Why I’m Open to the Death Penalty


December 16, 2012 by mattfradd

Why am I open to the death penalty in theory? In a word, because the Church is.

The Church and the Death Penalty

The Church and the Death Penalty

The historical Catholic teaching on the death penalty is explained well by St. Thomas Aquinas:

“Every part is directed to the whole, as imperfect to perfect, wherefore every part exists naturally for the sake of the whole.

For this reason we see that if the health of the whole human body demands the excision of a member, because it became putrid or infectious to the other members, it would be both praiseworthy and healthful to have it cut away.

Now every individual person is related to the entire society as a part to the whole.

Therefore if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and healthful that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since “a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump.” – Summa Theologiae, II, II, q. 64, art. 2

Has the Teaching Changed?

Some people mistakenly believe that the Catholic Church changed it’s position on the death penalty when Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, wrote:

“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.

Bl. John Paul II is not here denying the State the right to have recourse to the death penalty.  Rather he is expressing his belief that the State rarely, if ever, should make use of this right.

Abortion Vs. The Death Penalty

Equating abortion with the death penalty is inaccurate.

While it is always intrinsically evil to execute the innocent (abortion); it is not always intrinsically evil to execute the guilty. If it were, we would not read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor” (2267). Emphasis mine.

As Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) explained:

“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


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.

21 thoughts on “Why I’m Open to the Death Penalty

  1. brettsalkeld says:

    All true, but what is missing is an emphasis on what a grievous crime it is to execute someone when it is not absolutely necessary. Too many Catholics are willing to take the qualifications you note above as an excuse to imagine that capital punishment in the United States, where there are other ways to protect the populace, is not an outrageous affront to justice and human dignity. You’re right that capital punishment is sometimes permissible by Catholic teaching, but we must take great care to point out that the fact that something is not intrinsically wrong does not mean that that very thing is not gravely evil when it is unjustified.

    To take another example, masturbation is intrinsically evil, and war is not. But if one hesitates for one second when asked which is a GREATER evil, masturbation or dropping the atom bomb on Hiroshima or fire-bombing Dresden, then one has completely misunderstood the categories the Church uses to discuss these issues.

    • mattfradd says:

      I appreciate your point and agree with most of what you said. I disagree with you, when you say that a Catholic is not free to hold that capital punishment could be legitimate in the United States today. I believe my quote from Ratzinger makes that clear. If you wish to prove other wise then please point me to a magisterial document supporting your position. Thanks!

      • Ryan V. says:

        The point was made that Capital punishment in the form of the death penalty is often unnecessary and the criteria “to protect the populace” can be very easily abused. There was no mention of whether or not a Catholic is free to hold a certain view of the death penalty. Also, believe it or not a position can be proven without the use of magisterial documents.

  2. Adrian B. says:

    Thanks for the post Matt, as always I appreciate the quotes, references and whatnot.

    I have had the pleasure of debating and discussing this topic with a couple friends that take your viewpoint on this issue but I think it needs a bit more nuance, feel free to disagree back =)

    Firstly, I think the language used when referring to the state act of “Capital Punishment” is a bit misleading when referring to the Church’s teaching on this.

    The word “Punishment”, at least in my understanding of its use in this context, refers to some form of justice, or at least, to attempt to make amends for wrong-doing. Punishment in this sense serves as a deterrent for others who may commit similar crimes as well as a form of payment for wrongs done such as first degree murder and what not. This payment is payed by the executed to the state who represents the individuals affected by the acts of the executed. It is precisely this interpretation of the quote from the Catechism that you draw that I disagree with. I do not think that the Church ever condones the slaughter of a human person when they are sufficiently neutralized by some form of restraint be it in a penitentiary or some other form of incarceration.

