Pope lays down challenge to US Catholics on the death penalty

The lethal injection room at San Quentin State Prison in California in 2010. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/CA Corrections

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — When Pope Francis visited the United States two years ago, he spoke out against the death penalty in speeches to Congress and the United Nations.

This week he went a step further, calling for a revision of official church teaching that would make capital punishment “inadmissible.” It was a historic shift given that the death penalty has, until now, been allowed by the church in certain circumstances. 

The death penalty, Francis explained during an important speech in the Vatican on Wednesday (Oct. 11), is “contrary to the Gospel, because it entails the willful suppression of a human life that never ceases to be sacred in the eyes of its Creator.”

With these words the pope is also reshaping what it means to be “pro-life.” He is moving it away from primarily opposing abortion and stressing that it means protecting life at every stage, from womb to natural death. 

It is in the U.S. where the pope’s words may have the most impact, given punishment by death is still legal in more than 30 states and is supported by close to half of all Catholics. According to a 2016 Pew Research poll, 43 percent of American Catholics support the death penalty, while 46 percent are opposed. And abortion remains a highly polarizing issue. 

Among those welcoming the pope’s words was Sister Helen Prejean, whose work on death row was dramatized in the Oscar-nominated film “Dead Man Walking,” with her role played by Susan Sarandon. 

“At last, a clear, uncompromising stance of moral opposition to the death penalty by the highest authority of the church,” she told America magazine

There are many more-traditional Catholics who argue forcefully in favor of the death penalty. Joseph M. Bessette and Edward Feser argue that “for extremely heinous crimes, no lesser punishment could possibly respect this Catholic principle that a punishment ought to be proportional to the offense.”

Defenders of the death penalty on religious grounds also point to the argument from St. Thomas Aquinas, the renowned church teacher, that sometimes it is permissible in order to promote the common good and keep people safe.  

According to the Catholic catechism, the death penalty is allowed if it is “the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” Yet it goes on to say that the times when the death penalty is “absolutely necessary” are “very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

In the U.S., this is a teaching that finds sympathy not only among conservatives.

A number of liberal Catholics are also uncomfortable with the idea of a church ban on capital punishment, said Massimo Faggioli, a church historian and theology professor at Villanova University. 

“The Europe-America divide on the death penalty is deeper than we think,” Faggioli told RNS. 

In reality, the pope’s ruling had been a long time coming. Both Benedict XVI and John Paul II condemned its use, although they stopped short of making any change to official teaching. 

Francis has now said the catechism should be updated to take into account his predecessors’ interventions and a “change in the awareness of the Christian people.”

In his speech Wednesday to a group of senior prelates gathered in the Vatican, who were marking 25 years since the latest version of the catechism was promulgated, he said the death penalty “is an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity.”

The church, he stressed, had made “progress” from the days when capital punishment was used by the papal states — the lands controlled by the papacy from around the eighth century until the late 19th. 

“Let us take responsibility for the past,” the pope said. “And recognize that the imposition of the death penalty was dictated by a mentality more legalistic than Christian.”

Throughout his almost five-year papacy, Francis has consistently stressed the importance of God’s mercy, and in particular how this applies to prisoners.  Twice a month, on Sunday afternoons, the pope phones inmates in an Argentine prison. And he has said that whenever he visits a prison he thinks to himself: “I, too, could be here.” 

His death penalty change is part of a wider vision calling for a justice system focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment. Or as Oscar Wilde said: “Every saint has a past, and every sinner a future.”

The changes on capital punishment might not be the only area where Francis is preparing to evolve teaching. The pope has called for a revision of just war theory, which sets out moral conditions that justify a military intervention. This ancient teaching, which has been revised and updated over the years, is not just used by the church but by many generals who see it as a useful guide on when to resort to force. 

In Rome, a senior cardinal, Peter Turkson, has called for just war teaching to be abolished and has said the pope could write an encyclical letter, a major papal document, reorienting the church’s position on the matter.

For Francis, there should be a consistent life ethic — the notion that there is a “seamless garment” to what the church says about abortion, the death penalty and nonviolence.

By revising the death penalty position, the pope apparently feels he is not merely developing doctrine but also highlighting a deeper Catholic vision of what it means to protect human life.

(Christopher Lamb is The Tablet’s Rome correspondent and a contributor to RNS)

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  • Deuteronomy 17:6 (ESV) On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness.

    If we had been doing it properly since the beginning, there wouldn’t be a lot of confusion.

  • Kill them. jail them. You don’t care. But then, you’re you. Still a fun little lollipop, triple dipped in sociopathy.
    funny how good Christians tend to be for the death penalty, and we atheists tend to be more against it.

