The Catholic Church and Capital Punishment

It seems to me that the Catholic church here in the US has always had an uneasy relationship with capital punishment.  On the one hand are the “pro-life” teachings of the church, but within that capital punishment has never been prohibited by the church either.  And while at one time there was a pacifist strain within the Catholic church and the bishops have taught against capital punishment, feelings in the pews have been about the same as the American public in general, with a bare majority personally supporting the practice.

But last week, all four Catholic newspapers in the US ran a joint editorial saying that capital punishment should be abolished.  The Pope has already called for an abolition of the practice but the most recent catechism teaches that it is “permissible in certain cases if the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined”

My own personal take is that church has been backward on capital punishment and abortion, and if not backward, at least inconsistent.

I do not believe that the rights of a fetus should be greater than a woman and that abortion is a decision of individual conscience.  Or to put it more bluntly, if you are opposed to abortion, don’t have one.  In the case of capital punishment (and the decision to go to war as well) in some sense my finger is on the needle as the lethal injection is being delivered.  Abortion can be legal, but I have part in making the decision for any individual (unless it involves my daughter or something).

Catholics have always been careful to oppose the taking of “innocent” life, while often ignoring the innocent lives that are taken by capital punishment or by so called “just” wars.  My point here is not actually to argue the morality of capital punishment, but rather to point out the fascinating process of the church changing course and most likely later, claiming they had always taught this.  I find it interesting that a church whose founder was unjustly executed by the state has not always been opposed to capital punishment, but I guess times change, even if the teachings of the church supposedly don’t.

I found a wonderful essay by Cardinal Dulles on the history of the church and capital punishment, which I am going to quote from at length, he really does a good job of framing this whole process.  Cardinal Dulles says he is coming at the issue as a theologian and goes all the way back to the bible.

Of course the bible gives full throated assent to capital punishment.  Cardinal Dulles writes, “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.”  He finds that there is not much difference in the new testament, although he acknowledges that Jesus himself tended toward a more pacific attitude.  Some sources say that the early church was also pacifist, but Dulles disagrees, “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).”

Move on to the church fathers, Dulles again, “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.”  Augustine and Aquinas are both supporters as well.

Bringing us almost up to date, Dulles cites the support of 20th century theologians, “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.”  It is hard to imagine a more deeply rooted teaching, from the bible to 20th century theologians.  Referring to an abolitionist statement Dulles says, “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.”

And who opposed this practice that the church has wisely supported?  Secularists, of course.  Dulles again, “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. ”  Yes, the church wisely counseled killing people and nasty secularists opposed the church in her wisdom.

Now, I must say that Dulles clearly personally supports the death penalty and I realize there have been many in the Catholic and other Christian churches who would strongly disagree with Dulles, but I do think he is correct in terms of the teaching of the church as it has been over the years.  But now it seems that the ship of the church is about to change course.

Christian Gohl holds a sign during a Jan. 28, 2014, vigil outside St. Louis University College Church ahead the execution of Missouri death-row inmate Herbert Smulls of St. Louis. Smulls was executed after midnight Jan. 29. (CNS/St. Louis Review/Lisa Johnston) Image from the National Catholic Review

In a rare burst of honesty, Father Stuart Swetland, president of Donnelly College, said in a discussion on Irrelevant Radio that if the church did change its position it would be similar to the changes in slavery and torture.  He pointed out that the church originally (and biblically) condoned both practices, although he did argue that they tried to regulate and soften them before realizing that they were inherently immoral.

And as with capital punishment, the impetus for that change came mostly from outside the church.  It is my contention that, similar to the current case, it was secular society that drove the church to reconsider its moral position.  For example, my great state outlawed capital punishment over 160 years ago.  They tried it once, found it to be barbaric and did away with it.  Glad to have the Catholic Church™, Inc. finally come over to our side.

Yes, we taught the church (and therefore god?) morality, not the other way around.  The idea that we need god to hand down absolute moral rules has always been ridiculous.  His ideas, slavery, torture, killing people, are clearly immoral and finally after thousands of years the church is realizing this as well.  And in the future, I am sure, they will be preaching that god and they were on the right side of this issue all along.


This afternoon Garry Wills was on Wisconsin Public Radio talking about changes in the Catholic Church.  Like me, Wills sees the church as constantly evolving, but simply claiming otherwise.  He also sees that the church has been on the wrong side of history many times, he even compared it to Buster Keaton dodging huge boulders as they rolled downhill.  He feels that the church is able to avoid disaster because it is “guided by the holy spirit.”  I disagree, of course.  He did have a useful image, that I can agree with, that the body of the church (the people) are not exactly in synch with they hierarchy, and sometimes the hierarchy, gets back with the people to save the church.

This is an image I can work with better.  From time to time the hierarchy drives the lead car of the parade into a ditch.  The parade doesn’t always notice and keeps marching (in my view, in the direction of the rest of secular society) eventually the hierarchy commandeers another car, drives like mad to the front of the parade, and then claims to have been there the whole time.


3 thoughts on “The Catholic Church and Capital Punishment

  1. Agellius says:

    Except that “secular society” only arose, and I would argue only could have arisen, in the context of a Christian-influenced culture. There is no other “secular society” of the Euro-American type in the world, or in the history of the world, as far as I know.


  2. I would argue that Greece and Rome at various times had secular societies. China did as well. And yes, clearly Western secular society arose in a Christian atmosphere. But both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment were reactions against the church, so I guess you are right, without the church we would not have our modern secular society. 🙂


    • Agellius says:

      Greece and Rome were pagan, and China was Buddhist. Christians were persecuted in ancient Rome precisely because they were accused of being atheists, for refusing to sacrifice to the pagan gods, which the Romans blamed for various catastrophes. Socrates too was executed for impiety, for refusing to recognize the gods.

      And you are right, the Enlightenment was a reaction against the Church, and the principles of the Enlightenment could not have, and did not, come about in any other but a Christian context. The Church doesn’t reject the Enlightenment per se, but only insofar as it denies revelation, which not all of its proponents do.


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