|Cardinal Avery Dulles
Among the major nations of the Western world, the United States is
singular in still having the death penalty. After a five–year
moratorium, from 1972 to 1977, capital punishment was reinstated in the
United States courts. Objections to the practice have come from many
quarters, including the American Catholic bishops, who have rather
consistently opposed the death penalty. The National Conference of
Catholic Bishops in 1980 published a predominantly negative statement on
capital punishment, approved by a majority vote of those present though
not by the required two–thirds majority of the entire conference.1 Pope
John Paul II has at various times expressed his opposition to the
practice, as have other Catholic leaders in Europe.
Some Catholics, going beyond the bishops and the Pope, maintain that the
death penalty, like abortion and euthanasia, is a violation of the right
to life and an unauthorized usurpation by human beings of God’s sole
lordship over life and death. Did not the Declaration of Independence,
they ask, describe the right to life as "unalienable"?
While sociological and legal questions inevitably impinge upon any such
reflection, I am here addressing the subject as a theologian. At this
level the question has to be answered primarily in terms of revelation,
as it comes to us through Scripture and tradition, interpreted with the
guidance of the ecclesiastical magisterium.
In the Old Testament the Mosaic Law specifies no less than thirty–six
capital offenses calling for execution by stoning, burning,
decapitation, or strangulation. Included in the list are idolatry,
magic, blasphemy, violation of the sabbath, murder, adultery,
bestiality, pederasty, and incest. The death penalty was considered
especially fitting as a punishment for murder since in his covenant with
Noah God had laid down the principle, "Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in His own image"
(Genesis 9:6). In many cases God is portrayed as deservedly punishing
culprits with death, as happened to Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Numbers
16). In other cases individuals such as Daniel and Mordecai are God’s
agents in bringing a just death upon guilty persons.
In the New Testament the right of the State to put criminals to death
seems to be taken for granted. Jesus himself refrains from using
violence. He rebukes his disciples for wishing to call down fire from
heaven to punish the Samaritans for their lack of hospitality (Luke
9:55). Later he admonishes Peter to put his sword in the scabbard rather
than resist arrest (Matthew 26:52). At no point, however, does Jesus
deny that the State has authority to exact capital punishment. In his
debates with the Pharisees, Jesus cites with approval the apparently
harsh commandment, "He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him
surely die" (Matthew 15:4; Mark 7:10, referring to Exodus 2l:17; cf.
Leviticus 20:9). When Pilate calls attention to his authority to crucify
him, Jesus points out that Pilate’s power comes to him from above—that
is to say, from God (John 19:11). Jesus commends the good thief on the
cross next to him, who has admitted that he and his fellow thief are
receiving the due reward of their deeds (Luke 23:41).
The early Christians evidently had nothing against the death penalty.
They approve of the divine punishment meted out to Ananias and Sapphira
when they are rebuked by Peter for their fraudulent action (Acts
5:1–11). The Letter to the Hebrews makes an argument from the fact that
"a man who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy at the
testimony of two or three witnesses" (10:28). Paul repeatedly refers to
the connection between sin and death. He writes to the Romans, with an
apparent reference to the death penalty, that the magistrate who holds
authority "does not bear the sword in vain; for he is the servant of God
to execute His wrath on the wrongdoer" (Romans 13:4). No passage in the
New Testament disapproves of the death penalty.
Turning to Christian tradition, we may note that the Fathers and Doctors
of the Church are virtually unanimous in their support for capital
punishment, even though some of them such as St. Ambrose exhort members
of the clergy not to pronounce capital sentences or serve as
executioners. To answer the objection that the first commandment forbids
killing, St. Augustine writes in The City of God:
The same divine law which forbids the killing of a human being allows
certain exceptions, as when God authorizes killing by a general law or
when He gives an explicit commission to an individual for a limited
time. Since the agent of authority is but a sword in the hand, and is
not responsible for the killing, it is in no way contrary to the
commandment, "Thou shalt not kill" to wage war at God’s bidding, or for
the representatives of the State’s authority to put criminals to death,
according to law or the rule of rational justice.
In the Middle Ages a number of canonists teach that
ecclesiastical courts should refrain from the death penalty and that
civil courts should impose it only for major crimes. But leading
canonists and theologians assert the right of civil courts to
pronounce the death penalty for very grave offenses such as murder
and treason. Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus invoke the authority of
Scripture and patristic tradition, and give arguments from reason.
Giving magisterial authority to the death penalty, Pope Innocent III
required disciples of Peter Waldo seeking reconciliation with the Church
to accept the proposition: "The secular power can, without mortal sin,
exercise judgment of blood, provided that it punishes with justice, not
out of hatred, with prudence, not precipitation." In the high Middle
Ages and early modern times the Holy See authorized the Inquisition to
turn over heretics to the secular arm for execution. In the Papal States
the death penalty was imposed for a variety of offenses. The Roman
Catechism, issued in 1566, three years after the end of the Council of
Trent, taught that the power of life and death had been entrusted by God
to civil authorities and that the use of this power, far from involving
the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to the fifth
In modern times Doctors of the Church such as Robert Bellarmine and
Alphonsus Liguori held that certain criminals should be punished by
death. Venerable authorities such as Francisco de Vitoria, Thomas More,
and Francisco Suárez agreed. John Henry Newman, in a letter to a friend,
maintained that the magistrate had the right to bear the sword, and that
the Church should sanction its use, in the sense that Moses, Joshua, and
Samuel used it against abominable crimes.