    Secondly, it would seem that what the Church really speaks of when she talks of using “Capital Punishment” is actually a means of ‘self-defense’. This would be the case when no means of neutralization of threat to innocent lives are available. An example of this at the micro level would be a cop who is confronted with a criminal who has a gun or some other direct and immediate threat to himself/herself or some other innocent person. The cop would be well in his or her rights, and within the teaching of the Church, to use lethal force to protect themselves or others as there would be no time or means to safely otherwise neutralize the threat. Extending this to society at large, regarding “Capital Punishment”, the ‘self’ in this case would be society itself. If the society had no means of neutralizing a threat (aka no form of incarceration) then the Church would say it is permissible to use lethal force on that individual to protect society from harm. It is this understanding that I believe the Church intends to say that it is not a moral evil as the act itself is intended to protect innocent from the harms of evil opposed to inflicting harm for the sake of reparation or justice.

    Finally, in the event the above does not really make a lot of sense, I want to draw you back to Aquinas and John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor. I cannot recall the reference off the top of my head, Aquinas speaks of an act being changed entirely by the circumstances or the intention behind it. This is further echoed by Blessed Pope John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor. For example the act of ‘murder’, which is intrinsically evil and a moral abhorition, is defined as intentionally killing of another human being. There is no way to commit ‘murder’ accidentally. If you accidentally ‘kill’ someone, the act is not considered murder as such as the intent is not there. From a legal standpoint this is true as well as from the Church’s point of view. Most industrialized nations have laws that reflect this distinction. However, the same act of ‘killing’ can become something not-illegal, and morally permissible (not a moral good), when it is done to protect innocent life. In this circumstance the act of ‘killing’ is not even being done at all, the killing becomes the ‘double-effect’ of the act of ‘protecting the innocent’. Another example of this would be the act of performing a life-saving hysterectomy on a pregnant mother. This operation is done to save the mother’s life, the intent is to save a life not kill one. The unfortunate circumstance of that act results in the death of the baby contained within the removed womb. Some people call this an abortion but the Church would say that it was not as an abortion is an act to remove and kill a baby. In the life-saving surgery example, the act done is not an abortion but the death of a baby does occur because of the life-saving operation.

    In conclusion, I do not think that the Church would ever condone “capital punishment” but rather “self-defense” where the “self” is society itself. A reminder that the Catechism, though it is an authority on Church teaching, has its summaries written by fallible humans just like you and I. They use the same fallible language and the same fallible reason that we all do. Arguments from authority itself are philosophically among the weakest.


    • mattfradd says:

      Adrian. I agree with everything you said except for your desire to redefine capital punishment to mean something else. I think the death penalty can be a just punishment and that Catholics have the liberty to disagree on this issue. If you want to say more than that then I’d invite you to point me to a magisterial document which supports your position. Thanks brother.

      • Adrian B. says:

        Hey Matt,

        I accept your invitation and will dedicate a portion of my Christmas break to providing you with some research on this. I will correct your reiteration of my point of a ‘desire to redefine capital punishment to mean something else’. Studies on language shows an ambiguity of meanings in just about any case and this is no exception. A person from North America will most likely connect “death row” to “Capital Punishment”. This certainly is not the case universally.

        Secondly, while you are maintaining the ‘liberty to disagree on this issue’ I again do not think it simple enough to say that is the case either. What if sometime in the near future, practising Catholics are in a position of deciding whether or not to execute someone and they are divided? As Catholics we don’t believe in relativity but rather objective morals. Something is right, wrong or morally neutral. Something like Capital Punishment, I would contend, does not fall into morally neutral, so the question is: is it good or evil?

        Anyway, I’ll get back to you with something better researched and organized later this month.


      • mattfradd says:

        Thanks Adrian, I look forward to it.

        I’m afraid I don’t understand your first paragraph. I thought you were asserting that when the Church uses the term “capital punishment” she means “self-defense.” That is what I was taking issue with.

        In response to your second argument I restate the words of Ratzinger, written 9 years after Evangelium Vitae:

        “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.”

        In case things have gotten blurry, let me restate my argument. The Catholic Church is open to the possibility of capital punishment. I am a Catholic. Therefore I am open to the possibility of capital punishment.

        In order to refute my position (since it’s clear I’m a Catholic) you’d have to prove that the Church is not open to the possibility of Capital punishment.


