Evolution or Revolution? The Call to Abolish the Death Penalty

Blog No Comments

When Pope Francis recently declared that the death penalty is “inadmissible” for consideration in any criminal case, some of us actively involved in the anti-death penalty movement were intrigued by the initial responses from many of our Catholic friends and casual supporters of abolition. The directive which allegedly “changed” Catholic Church teaching on the issue of capital punishment was characterized by some as primarily a warning to other countries who actively practice executions for them to end their barbaric, wanton use of the death penalty.  Upon closer examination, however, the “new” teaching concerning the use of the death penalty must be seen as a call directed as much to Catholics living in the United States as it is to those living in other, more “barbaric” countries. There are a number of reasons that the Catholic community at large must understand the history and significance of the Pope’s declaration, which is now part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), #2267. That section of the catechism now will read:

“Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.

Consequently, the church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

Worldwide, it should be noted by definition, includes right here in the United States. Perhaps some Catholics are not aware that the death penalty is currently authorized for use in 31 states. Although there has been support in recent years by death penalty abolitionists to successfully mitigate and even end the use of the death penalty in some states, it remains an option for consideration for judges and juries in criminal cases in most states, primarily for the crime of murder.  Although the number of executions carried out nationwide has decreased in recent years, some states have recently renewed their desire to execute many more of those on death row, and with greater frequency.

Why is this all of this important for Catholics to be aware of, and how should it affect our viewpoint and opinion on the use of the death penalty?  More importantly, perhaps, is the question of what this change in teaching means for all Catholics and how it needs to inform our deeply held, core belief in the value and dignity of all life, from conception to natural death.

In consideration of Pope Francis’ effort to raise our awareness of the importance of the renewed Catholic teaching on the death penalty, here are some practical considerations regarding the change that he made, how this change occurred, and what it should mean for all of us.

The first consideration is that the new teaching concerning the death penalty should heighten our awareness of certain biblical references and how they are improperly used to support the death penalty.  Many Christian supporters of the death penalty quote biblical passages such as “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and a life for a life” as biblical support for the death penalty. Even judges and prosecutors in criminal cases refer to this particular passage as justification for a sentence of death. Biblical scholars, however, many of them Catholic, have written that these scriptural verses must be read in the entire context in which they are written, and with a more informed knowledge of biblical law and tradition.  The biblical phrase noted above was written at a time intended to actually limit revenge; at a time when vigilante justice was the norm, and because victims of crime were left helpless after the fact.  The phrase was actually a call for the restoration of victims to be made whole, and not at all retributive.

The renewed teaching also provides for a more thorough understanding of the true value of and dignity of all life. Historically, the value and dignity of life in Christian doctrine was primarily focused on the protection of innocent life, and far less on the life of a murderer who may have taken an innocent life.  In fact, the CCC (#2267), until this change, allowed for the imposition of the death penalty, but only under the most restrictive condition, “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor….. If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the…… common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.”

It is important to note here that the issue of the death penalty in Catholic teaching has evolved consistently over time. From the days when St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in support of the death penalty (although he wavered on his position for his entire life) to Pope Francis’ latest policy change, the death penalty issue has consistently moved over time to where we now stand today.  The church doctrine noted above that accepted the death penalty if it was “the only practical way” to defend lives, left an opening that some Catholics took as license to support capital punishment in many cases. But many Catholics are not aware that modern debate on the death penalty in the Church actually started in the 1980’s, and has worked its way to where we are today through continued evolution and development concerning the dignity and value of human life. The Catechism’s paragraph on capital punishment had been updated by St. John Paul II in 1997 to strengthen its skepticism about the need to use the death penalty in the modern world and, particularly, to affirm the importance of protecting all human life. St. John Paul, retired Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis had all spoken out against capital punishment and appealed for clemency for death-row inmates on numerous occasions. Along with this line, John Paul II affirmed: “Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this.” More recently, Pope Francis specifically requested this change to the Catechism in October 2017, during a speech at the Vatican commemorating the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul’s II promulgation noted above. The death penalty, no matter how it is carried out, “is, in itself, contrary to the Gospel, because a decision is voluntarily made to suppress a human life, which is always sacred in the eyes of the Creator and of whom, in the last analysis, only God can be the true judge and guarantor.”


With this new provision, there can no longer be a bright-line distinction made between the protections of life for those who are guilty of a crime as compared to those who are innocent. Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said, “The new text, following in the footsteps of the teaching of John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae, affirms that ending the life of a criminal as punishment for a crime is inadmissible because it attacks the dignity of the person, a dignity that is not lost even after having committed the most serious crimes.” This perspective attempts to remove our own reliance on vengeance for justice and removes allowance for “prudential judgment” based primarily on our personal feelings regarding the heinousness/seriousness/dangerousness of the crime and criminal to justify the death penalty.

