Catholic and Biblical view on the Death Penalty / Capital Punishment

The Catholic Church and the Bible has always supported the legitimacy of the death penalty for extremely grave crimes. In fact, God Himself sanctioned the death penalty not only in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament as well (see Acts 5:1-11).

The Old Testament law commanded the death penalty for various acts: murder (Exodus 21:12), kidnapping (Exodus 21:16), bestiality (Exodus 22:19), adultery (Leviticus 20:10), homosexuality (Leviticus 20:13), being a false prophet (Deuteronomy 13:5), prostitution and rape (Deuteronomy 22:24), and several other crimes.

God is the One who instituted capital punishment: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man” (Genesis 9:6). Jesus would support capital punishment in some instances. Jesus also demonstrated grace when capital punishment was due (John 8:1-11). The apostle Paul definitely recognized the power of the government to institute capital punishment where appropriate (Romans 13:1-7).

In the Catholic Church, canon law has always forbidden clerics to shed human blood and therefore capital punishment has always been the work of the officials of the State and not of the Church. Even in the case of heresy, the functions of ecclesiastics were restricted invariably to ascertaining the fact of heresy. The punishment, whether capital or other, was both prescribed and inflicted by civil government. The infliction of capital punishment is not contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church, and the power of the State to visit upon culprits the penalty of death derives much authority from revelation and from the writings of theologians. The advisability of exercising that power is, of course, an affair to be determined upon other and various considerations.

St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Second Part of the Second Part, Q. 11, Art. 3: “I answer that, With regard to heretics... they deserve not only to be separated from the Church by excommunication, but also to be severed from the world by death. For it is a much graver matter to corrupt the faith which quickens the soul, than to forge money, which supports temporal life. Wherefore if forgers of money and other evil-doers are forthwith condemned to death by the secular authority, much more reason is there for heretics, as soon as they are convicted of heresy, to be not only excommunicated but even put to death.”

One of the first Popes to take a stand in favor of the death penalty was Innocent I in the year 405. In response to a query from the Bishop of Toulouse, Pope Innocent I based his position on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. He wrote:

“It must be remembered that power was granted by God [to the magistrates], and to avenge crime by the sword was permitted. He who carries out this vengeance is God’s minister (Rm 13:1-4). Why should we condemn a practice that all hold to be permitted by God? We uphold, therefore, what has been observed until now, in order not to alter the discipline and so that we may not appear to act contrary to God’s authority.” (Pope Innocent I, Epist. 6, C. 3. 8, ad Exsuperium, Episcopum Tolosanum, 20 February 405, PL 20,495)

Pope Innocent III (1161-1216) likewise taught:

“The secular power can without mortal sin carry out a sentence of death, provided it proceeds in imposing the penalty not from hatred but with judgment, not carelessly but with due solicitude.” (Pope Innocent III, Denzinger 795; 425)

Pope Pius XII (1876-1958) in more recent times also defended the legitimacy of the death penalty:

“Even in the case of the death penalty the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. Rather public authority limits itself to depriving the offender of the good of life in expiation for his guilt, after he, through his crime, deprived himself of his own right to life.” (Pope Pius XII, Address to the First International Congress of Histopathology of the Nervous System, 14 September 1952, XIV, 328)

In the Catechism of the Council of Trent (1566), it says:

“The power of life and death is permitted to certain civil magistrates because theirs is the responsibility under law to punish the guilty and protect the innocent. Far from being guilty of breaking this commandment [Thou shall not kill], such an execution of justice is precisely an act of obedience to it. For the purpose of the law is to protect and foster human life. This purpose is fulfilled when the legitimate authority of the State is exercised by taking the guilty lives of those who have taken innocent lives. In the Psalms we find a vindication of this right: “Morning by morning I will destroy all the wicked in the land, cutting off all evildoers from the city of the Lord” (Ps. 101:8).” (Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent, 1566, Part III, 5, n. 4)

How should a Christian view the death penalty? First, we must remember that (1) God has instituted capital punishment in His Word, and (2) the Church has approved of this practice; (3) therefore, it would be presumptuous of us to think that we could institute a higher standard. God has the highest standard of any being; He is perfect. This standard applies not only to us but to Himself. Therefore, He loves to an infinite degree, and He has mercy to an infinite degree. We also see that He has wrath to an infinite degree, and it is all maintained in a perfect balance.

Second, we must recognize that God has given the Church and government the authority to determine when capital punishment is due (Genesis 9:6; Romans 13:1-7). It is therefore unbiblical and heretical to claim that God opposes the death penalty in all instances or that the Church disapproves of it. Christians should never rejoice or be happy about that someone is killed when the death penalty is employed, but should rather acknowledge and be happy about that justice is being served; but at the same time, Christians must not fight against the government’s right to execute the perpetrators of the most evil of crimes.

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