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Catholic Teaching on the Death Penalty


Pope John Paul II
in his encyclical, The Gospel of Life (1995) wrote:

...the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and 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 nonexistent. (1)

In 1998, The Catechism of the Catholic Church was supplemented to quote this principle (2)

This teaching is not new. St. Augustine recognized the need for capital punishment in the 5th century, but warned against vengeance and said "our desire is rather that justice be satisfied without the taking of their lives or the maiming of their bodies in any part..." (3)

St. Thomas Aquinas defended the death penalty as a means of protecting the whole body of society in the 13th century, relating the state's roll in execution to that of a physician who "cut(s) off a decayed limb" in order to "care for the health of the whole body." However, he also proposed as a working norm that "in this life, penalties should be remedial rather than retributive." (4)

Contrary to the abilities of the penal systems of the 5th and 13th centuries, Pope John Paul II points out that we can protect the whole body of society today, and that cases warranting the death penalty now are "very rare if not practically non existent."

The Papal Commission on Justice and Peace expressed opposition to the death penalty as early as 1976. Over the last three decades, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued statements against it four different times, and the Florida Bishops six times. Nearly all European and North, Central and South American countries have abolished it, but not the United States.

In their recent statement, Confronting a Culture of Violence, the United States Catholic Bishops said:

Increasingly, our society looks to violent measures to deal with some of our most difficult social problems-- millions of abortions to address problem pregnancies, advocacy of euthanasia and assisted suicide to cope with the burdens of age and illness, and increased reliance on the death penalty to deal with crime. We are tragically turning to violence in the search for quick and easy answers to complex human problems... We are losing our respect for human life... We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing. (5)

Grant, therefore, that we may listen with open and generous hearts to every word which proceeds from the mouth of God. Thus we shall learn not only to obey the commandment not to kill human life, but also to revere life, to love it and to foster it. (6)

  1. Pope John Paul II, Encyclical, The Gospel of Life, No. 56, (1995)
  2. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2265-2267 (revised 1998).
  3. St. Augustine, Epistle 133, No. 1
  4. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 2a2ae, 66.6
  5. United States Bishops, Pastoral Statement, Confronting A Culture of Violence: A Catholic Framework for Action, (1994)
  6. The Gospel of Life, No. 51

The Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty

First World Conference on the Death Penalty
Statement of the Holy See, 2001

A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death
by the USCCB, 2005

Confronting a Culture of Violence:
A Catholic Framework for Action

by the USCCB, 1994

Opposition to the Death Penalty
by the USCCB, 1980

CALIFORNIA:


“The Gospel of Life and Capital Punishment: A Reflection Piece and Study Guide,”
by the California Catholic Conference, July 1999.

“A Witness to Life: The Catholic Church and the Death Penalty,”
by Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, May 25, 2000.

COLORADO:

“Turning Away from Violence: An Appeal by the Bishops of Colorado to End the Death Penalty,”
May 10, 2001.

“Supreme Court Ruling on Death Penalty Encouraging; Now Let’s Do More,”
by Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap.,
March 9, 2005.


CONNECTICUT

Statement on Abolition of the Death Penalty
Roman Catholic Bishops of Connecticut, January 12, 2005

FLORIDA:

“Catholic Church Teaching on the Death Penalty,”
a brochure issued by the Florida Catholic Conference, June 2002.

“Talking About the Death Penalty,”
a 13-min. video issued by the Florida Catholic Conference
and available for viewing and downloading

ILLINOIS:

“Lenten Statement on Death Penalty Moratorium,”
by Chicago Cardinal Francis George, April 19, 2000.

INDIANA:

“Talking About the Death Penalty: Facts and Considerations,”
by the Indiana Catholic Conference.

IOWA:

“Statement on the Death Penalty,”
by the Catholic Bishops of Iowa, Feb. 4, 1998.

KENTUCKY:

“Choose Life: Reflections on the Death Penalty, A pastoral letter by the Catholic Bishops of Kentucky.”

MASSACHUSETTS:

“Massachusetts Catholic Bishops’ Statement on Capital Punishment,”
Feb. 20, 2001.

“The Gospel of Life vs. the Death Penalty: Pastoral Letter on Capital Punishment,”
by Boston Archbishop Sean P. O’Malley, OFM Cap, Feb. 25, 1999.

MICHIGAN:

“Statement on the Death Penalty,”
by the Michigan Catholic Conference, March 3, 1999.

MINNESOTA:

“Letter from the Catholic Bishops of Minnesota Opposing the Death Penalty,”
Dec. 3, 2003.

NEW HAMPSHIRE:


“Letter to The Honorable David A. Welch on the House Bill 1422,”
January 10, 2006.

NEW JERSEY:

Statement in Support of S-709
December 15, 2005

“Statement of the Catholic Bishops of New Jersey on the Death Penalty,”
February 4, 2005

“Capital Punishment in New Jersey: A Statement from the State’s Catholic Bishops,”
Aug. 18, 1999.

NEW MEXICO:

“NM Bishops Support 2005 Crime/Family Restitution Program,”
Jan. 27,2005.

“New Mexico Catholic Conference Opposes Death Penalty and Calls for Prison Reform,”
Sept. 7, 1995.

NEW YORK:

Family Life/Respect Life: Abolish the Death Penalty
January 25, 2005

Testimony of the New York State Catholic Conference Regarding The Death Penalty in New York
December 15, 2004

“Death Is Not the Answer: A Reaffirmation of Opposition to Capital Punishment by the New York State Catholic Bishops,”
Feb. 15, 1994.

NORTH DAKOTA:

“Reverence for Life and the Preservation of the Common Good: A Statement from the North Dakota Catholic Conference Concerning the Death Penalty,”
Jan. 1995.

OHIO:

“Affirming Justice and Mercy: Reassessing the Death Penalty, by the Catholic Bishops of Ohio,”
June 28, 1996.

PENNSYLVANIA:

“The Death Penalty - Choose Life: A Statement on Capital Punishment,”
by the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, Feb. 2001.

“A Fresh Look at the Death Penalty,”
by Pittsburgh Bishop Donald W. Wuerl, March 22, 2005.

TEXAS:

“Statement by the Catholic Bishops of Texas on Capital Punishment,”
Oct. 1997.

“Statement by the Catholic Bishops of Texas Opposing the Execution of
the Mentally Retarded,”

1998.

WISCONSIN:

“Capital Punishment in Wisconsin: A Statement from the State’s Roman Catholic Bishops,”
June 1995.

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