As a result of this renewed call to recognize the dignity of all life, all Catholic Justices, judges, governors, lawmakers and prosecutors should dispense their duties in conformity with the Catechism on the issue of the death penalty.  Leaders in our Church, as well as in our government, are all now held to a higher level of accountability because of this important declaration, and should recognize how this change can help us to be more cognizant and supportive not only for the explicit protection of the lives of the unborn; our government will now be held accountable on all “right-to-life” issues. But our elected and appointed leaders are not to be left alone in tackling this issue. All Catholics need to consider their own views and need to support governmental leaders who respect all life without distinction.  This teaching is a call for all Catholics who might be “on the fence” on right-to-life issues to greater accountability. Practically speaking, this renewed teaching is designed to restore, and unify all Catholics on all right-to-life issues rather than leaving room for fragmentation through the use of loopholes and special conditions. Church communities can now stand strong and in unity. If we are called to be a witness to the truth, we can do so as we stand together, empowered through our vehement objection to the death penalty. Acceptance of and reflection on of this teaching can therefore actually serve as a catalyst to strengthen and intensify our worldwide call to end abortion and euthanasia as well.

Another benefit of this renewed teaching is that it allows for a renewed focus on the surviving victims family members, for the purposes of offering restoration rather than merely for demanding retribution. The Hebrew and Christion Scriptures are full of references for the need to bring healing and comfort to victims of injustice.  For too long, the death penalty has been used by politicians and criminal justice practitioners as a platform for “victim’s rights” and to call for the use of the death penalty as justice for victims.  Citizen groups such as Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation have emerged and have made public disclosures standing in opposition to the use of the death penalty. One of their founding principles is that having a death penalty does not bring “closure” to family members such as themselves who have been victimized by murder. In fact, they claim that in most cases, having the death penalty on the table in their own specific cases actually created more pain for them and delayed the healing and emotional restoration that they needed.  Catholic leaders need to unify and strengthen their desire to create a healing environment for victims to achieve true justice and to not exacerbate the pain and suffering that victims have already suffered, through the continued calls for execution of offenders. Pope Francis wrote a letter in 2015 to the International Commission Against the Death Penalty, and characterized capital punishment as “cruel, inhumane and degrading” and said it “does not bring justice to the victims, but only foments revenge.”

Many Catholics are directly involved in prison ministry to incarcerated offenders, as well as specifically ministering to death row inmates awaiting execution in those states that have a death penalty. The renewed teaching against the use of the death penalty in all cases now provides spiritual and emotional relief for prisoners under a sentence of death, as well as providing their prison chaplain spiritual advisors with firm conviction to emphatically support that inmates lives have true value and meaning in spite of what crime they might have committed. Many death row inmates have been subjected to cruel treatment by correctional staff who have attempted to convince inmates not only that their lives are not worth living, but that they simply need to resign themselves to the “truth” that their death sentence is a sign that God wishes for them to be executed for the crimes that they committed. Catholic chaplains around the world are now provided with church teaching that affirms their dignity and places value on their lives.

In closing, where does all of this leave us, as Catholics, today?  Some will most certainly defy the Pope’s declaration as being out of touch with the will of the people and claim that this issue is and should remain under governmental authority that should not be disturbed by the Church.  Such declarations are now more clearly inconsistent with Church teaching. Of the new formulation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Cardinal Ladaria, said it “desires to give energy to a movement toward a decisive commitment to favor a mentality that recognizes the dignity of every human life and, in respectful dialogue with civil authorities, to encourage the creation of conditions that allow for the elimination of the death penalty where it is still in effect.”

Sadly, it remains in effect right here in the United States. The question is, armed with this renewed call to respect all life, what will we do to change this?

George F. Kain, Ph.D. is Police Commissioner, Town of Ridgefield, CT, is Professor and Chairman, Division of Justice and Law Administration Program at Western CT State University.  He has worked for the last 20 years to abolish the death penalty by serving as President of the CT Network to Abolish the Death Penalty, and testifying in various state legislature around the US to continue abolition. He also serves as a volunteer consultant with the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops in Tallahassee FL, working to abolish the death penalty there. He is presently in the Diaconate Formation program for the Diocese of Bridgeport and a Parishioner at St. Mary, Ridgefield, where he is involved in ministries including Lector, Eucharistic Minister, Cantor, Knights of Columbus, weekly Men’s Ministry, Disciples for Life Parish retreat team, Homebound Eucharistic Minister for the sick.