Did the Church Change Its Teaching on the Death Penalty?


It is clear that, for the [purposes of punishment] to be achieved,the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and [the state] ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent. —Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae 56, emphasis in the original.

These words from John Paul, found also in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and echoed in various ways by modern bishops’ conferences, have left many people confused, wondering how they fit with the earlier Catholic teaching about the death penalty. St. Augustine, Pope Innocent III, St. Thomas Aquinas, Cardinal Newman, and the Catholic tradition as a whole has accepted capital punishment. Indeed, both the Old Testament (Gn 9:6) and the New Testament (Rom 13:4) seemingly endorse the death penalty. How then are we to understand John Paul’s teaching?

Some people are tempted to think it is a simple reversal or rejection of traditional Catholic teaching. To see why this is not the case, let’s consider both the traditional and contemporary Catholic teaching in greater detail.

First, it is important to remember that traditional Catholic teaching never claimed that the state must impose the death penalty. In this, the Catholic view differs from, for example, the view of Immanuel Kant. Kant held that it was a strict duty, a duty that must be discharged, to execute those guilty of capital crimes.

By contrast, St. Thomas held that the government has the responsibility to protect the common good by means of just punishments, but he does not specify that one particular crime (e.g. murder) must always and in every case be punished in one particular way (capital punishment).

Although crime and punishment must be proportionate, they can almost never be perfectly proportionate, save perhaps in financial matters. Obviously, we could not put Timothy McVeigh to death 168 times. We cannot sexually abuse the adult child molester in his youth. Even death for death for someone who has taken a single human life is not exactly proportionate, since all the details of the original killing could never be perfectly reproduced. The truth of the biblical adage "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" rests in its affirmation of the need for retributive justice, but not for a justice understood as a geometrical correspondence. Indeed, an "eye for an eye" is best understood as a principle limiting violence, as an alternative to the more severe punishment prompted by vengeance, acting violently simply as a release of emotion. Traditional Catholic teaching does not demand the death penalty for every single case of murder.

John Paul, for his part, does not deny that the state has the right to impose the death penalty. The state retains this right, even though he thinks that the state ought not to make use of this right. In a similar way, the state retains the right to draft young men into military service or to impose much higher taxes on us, but perhaps it ought not make use of these rights in contemporary circumstances.

Purposes of Punishment

It is also important also to note that John Paul retains the traditional four purposes of punishment articulated in traditional Catholic teaching:

  • Retribution
  • Defense of society
  • Deterrence
  • Rehabilitation

The first purpose in particular is important, but it is often misunderstood. Retribution is not vengeance, a discharging of frustration or anguish against the criminal by means of punishment. Properly speaking, retribution is a restoration of the order of justice that was disturbed by the criminal’s behavior. In just punishment, the criminal is deprived of a good because he is no longer worthy of it. Retribution, in John Paul’s view, is still the "primary" aim of punishment—primary in the sense that it is the necessary condition for all just punishments. If a person has done nothing wrong, if a person is innocent, then punishment should never be inflicted upon him.

Retributive justice and the dignity of the prisoner necessarily go together. In virtue of the dignity of the human person, human beings are held to higher standards of behavior than are wild animals or acts of nature. When a human being knowingly and willingly does evil, a proper response to this behavior is just punishment. Retribution requires that serious crimes are met with serious punishments, and that lighter punishments are imposed for more insignificant crimes. Murder should therefore be punished in a very sever manner, such as lifetime imprisonment, but there is no moral necessity that murder be punished by death.

A second purpose of punishment is defense of society. The state has the obligation to preserve, promote, and defend the common good of society. In order to discharge this duty, the state has the right to raise taxes and inflict punishments. In justifying the death penalty, Thomas Aquinas wrote: "if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since ‘a little leaven corrupts the whole lump’ (Summa Theologiae II-II:64:2). For Aquinas, the death penalty is similar to amputating a diseased limb to save the body or self-defense in which one person kills another to defend the innocent.

