Exploring Catholic justifications of capital punishment


Capital punishment, otherwise known as the death penalty, has long been an issue contested amongst Catholics. 

The Catechism definitively states that the death penalty is “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” (CCC 2267). The dignity of each human is sacred, and remains intact “even after the commission of very serious crimes.” 

In 2018, the Catechism was revised to explicitly oppose capital punishment and even commits the Church to work “with determination” to abolish the death penalty globally.

Pope Saint John Paul II vocally opposed the death penalty and called for its abolishment.

During a 1999 homily given in Missouri — a state that is famous for maintaining the death penalty — John Paul II said: “A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.” 

Just last year, Pope Francis reinforced this stance regarding the death penalty in his annual speech to Vatican ambassadors: “The death penalty cannot be employed for a purported state justice, since it does not constitute a deterrent nor render justice to victims, but only fuels the thirst for vengeance.”

Despite this overwhelming evidence that the Church unabashedly and unambiguously opposes capital punishment, there are several arguments still used to defend this archaic penalization.

In 2001, Cardinal Avery Dulles argued in “Catholicism & Capital Punishment” that the death penalty is “not in itself a violation of the right to life.” Furthermore, he argues that it is permissible by appealing to historical, outdated Church teachings. According to Dulles, the sixth commandment “thou shalt not kill” actually allows for the death penalty. He claims that the death penalty is in accordance with the natural law, such that a civil authority acts as the administrator of justice within the society. He has four major claims: rehabilitation, defense against the criminal, deterrence and retribution. 

The case for rehabilitation argues that a death sentence can move the criminal to repentance and conversion, thus allowing for reconciliation with God. However, this poses far too great of a risk that the condemned person would die without true reconciliation. It is impossible to justify actively taking the life of someone by the chance that their fear may result in a conversion. 

The case for defense against the criminal argues that capital punishment prevents the condemned person from committing any other crimes and thus protecting society from the criminal. Again, this argument takes too great of a risk: any good deed that this person may do in the future is thus negated by their death. Why should the possibility for future evil result in taking a person’s life? The case for deterrence follows similarly, that the horror of an execution would deter others from committing crimes that would result in the death penalty. To this I raise a question: why should cruelty beget less cruelty?

Finally, Dulles argues for retribution: “Guilt calls for punishment,” he says, and a grave offense calls for an equally severe punishment. He goes as far as to claim that retribution by the State is a “symbolic anticipation of God’s perfect justice.” According to the law, justice is served when people receive their due: be it God’s law or man’s law. However, mercy is an act of grace and compassion. Mercy means exercising forbearance and patience. Mercy is a withholding of punishment.

When we consider our sins, we really consider how deserving we are of damnation. But by Christ’s Passion our own punishment is withheld; we are continually offered forgiveness and redemption from a punishment that we certainly deserve. Why should we desire to act with “symbolic anticipation of God’s perfect justice” when we could act in anticipation of His perfect mercy?

Another common argument is that it is more economical to execute a criminal than it is to sentence them to life in prison. This argument, which seeks to put a monetary value on human life, is incorrect in both reality and logical ethics. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the death penalty is wasteful and inefficient in its complexity, length and finality. Placing convicts on death row is much more expensive than life imprisonment, in some cases as much as three to four times more expensive. This is due to legal costs, as most sentenced to the death penalty cannot afford their own attorney, pre-trial costs, jury selection, trial and appeals. All of these costs add up to a greater cost to taxpayers than the costs of life imprisonment.

The economical argument again fails because it is impossible and unethical to reduce human life to a dollar amount. Even if we tried to equate a human life to the cost of tax dollars, it would still be more economical to sentence convicts to life imprisonment. 

Furthermore, as John Paul II notes, our modern society has the means to protect its people from criminals by modern prisons. Thus the argument for death row over life imprisonment as a means of protecting society also fails, because secure prisons protect society from potentially dangerous criminals.

To reinforce the opening quote, the Catechism states that our human dignity “is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.” There is no way to rationalize the killing of a human person, even if they are not innocent.


  1. I admire and respect the integrity of this article. I would like to point out that historically it is an anomaly. The Catholic Church may seem to oppose the death penalty in the past 60 or so years, but in the over 1,000 year before the Church has time and again affirmed it’s validity. See this list of popes and what they had to say as they defended the death penalty, and used it themselves in the Papal States.
    All the best and God bless!

    • Thank you for your respectful comment! While I do understand that the Church’s stance on capital punishment is relatively modern, that does not make the history of her supporting the issue any reason to support it today. In regards to previous popes supporting the issue, many of them state this opinion with great nuance. I counter that not only do we not have papal states anymore, there also are many medieval practices we no longer implement in our modern Church. Some of them were quite awful; see this list of historical papal corruption!



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