December 16, 2012 by mattfradd
Why am I open to the death penalty in theory? In a word, because the Church is.
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
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.