Traditional Catholic Church Magisterial Teaching Has Not Been Changed
The Church Cannot Reverse Past Teaching on the Death Penalty. Crisis Magazine. 09/08/2016.
Why the Death Penalty Is Still Necessary. Catholic World Report.
The Catholic Church and Capital Punishment. Dr. Raphael T. Waters. Catholic Family News.
Capital Punishment: Drawing The Line Between Doctrine and Opinion. Dr. Jeff Mirus, Catholic Culture.
God’s Justice and Ours. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. First Things. 2002.
“Even when it concerns the execution of a man condemned to death, the state
does not dispose of the individual’s right to live. It is reserved then to the public power to deprive the
condemned man of the benefit of life, in expiation of his fault, when already, by his crime, he has
dispossessed himself of the right to life.” – Pope Pius XII
BACKGROUND TO THE CHANGES
The Death Penalty Vote: 1980 Conference of Bishops
Objections to the practice have come from many quarters, including the American Catholic bishops, who have rather consistently opposed the death penalty. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1980 published a predominantly negative statement on capital punishment, approved by a majority vote of those present though not by the required two-thirds majority of the entire conference. 1 Pope John Paul II has at various times expressed his opposition to the practice, as have other Catholic leaders in Europe.
Some Catholics, going beyond the bishops and the Pope, maintain that the death penalty, like abortion and euthanasia, is a violation of the right to life and an unauthorized usurpation by human beings of God’s sole lordship over life and death. Did not the Declaration of Independence, they ask, describe the right to life as “unalienable”?
In the New Testament the right of the State to put criminals to death seems to be taken for granted. Jesus himself refrains from using violence. He rebukes his disciples for wishing to call down fire from heaven to punish the Samaritans for their lack of hospitality (Luke 9:55). Later he admonishes Peter to put his sword in the scabbard rather than resist arrest (Matthew 26:52). At no point, however, does Jesus deny that the State has authority to exact capital punishment. In his debates with the Pharisees, Jesus cites with approval the apparently harsh commandment, “He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die” (Matthew 15:4; Mark 7:10, referring to Exodus 2l:17; cf. Leviticus 20:9). When Pilate calls attention to his authority to crucify him, Jesus points out that Pilate’s power comes to him from above-that is to say, from God (John 19:11). Jesus commends the good thief on the cross next to him, who has admitted that he and his fellow thief are receiving the due reward of their deeds (Luke 23:41).
1 The statement was adopted by a vote of 145 to 31, with 41 bishops abstaining, the highest number of abstentions ever recorded. In addition, a number of bishops were absent from the meeting or did not officially abstain. Thus the statement did not receive the two-thirds majority of the entire membership then required for approval of official statements. But no bishop rose to make the point of order.
- Excerpted from “Catholicism & Capital Punishment” Avery Cardinal Dulles.
Page updated 09/11/2016.