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century the consensus of
Catholic theologians in favor of capital punishment in extreme cases
remained solid, as may be seen from approved textbooks and encyclopedia
articles of the day. The Vatican City State from 1929 until 1969 had a
penal code that included the death penalty for anyone who might attempt
to assassinate the pope. Pope Pius XII, in an important allocution to
medical experts, declared that it was reserved to the public power to
deprive the condemned of the benefit of life in expiation of their
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
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
The mounting opposition to the death penalty in Europe since the
Enlightenment has gone hand in hand with a decline of faith in eternal
life. In the nineteenth century the most consistent supporters of
capital punishment were the Christian churches, and its most consistent
opponents were groups hostile to the churches. When death came to be
understood as the ultimate evil rather than as a stage on the way to
eternal life, utilitarian philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham found it
easy to dismiss capital punishment as "useless annihilation."
Many governments in Europe and elsewhere have eliminated the death
penalty in the twentieth century, often against the protests of
religious believers. While this change may be viewed as moral progress,
it is probably due, in part, to the evaporation of the sense of sin,
guilt, and retributive justice, all of which are essential to biblical
religion and Catholic faith. The abolition of the death penalty in
formerly Christian countries may owe more to secular humanism than to
deeper penetration into the gospel.
Arguments from the progress of ethical consciousness have been used to
promote a number of alleged human rights that the Catholic Church
consistently rejects in the name of Scripture and tradition. The
magisterium appeals to these authorities as grounds for repudiating
divorce, abortion, homosexual relations, and the ordination of women to
the priesthood. If the Church feels herself bound by Scripture and
tradition in these other areas, it seems inconsistent for Catholics to
proclaim a "moral revolution" on the issue of capital punishment.
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. The United States bishops, in their majority statement on capital
punishment, conceded that "Catholic teaching has accepted the principle
that the State has the right to take the life of a person guilty of an
extremely serious crime." Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, in his famous
speech on the "Consistent Ethic of Life" at Fordham in 1983, stated his
concurrence with the "classical position" that the State has the right
to inflict capital punishment.
Although Cardinal Bernardin advocated what he called a "consistent ethic
of life," he made it clear that capital punishment should not be equated
with the crimes of abortion, euthanasia, and suicide. Pope John Paul II
spoke for the whole Catholic tradition when he proclaimed in
Evangelium Vitae (1995) that "the direct and voluntary killing of an
innocent human being is always gravely immoral." But he wisely included
in that statement the word "innocent." He has never said that every
criminal has a right to live nor has he denied that the State has the
right in some cases to execute the guilty.
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
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. It is appropriate, I contend, when it is necessary
to achieve the purposes of punishment and when it does not have
disproportionate evil effects. I say "necessary" because I am of the
opinion that killing should be avoided if the purposes of punishment can
be obtained by bloodless means.
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
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.
There is more to be said. Thoughtful writers have contended that the
death penalty, besides being unnecessary and often futile, can also be
positively harmful. Four serious objections are commonly mentioned in
There is, first of all, a possibility that the convict may be innocent.
John Stuart Mill, in his well–known defense of capital punishment,
considers this to be the most serious objection. In responding, he
cautions that the death penalty should not be imposed except in cases
where the accused is tried by a trustworthy court and found guilty
beyond all shadow of doubt.
It is common knowledge that even when trials are conducted, biased or
kangaroo courts can often render unjust convictions. Even in the United
States, where serious efforts are made to achieve just verdicts, errors
occur, although many of them are corrected by appellate courts. Poorly
educated and penniless defendants often lack the means to procure
competent legal counsel; witnesses can be suborned or can make honest
mistakes about the facts of the case or the identities of persons;
evidence can be fabricated or suppressed; and juries can be prejudiced
or incompetent. Some "death row" convicts have been exonerated by newly
available DNA evidence. Columbia Law School has recently published a
powerful report on the percentage of reversible errors in capital
sentences from 1973 to 1995. Since it is altogether likely that some
innocent persons have been executed, this first objection is a serious
Another objection observes that the death penalty often has the effect
of whetting an inordinate appetite for revenge rather than satisfying an
authentic zeal for justice. By giving in to a perverse spirit of
vindictiveness or a morbid attraction to the gruesome, the courts
contribute to the degradation of the culture, replicating the worst
features of the Roman Empire in its period of decline.
Furthermore, critics say, capital punishment cheapens the value of life.
By giving the impression that human beings sometimes have the right to
kill, it fosters a casual attitude toward evils such as abortion,
suicide, and euthanasia. This was a major point in Cardinal Bernardin’s
speeches and articles on what he called a "consistent ethic of life."
Although this argument may have some validity, its force should not be
exaggerated. Many people who are strongly pro–life on issues such as
abortion support the death penalty, insisting that there is no
inconsistency, since the innocent and the guilty do not have the same
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
1 The statement was adopted by a vote of 145 to 31, with 41 bishops
abstaining, the highest number of abstentions ever recorded. In
addition, a number of bishops were absent from the meeting or did not
officially abstain. Thus the statement did not receive the two–thirds
majority of the entire membership then required for approval of official
statements. But no bishop rose to make the point of order.
Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., holds the Laurence J. McGinley Chair in
Religion and Society at Fordham University. This essay is adapted from a
McGinley Lecture delivered by Cardinal Dulles in New York City.
Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 112 (April 2001): 30-35.
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