Same Reasoning, New Circumstances

John Paul reasons that if the death penalty is like amputation of a diseased limb or individual self-defense, then it should only be used a last resort—only if society cannot otherwise be defended. After all, if medication will work, it’s better than amputation. If you can defend yourself against an attacker by knocking him out, then you shouldn’t kill him. This background context makes sense of John Paul’s view that the state, "ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent."

In defending innocent life, all means short of killing should be used before killing becomes necessary. Just as violence in self-defense can be justified but should be avoided if possible, so also the death penalty may only be used if there is no other way to defend society. But there are other ways to defend society from dangerous criminals, such as imprisoning them for life, so these means should be used.

We have used the analogy of self-defense, but that analogy only goes so far. The death penalty is not individual self-defense writ large for society. The treatment of the death penalty is itself within Evangelium Vitae and the Catechism explicitly put in the context of punishment, not within the treatment of killing in self-defense. Furthermore, in private self-defense, one may not kill an attacker who has been, at least for the moment, incapacitated. If someone attacks me and I knock him out and then tie him up, I would not be justified in going a step further and killing him. But virtually all forms of capital punishment (hanging, electric chair, execution, guillotine, lethal injection) presuppose that the "aggressor" is not at the moment an aggressor. Thus, if capital punishment were simply a form of community self-defense governed by the same norms as private defense, then justified capital punishment should not be described as "rare, if not practically non-existent" but rather as "entirely non-existent." Lethal, private self-defense is not justified in cases where the aggressor is incapable of inflicting harm, but that is precisely the circumstance in which capital punishment is exercised.

Deterrence is the third purpose of punishment. Criminologists are divided about whether the death penalty deters others from committing serious crimes to a greater extent than lifelong imprisonment. However, everyone agrees that both the death penalty and lifetime imprisonment deter to some degree.

The fourth and final purpose of punishment is the rehabilitation of the criminal. Both capital punishment and lifetime imprisonment can serve this purpose. Capital punishment can help criminals reform by giving them the opportunity to prepare for death. As Samuel Johnson famously noted, "Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." Lifetime imprisonment can also provide opportunities for rehabilitation and conversion, plus it allows the fruits of repentance to become manifest. However, neither capital punishment nor lifetime imprisonment automatically causes the criminal to repent and reform, since criminals—like every other human—remain capable of free choices for or against loving God and neighbor.

Seamless Garment?

What is the relationship of the Church’s teaching on capital punishment to other life issues? Many people have spoken of the "consistent life ethic," a phrase that has a legitimate use but that has also been misused to equate the death penalty with abortion. In other words, some people have argued that opposition to the death penalty and opposition to legalized abortion are priorities of equal importance. Prior to his election as pope, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger sharply criticized this view:

Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia. ("Worthiness to Receive Communion – General Principles," July 2004)

Why should abortion and euthanasia be treated differently than warfare and capital punishment? Although all these issues concern defense of human life, the difference is that abortion and euthanasia are intrinsically evil: They are always and in themselves unjust. By contrast, warfare and capital punishment are not intrinsically evil. They may in some circumstances be justified, and people of good will might disagree about whether any particular set of circumstances is sufficient for justifying a particular war or the death penalty in a particular case. Although the consistent life ethic recognizes a connection among life issues, it need not (and in the articulation of the U.S. bishops does not) make the issue of capital punishment and the issue of abortion morally equivalent.

In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul teaches that both defense of society and retribution are necessary for the legitimate exercise of capital punishment, and neither alone suffices. This teaching does not reverse any previous Church teaching, since no previous Church teaching had addressed the question of the relationship among the various purposes of punishment in the case of the death penalty. The contemporary Catholic teaching on the death penalty is not a simple rejection of traditional Catholic teaching on the topic, but it does substantially deepen the Church’s perennial dedication to the dignity of the human person and the common good of society.


Raised in Seattle, Christopher Kaczor graduated from the Honors Program of Boston College (1992) and holds an M.M.S. (1994) and a Ph.D. (1996) from the University of Notre Dame. He did post-doctoral work in Germany at the Universität zu Köln as an Alexander von Humbolt...

This article appeared in Volume 21 Number 4.