      • Adrian B. says:

        Hi Matt,

        The site will not allow me to reply to your most recent comment so I had to create a new thread.

        Allow me to clarify my paragraph that was unclear (I agree that it was hard to see what I was trying to say).

        You are right in your understanding of my assertion that the Church means “self-defense” (or defense of innocent) when She uses the words “capital punishment” or even the “death penalty”. A reminder that I am stating that the “self” in this instance is society itself which is a nice fancy word that represents all individuals within a particular community. The defense part refers to the repelling of an immediate threat to the self or that of innocent lives by any means necessary which may include lethal force. So you understand my thesis correctly except when you say that I am attempting to redefine something. I am only stating, or at least attempting to, the Church’s teaching clearly.

        Secondly, what I was attempting to say with my “ambiguous language paragraph” is that what the Catechism says about the death penalty (or what we are using as a synonym, capital punishment) is not clearly defined nor are the specific details or circumstances in which it would be permissible. The same is true in your article; nowhere in your article do you define precisely what capital punishment is nor do you outline the circumstances in which it is permissible. Finally, your supporting quotes from Ratzinger, as well as that of John Paul II, also do not directly affirm your own assertion that the Church upholds capital punishment in the understanding that you are alluding to.

        Thirdly, above you outlined that I need to prove that the Church is not open to capital punishment to refute your position. I think you are right here and I will do my best to provide evidence to this effect. However, I want to add something further beforehand to the debate.

        Without intention of attempting to sound flippant or needlessly argumentative, I do not think that you have provided sufficient evidence to support your own position that the Church supports capital punishment in the way that you have defined it. Here is how I understand capital punishment that the Church endorses from what I have read in your article:

        The Church is open to killing people, in extremely rare and unclear circumstances, as a form of just punishment for a gravely evil act (or many gravely evil acts).

        At no point in your article do you provide any specific examples (I have yet to see one anywhere honestly) nor do you attempt to make a distinction between the criminal justice system in developed nations and that of developing nations. This lack of distinction allows your average reader (North American I would presume) to conclude that in some cases they are just in wanting the death penalty in their own country (Texas comes to mind). But this leaves so many open questions for the honest, Catholic, inquiring mind:

        1) When are we just in demanding the death penalty? (or capital punishment)
        2) When are we unjust in demanding the death penalty?
        3) What acts warrant such a penalty?
        4) Who decides to execute a criminal? The President? The governor? The mayor? The family of the victims? Society at large through a plebiscite?
        5) When do we execute someone? (today? tomorrow? next week? next year?)
        6) How do we execute them? (lethal injection? firing squad? hanging?)

        Before I continue elaborating my position let me pause here and explain to you my concerns first. This may help elucidate the perspective from which I am writing.

        You are in a position of authority and many people read your work as a credible source of on Church teaching (and rightly so). As an authority on Church teaching, your information needs to be absolutely clear and completely in line with the Church (which I’m sure you and your organization are well aware of). This topic may seem to be, at first, nothing more than a matter of opinion among brethren of the faith. I would contend that many people will misinterpret Church teaching on this subject from the way your article presents it above.

        Now, that the introduction is out of the way, let me attempt to provide a compelling case for my view on the Church’s teaching on this subject.


        Let me begin by restating my thesis: when the Church speaks of using capital punishment (or death penalty–synonym) She is in fact speaking of self-defense or defense of the innocent through any means necessary which includes lethal force if necessary.

        The Church is not speaking of a ‘punishment’ as I have above defined: the execution of an aggressor who may or may not have been rendered inert (ex: death row in Texas) with the intent of seeking some form of reparation for the crimes or evil acts committed by that inert individual. This act, under the moral code of the Church, would in fact be classified as murder if the individual is no longer in a position to cause harm to any innocent persons and the lethal force placed on them has no protective motif but rather has an attempt to exact revenge (or what some may call justice). Such an act is not a moral good nor does our Mother Church condone this (Matthew 5: 39, CCC 2264 part 2 on necessary force)

        Now, let me provide for you some arguments which include more than a priori reasoning.