  • I wonder what other teachings from the Jewish Bible you selectively pick and choose to follow or ignore? Unless you’re an Orthodox Jew, I’m not sure you’ve got a principled methodology going on there.

  • Actually Ben, I’m not sure if I’m for it or against it. The Lord has been working with me on this lately. He says justice is His and for everyone else, He died for their sin, should they accept Him as Lord and Saviour, I cannot understand why murderers should be seen as worse.

  • The Lord has been working with you on it? Seriously dude you sound insane. If you are hearing voices you should speak to a doctor.
    I think maybe you mean you have been reading more of an old book and basing your opinion on some old writings.

  • The death penalty is “contrary to the Gospel, because it entails the willful suppression of a human life that never ceases to be sacred in the eyes of its Creator.” Francis.

    “Every saint has a past, and every sinner a future.” Oscar Wilde.

    Both of the above are accurate and sound statements. I find it difficult to be dogmatic on the question. While Paul clearly affirms the right and responsibility of the state to administer justice via the death penalty, the biblical text does not absolutely compel it. As to the argument of Bessette and Feser that, “…for extremely heinous crimes, no lesser punishment could possibly respect this Catholic principle that a punishment ought to be proportionate to the offense.” Indeed, and such punishment shall not be found wanting at the time of individual judgment before God in the absence of repentance, but we need not hasten that event unnecessarily.

  • The pope said the catechism “should be updated.” Therefore, if he wanted to he could change the catechism which states that homosexuality is a “psychological inclination which is objectively disordered.”
    Also “liberal Catholics are uncomfortable” with ban on capital punishment? The Italian church historian Faggioli continues to be painfully ignorant of US culture and history.

  • In other words, “Christ fulfilled the law” = “You get to pick and choose which Jewish laws you’ll follow and which you’ll ignore.” I get it now.

  • no. Actually, the Jews still follow the civil and the ceremonial laws. We join them in following the moral laws, as Christ taught.

  • As a Jew, let me assure you – respectfully – that your understanding of Jewish law is a straw horse set up only to serve Christian polemic. You don’t look to Jews to interpret Christianity, right? Don’t look at what Christianity says if you want to understand Judaism and its law. Christianity has created a completely distorted and biased image of our religion which has little to do with actual Judaism or its teachings. We’re still here – we didn’t go away after your messiah came.

  • I think the death penalty is part of the Noachide Laws revealed in Gen. ch. IX, which are essentially the laws all non-Israelites should obey. Government has a duty to kill murderers: “[…] surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God made he man” (Gen. 9:5-6).

    The death penalty doesn’t deny divine grace or the Gospel. When a person is condemned to the death penalty because he has deliberately killed a person, he can still receive divine grace and absolution of his sin with regard to the World of Come, and enter eternal life through true repentance. But murder cannot be forgiven in this world.

    There are sins which can be forgiven and repaired in this world and with respect to the World to Come (e.g. lying, stealing). There are other sins which cannot be forgiven in this world, but can be forgiven with respect to the World to Come (e.g. murder). And there is a sin for which there is neither forgiveness in this world, nor in the World to Come (i.e. the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit).

    As in many other things, this Pope is badly wrong in this, and a deceiver and misleader of his flock.

  • The challenge, here, is for Pope Francis to prove his case, which he has never come close to doing.

    There is a very robust debate countering both the Church’s 20 year old anti death penalty teachings (CCC, amended 1997) and the statements by Pope Francis, both of which are contradicted by fact, reason, the Gospel and 2000 years of Catholic teachings, through today, as detailed.

    The clear factual and rational problems of the amended CCC 2267, detailed, below, are a continuing setback for Pope Francis.

    All Catholics May Support the Death Penalty

  • Francis’ statement is not, remotely sound. There are many instances whereby God has stated that taking life is licit and the Church, for 2000 years, has found the Gospel consistent with the death penalty.

    This is well known.

  • Bergoglio is contradicting Scripture, every previous pope, and every previous statement of the Magisterium. He and his partisans crow about this as a dramatic change–except when cricism is voiced. Suddenly, “The pope is changing nothing.”

    The proposition that execution of criminals is always wrong is heretical.

  • The citizens of each state decide whether or not to have a death penalty. Some have decided to ignore your biblical assertion.

  • Jim:

    You are in error.

    Every state that has used a voter referrendum, the citizens, has voted to reject ending the death penalty or has voted to expand or retain the death penalty.

    The states that have voted to end the death penalty, over the lat 30 years, has done so with a Democratic party majority in the legislature with a Democratic governor, in each case, contrary to the will of the people, as supported by the latest polls showing majority death penalty support from the citizens.

  • It may be well known, but it is not absolute. This is an area of scripture where some latitude legitimately comes into play, according both to the dictates of any given state, and the heart of any given individual.

