment may, in serious cases, include the sentence of death.

Yet, as we have seen, a rising chorus of voices in the Catholic community has raised objections to capital punishment. Some take the absolutist position that because the right to life is sacred and inviolable, the death penalty is always wrong. The respected Italian Franciscan Gino Concetti, writing in L’Osservatore Romano in 1977, made the following powerful statement:

 In light of the word of God, and thus of faith, life-all human life-is sacred and untouchable. No matter how heinous the crimes . . . [the criminal] does not lose his fundamental right to life, for it is primordial, inviolable, and inalienable, and thus comes under the power of no one whatsoever.

If this right and its attributes are so ab­solute, it is because of the image which, at creation, God impressed on human nature itself. No force, no violence, no passion can erase or destroy it. By virtue of this divine image, man is a person endowed with dignity and rights.

To warrant this radical revision—one might almost say reversal—of the Catholic tradition, Father Concetti and others explain that the Church from biblical times until our own day has failed to perceive the true significance of the image of God in man, which implies that even the terrestrial life of each individual person is sacred and inviolable. In past centuries, it is alleged, Jews and Christians failed to think through the consequences of this revealed doctrine. They were caught up in a barbaric culture of violence and in an absolutist theory of political power, both handed down from the ancient world. But in our day, a new recognition of the dignity and inalienable rights of the human person has dawned. Those who recognize the signs of the times will move beyond the outmoded doctrines that the State has a divinely delegated power to kill and that criminals forfeit their fundamental human rights. The teaching on capital punishment must today undergo a dramatic development corresponding to these new insights.

This abolitionist position has a tempting simplicity. But it is not really new. It has been held by sectarian Christians at least since the Middle Ages. Many pacifist groups, such as the Waldensians, the Quakers, the Hutterites, and the Mennonites, have shared this point of view. But, like pacifism itself, this absolutist interpretation of the right to life found no echo at the time among Catholic theologians, who accepted the death penalty as consonant with Scripture, tradition, and the natural law.

Avery Cardinal Dulles, “Catholicism & Capital Punishment” (2001)

There, for seventeen years, Friar Bernard [Gui] directed the hunt for heretics, and their reconciliation of punishment. During the whole period he tried 930 cases, an average of about 54 a year, or slightly more than one a week. This conveys an impression of ceaseless activity that is perhaps far from accurate. He presided at only 18 sermones generales during the whole period. This suggests that he dealt with his heretics in batches, about once a year on the average…

[Of the 930 sentences he passed,] [t]he 42 whom he found to be obstinate and incurable heretics, with no hope of reformation, he turned over to the secular officials for the usual penalty. These constitute about eight percent, by the highest possible reckoning, of the total number of the condemned…Of the forty-two burned at the stake, seventeen were condemned at one sermon generalis on April 5, 1310; this suggests that the Inquisition had discovered some unusually large and dangerous conspiracy, and had dealt rigorously with it. Bernard failed in eight of every hundred cases that he prosecuted – for the Inquisitor deemed it a failure when he could not win a man back to a sane Christian life, and had to turn him over to the State. The general average for the Medieval Inquisition may have been higher. It has been estimated that ten out of every hundred convictions ended at the stake.

William Thomas Walsh, Characters of the Inquisition (1940)

Political parties of the totalitarian type on the other hand promise “everything” — faith (in a worldly millennium), intellectuality (on a sentimental basis), drunkenness (with words), crime (of the “honorable,” i.e., political type). An American Fascism of tomorrow might actually attract all “better” elements leaving the scum to its pastime of drink, theft, and sex. Needless to say this is a dangerous game. It may be that these elements, having a free hand, would “save America” for the “White Man,” and Christianity might thus well-nigh become a tolerated religion, but the Church as such would suffer bitterly in the long run and the catacombs might be her last stage of development here in this country.

In the sober forties there will be another generation, steeled by the war, grimmer in outlook, far more determined to have its own way. The generation of the twenties was one of despair, of despair for the “right reasons”; there is a danger that our decade will be one of wrong and false aims. The issue is thus far graver. Most planning (whether it is done by ochlocrats, Fascists, Pinks, or Communists) points to a radical decrease of liberty. Yet there is no doubt that the end of liberty in America would be practically the end there of the Church.

Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, The Menace of the Herd, or Procrustes at Large (1943)

The same faith [of the High Middle Ages] was the common heritage of high and low alike, on the banks of the Danube, Rhine, or Rhone, or Thames…Christianity was included in the very definition of their citizenship…By heresy, they sinned against the citizenship in which all shared. The strength of this feeling goes a long way to explain that the first violence done against the heretics, the first lynchings, were the work not of the rulers, ecclesiastic or temporal, but of the common people – a spontaneous outburst against what outraged their deepest instincts. It was a symptom of the close interlocking of Church and State, whatever other factors were involved.

Maurice Bevenot, S.J. “The Inquisition and its Antecedents,” The Heythrop Journal (1966)

Thus the Dominicans, and to a lesser extent the Franciscans, were sent to the places where heresy most abounded. Some went to Germany, but no formal and permanent Tribunal was established there until 1367. Alberic, a Dominican, was sent to Lombardy, with the title, “Inquisitor hereticae pravitatis”. One of his successors was killed by a mob; another, Saint Peter of Verona, Dominican son of Manichee parents and founder of the Inquisition at Florence about 1245, was assassinated by heretics on the road from Como to Milan in 1252. It was dangerous business, being an Inquisitor, for the heretics were often rich and influential, with the courage of fanaticism and despair. Hunting them out was not a task that any young Dominican aspired to for its own sake. This was particularly true in southern France, where the Cathari, having survived the Crusade, put up a long and stubborn fight against the new monastic courts. A Dominican convent was sacked by some heretics in 1234. Eight years later the Inquisitor Arnaud and several other Dominicans were assassinated. The Dominicans then asked the Pope (Innocent IV) to relieve them of the mission. This he refused to do. In 1244 an armed force of Catholics broke the resistance of the Cathari by storming Montsegur, whence the murderers of the Dominicans had ridden forth, and burned 200 heretics without trial, even as the Levites of Moses had slain the idolaters. After that the Inquisition was accepted by the secular officials. Gregory IX sent Inquisitors to Spain in 1238. One of them was poisoned by heretics.

In his instructions to his emissaries, the Pope created the form which distinguished the Medieval Inquisitions from the bishops’ investigations and all other previous Christian attempts to deal with the problem of heresy. Into a town, reported to be infected with heresy, the friars were to go and publicly proclaim that all guilty of offenses against the Faith must appear and abjure their errors. Those who did so were to be forgiven. To detect those who did not, the friars were to set in motion an Inquiry; and if two witnesses testified that such and such a man  was a heretic, they must place him on trial, acting at all times, of course, in cooperation with, and only with the consent of, the Bishop. There was no provision for torture; it was not used for about 20 years.

Gregory apparently had no intention of founding a new institution. He was making use of the new religious orders to help the Bishops in a duty that had always been theirs. Bishop Douais, a profound student of source documents of the early Inquisition, believed he was also trying to forestall encroachments by Frederic II, who had already begun to burn political enemies on the pretext that he was defending the Faith. Gregory proposed to decide by theological experts, not by politicians or soldiers, who was a true Catholic and who was not. Once that question was answered, the Church was free to reconcile or excommunicate the guilty, and the State, if it considered him dangerous enough, could inflict on him the usual penalty for high treason.

William Thomas Walsh, Characters of the Inquisition (1940)