        Section 2263 of the Catechism, which is the one that defines what legitimate defense is:

        The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. “The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor…. the one is intended, the other is not”

        This section of the Catechism demonstrates exactly my point that capital punishment (or the death penalty) is self defense or defense of others only. This paragraph introduces the section called “Legitimate Defense” in the Catechism under which the brief section on the death penalty is found. The above definition of legitimate defense shows exactly what I spoke of above where the act of self defense (or defense of innocent) is not an exception to the law of “thou shalt not kill” but rather is a legitimate act, and a duty for those who care for innocent people (CCC 2265). The double effect of the act of defending the self or the other may be the death of the aggressor. You may not, under any circumstance, intend to murder another person but their death may be the result of your act to attempt to save yourself or the other (CCC 2264). The two acts may result in the same thing (a dead person) but the acts themselves are different: one is murder, the other is self preservation or to save another.

        Secondly, the section of the Catechism on the death penalty (again, synonym for capital punishment) does not define itself explicitly in the manner you above alluded to but rather as I have defined it. It reads as follows:

        2267 The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor. “If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person. “Today, in fact, given the means at the State’s disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender ‘today … are very rare, if not practically non-existent.'[John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56.]

        If you examine the words “…recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.” I honestly cannot think of any situation in which there are no other ways to defend human lives from an aggressor without killing them except in circumstances in which the threat is immediate (the cop example in my first essay) or when a permanent and reliable means of neutralization are not available (ex: psychopath on the loose with a few other people who survived a plane crash on a deserted island).

        I challenge you to find a circumstance in which a self-defense or defense of others clause is not present and lethal force is permissible. If you succeed in this, I will assent to your interpretation.

        In conclusion, I believe that my arguments have sufficiently proved that the Church does not support your definition of capital punishment but rather supports a self-defense (or defense of innocent) under any means necessary, up to and including lethal force. I have also provided magisterial examples (The Catechism for ease of access) to meet your first criteria for refuting your position.

        Cheers, ball is in your court!

        Merry Christmas!

  3. Gerald McGrane says:

    Matt, I love your work and you are right, the Church does leave room for the death penalty. But that room is tiny. Brett is right, there is no reason for the death penalty in the U.S, it is not necessary to protect the populace. We have tendency to think of capital punishment as justice, but if we are honest with ourselves it’s really about vengeance.

    • mattfradd says:

      I do think that capital punishment can be a just punishment. And I think you “poison the well” when you assume that those who are for capital punishment are primarily concerned with taking revenge. Thanks for joining the discussion.

      • Gerald McGrane says:

        You are correct. My comment regarding vengeance was unfairly broad.

        Consider the following,however: Was the execution of Saddam Hussein at the hands of the Shi’ite controlled government an act of protection or revenge? I think we could fairly say both. Also consider that the death penalty is always brought up in the aftermath of the most heinous murders. Why? Any discussion of the death penalty needs to acknowledge that not everyone’s intentions are so pure.

  4. Raff says:

    Just a quick thought – at which point does the opportunity for forgiveness leave along the gradient from being innocent to being guilty worthy of death? I’m having trouble seeing how the Church’s teachings on the forgiveness of sins and “thou shalt not kill” do no. contradict each other.

    • mattfradd says:

      Putting to death a person who is a grave threat to society due to a corrupt prison system (to give one example), is not in conflict with forgiving that person. The Church’s teaching simply recognizes that for the good of the State lethal force can be a legitimate option.

  5. I don’t exactly understand Matt the aim of your post. The Church, like Adrian and others said, insists on the fact that death penalty must be an “absolute necessity”, “the only possible way of effectively defending human lives” while you insist on its relevance.
    Maybe you wanted to tell people that Church teaching was always the same over ages. I know the teaching of the church on death penalty, but I’m cautious when I talk about it and I do so only when people asks.
    I think this post may create some confusion, and tends to justify death penalty in U.S.A., while I believe death penalty must be erradicated of our countries, for the same reason, like John Paul II said, that “such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent”.
    Executing a dangerous criminal “in action” (if neutralizing, hurting or desarming him is impossible or unsufficient), to prevent innocent’s death is the only case I can see today (at least in our countries) that follows this rule.
    Everything else, like Raff raised it, would be contrary to the teaching of the Church on mercy and on the value of life.