  • You make a thoughtful and compelling argument, but I would differ in my understanding of scripture in that any sin except blasphemy of the Holy Spirit can be forgiven in the temporal realm.

  • Judaism & The Death Penalty

  • Very well said. I agree. It starts in the “New Testament” itself which completely distorts Jewish law and the Pharisees. The “New Testament” is an Early Christian polemic to prove the moral superiority of Christianity over Judaism. The Talmud makes it virtually impossible to ever execute anyone for anything. Jews don’t just follow what Christians call the “Old Testament.” They also follow the Talmud and centuries of Torah commentaries. As well as later developments that Christians aren’t aware of. Most of the ceremonial laws have to do with the Temple and will not be restored unless the Temple is rebuilt. Saving a life or saving lives supercedes all laws in Judaism.

  • Some states have the death penalty, some don’t. The voters can elect the officials to advance their viewpoint on the death penalty. The point is it not subject to religion or the Bible – it is a secular, state decision.

  • I always love to see the people who claim to be moral because religion made them so cheer on the murder of a human being by another human being. It’s only exceeded by the charm of watching them hurl the term “heretic” at other Christians for not being the right sort of Christian who claims to be moral and cheers on the murder of a human being.

  • I can only think he means that those US Catholics liberal on issues like gays and lesbians, birth control, etc., could still favor the death penalty.

  • You said “with me,” not “on me.” The former sounds like you’re doing a group project for class. The latter is a more common theological statement.

  • It is interesting to observe the evolution of Catholic teaching on the death penalty. It mirrors the increasing rejection of this form of punishment around the world.

    (These links provide information on US practice. In most Western countries the death penalty has been abolished, so the United States is an outlier in continuing to execute prisoners.)

  • Thank you Mglass. The Lord has been working with me on this for a while. I cannot understand why murder is so much worse that we need to nullify the person here without a hope of Heaven for them….

  • Well, since Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is clearly defined in scripture as unforgiveable we have no conflict in that respect. Since Christ died for all sinners and paid the price with His death for those sins, it doesn’t really matter, I suppose, eternally speaking, whether they are forgiven in this temporal realm (though my reading of scripture inclines me to that view). I would use the term consequences rather than unforgiven in that context. God is able to forgive the sin on the basis of repentance. Judicial authority may forgive the sin by the use of a pardon. More often, the offender receives forgiveness through repentance, but does not escape the consequence of those sins, which can be incarceration, fines, or execution. Karla Faye Tucker is an excellent example. She was tried for and convicted of murder in Texas with a sentence of death. In prison she embraced Christ. She then appealed to Gov. George W. Bush (also a Christian) for clemency, which he denied. The sentence was duly carried out. Ms. Tucker accepted her fate with grace. My point is that forgiveness in the spiritual sense is available in this present realm for such crimes, the consequences likely not. When the position I hold is commonly held by other Christians, I rarely resort to Chapter and verse, largely because, except in the clearest contexts, there is room for disagreement among believers. I find that to be so in this case.

  • There is one reason to end the death penalty that no has mentioned yet. Our justice system needs improvement. The death penalty is permanent and if there is mistake, it can’t be corrected.

  • Your link doesn’t work. I can say that the rabbis in the Talmud don’t repeal the death penalty, but they make it impossible to ever execute anyone ever.

  • “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” (Genesis 9:6)

    “Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death…. If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has give a person shall be given to him.” (Leviticus 24:17-20)

    “You shall not accept indemnity in place of the life of a murderer who deserves the death penalty; he must be put to death.” (Numbers 35:31)

  • “Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:3-4)

    “It is another part of the office of magistrates, that they ought forcibly to repress the waywardness of evil men, who do not willingly suffer themselves to be governed by laws, and to inflict such punishment on their offenses as God’s judgment requires; for [St. Paul] expressly declares that they are armed with the sword, not for an empty show, but that they may smite evil-doers…. This is a remarkable passage for the purpose of proving the right of the sword; for if the Lord, by arming the magistrate, has also committed to him the use of the sword, whenever he visits the guilty with death, by executing God’s vengeance, he obeys his commands. Contend then do they with God who think it unlawful to shed the blood of wicked men.” (John Calvin, COMMENTARY ON ROMANS)

  • The majority of the population in Western Europe supported the execution of Saddam Hussein. Eastern Europe has far more death penalty support.

    Every state legislature that has abolished the death penalty, in the US, over the last 20 years has done so in contradicition of their populations death penalty support.

    You are speaking of governments, not the people.

    It seems that the majority of populations of all countries may support the death penalty for some crimes, such as mass or serial murders and the rape/murders of women and children.

    Why? Justice.

  • Currently there is a debate in Israel about expanding the death penalty.

    70% of Israelis support the death penalty for terrorism, as I detailed.

  • As detailed, throughout, there is an obvious religious component, for many, both voters and legislators.

    Yes, of course, the final decision is up to a vote, which is what I detailed.

  • “The canon s also clearly teach that a heretical pope is not to be obeyed.” (Kenneth Lohr, “A Refutation of the ELCA Social Statement on the Death Penalty,” page 9, note 26)
    http:// mcadams .posc .mu .edu /pdf/ Death _Penalty _Lutheran .pdf

  • The fact that Christ died for us and forgiveness is possible on the basis of his sacrifice, doesn’t alter the fact governments in this world are called to uphold the standards of righteousness. Your example of Karia Faye Tucker perfectly illustrates my position. If Pr. Bush had granted pardon in this case, this would constitute a bad precedent resulting in many insincere acts of conversion to Christianity.

    And let us not forget that the biblical text says that God “requires” the blood of the murderer. Governments are not just permitted to kill murderers, they are required to do so.

    I don’t understand your distinction between “forgiveness” and “consequences”. If the consequence of murder is the death penalty, then clearly this excludes forgiveness. For why should a punishment be applied if the matter is forgiven? As I said, this doesn’t exclude forgiveness with respect to the World to Come. But will a truly repentant murderer ask for presidential clemency? Doing so would create the appearance that his repentance was not sincere after all, but was motivated by the desire to escape the penalty.

  • Dudley, where is your evidence that a majority of the population in Western Europe supported the execution of Saddam Hussein?

    Where is your evidence for your other statements?

    The majority of Australians oppose the death penalty. See

    Support for the death penalty in the UK has dropped below 50% See

    Support for the death penalty appears to be dropping internationally. See

    In the US, support for the death penalty declined between 1995 and 2015. See and it has dropped further since that time

    Yes, governments can be ahead of public opinion in this matter, but the trend is clear.

  • Mglass:

    It makes a big difference how the question is asked and the answers provided, as here:

    81% of Americans supported he execution of Timothy McVeigh, when, at nearly the same time, only 65% said they supported the death penalty, in general.

    Death penalty support goes way up, when looking at specific crimes, such as terrorism and child murders, as distinguished from the general question.


    UK May, 2017, 65% in UK support death penalty for terrorism and child killers, 58% for police murderers.


    Australia, June 3, 2017: I am trying to track down this poll:

    “when an equally authoritative research poll discovered that the majority of Australian citizens wish to see the death penalty brought back for terrorists, the media showed almost no interest in running with the story.”

    It’s very common for media to not present polls with higher death penalty support and for anti death penalty folks to do the same:

    See 86% death penalty support, below:


    Israel 2017 : 70% support death penalty for terrorism


    86% Death Penalty Support: Highest Ever – April 2013
    World Support Remains High
    95% of Murder Victim’s Family Members Support Death Penalty

    Majority of Western Europe supports Saddam’s Execution

    82% of those in the US favored of executing Saddam Hussein (French daily Le Monde, 12/2006{1}), also in
    Great Britain: 69%
    France: 58%
    Germany: 53%
    Spain: 51%
    Italy: 46%

    (1) The recent results of a poll conducted by Novatris/Harris for the French daily Le Monde on the death penalty shocked the editors and writers at Germany’s left-leaning SPIEGEL ONLINE (Dec. 22, 2006). When asked whether they favored the death penalty for Saddam Hussein, a majority of respondents in Germany, France and Spain responded in the affirmative.

  • You’re welcome.

    Your last source states:

    “national crises have created a political climate that heightens the risk that the death penalty will be reintroduced in a handful of abolitionist nations.”

    I think 86 countries retain the death penalty, 103 not. Yes?

    If by majority population support for the death penalty, maybe 189 might have the death penalty for some crimes.

  • I’m afraid that we will have to disagree on what the bible says and means on this point, especially with regard to the New Testament. I’m willing and happy to have that disagreement be amicable.

  • Should have the same weight as any other state (or self-important religious leader) leader when it comes to advising the US what to do.

  • There’s no question that the execution rate fluctuates. However, the trend does seem to be downwards. See

    The last execution in New Zealand was in 1957

    The last executions in Canada were in 1962

    The last executions in the UK were in 1964

    The last execution in Australia was in 1967

    The last execution in South Africa was in 1989

    The last execution in India was in 2015

    This, of course, does not mean that there isn’t controversy about the death penalty as several of the links show. However, it does reveal a striking difference between the United States and other broadly comparable countries.

  • Here, I can. Mr. Skojec has decided that I may no longer post comments on his blog . . . in contravention of his own personally-composed “Comments Policy,” but hey . . .