    • I though understand that abortion and euthanasy are worse (in a sense), and that in electoral campaign, it must first influence our choice.

    • mattfradd says:

      The point is simple and was stated in my opening sentence. Because the Church is open to capital punishment, so am I.

      Because Ratzinger can say, “There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty.” I can agree with him.

  6. Emma Fradd says:

    Capital Punishment. what comes to mind is electric chairs and lethal injections.
    Neither of which are to stop a CURRENT crisis, but rather one that has passed. Therefore, this isn’t self defense, this is just, “Punishment”
    Isn’t this the opposite of Mercy?
    I know that you have a quote from the Pope, but perhaps the translation of “capital Punishment” got lost from the Latin, because this doesn’t sound like what the Catholic church i know, would stand for.
    Love ya

  7. I think it’s misusing Benedict XVI’s words to say that Catholic Church is open to death punishment. Pope John Paul II was clear in his encyclical (which is an official teaching and not only pope’s “belief”) that death penalty must be used only in case of absolute necessity. What Benedict XVI says is that we may as catholics disagree on the extent of that right and still be in communion with the church. But not for abortion and euthanasia.

    I still don’t understand the aim of this post. You’re saying, in some sense, that you have the right to disagree with the pope on the subject (I use the same words of BXVI that you cited). Why is it important that, with the fame that you have, to tell people on a very popular blog that you’re OPEN to death penalty, while the church is VERY cautious on the subject?

    What I regret of that post is that, although it clarifies some aspects of the question, it is unclear and vague about your own position and even the position of the church.

    I think that on that subject we must stick to CCC 2267 and Evangelium vitae n°56.

    With all my respect.

    • mattfradd says:

      Thanks, Alex. I think where your argument falters is when you assume that everything written within a Papal encyclical is one big “ex cathedra” statement. It is not. The Pope *was* expressing his opinion. One that should be respected and taken into account, due to his office at the time.

      Furthermore, if this was an ex cathedra statement as you assume (and it is clearly not), then you wouldn’t have the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith saying:

      “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. . . . it may still be permissible to . . . have recourse to capital punishment.”

      Futhermore, you need to realize that the Catechism does not give added wait to particular doctrine(s) and does not teach anything that had not been taught prior to it’s publication, as Ratzinger says explicitly in Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

      “The individual doctrine which the Catechism presents receive no other weight than that which they already possess. The weight of the Catechism itself lies in the whole. Since it transmits what the Church teaches, whoever rejects it as a whole separates himself beyond question from the faith and teaching of the Church [pp. 25-27].”

      The possibility of capital punishment has been a consistant teaching of the Church.

      Take for instance the catechism of the council of Trent, which, under the 5th commandment differentiates between capital punishment and killing by self defense.

      Here’s what it has to say regarding capital punishment:

      “Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder. The end of the Commandment­ is the preservation and security of human life. Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing outrage and violence. Hence these words of David: In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land, that I might cut off all the workers of iniquity from the city of the Lord.”

      You ask what the point of my post was? I made that explicitly clear in the firs line! “Why am I open to the death penalty in theory? In a word, because the Church is.”

      Thanks for your comment, Alex.

      • Thanks Matt, I learned much through your last message. I admit I really thought an encyclical had “ex cathedra” value. Same thing for every CCC article.
        I don’t know why I’m still a bit uncomfortable with all this developpement.
        When is a statement in an encyclical an opinion, and when is it not? Humanae vitae for instance? Are Humanae vitae and the rest of Evangelium vitae the opinion of their authors?
        What would you say about your position on the subject? Do you agree with John Paul II. And if not, why?

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