Cardinal Avery Dulles on the Morality of the Death Penalty

Catholicism & Capital Punishment
Among the major nations of the Western world, the United States is singular in still having the death penalty. After a five-year moratorium, from 1972 to 1977, capital punishment was reinstated in the United States courts. 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.
By Avery Cardinal Dulles, First Things —

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”?

While sociological and legal questions inevitably impinge upon any such reflection, I am here addressing the subject as a theologian. At this level the question has to be answered primarily in terms of revelation, as it comes to us through Scripture and tradition, interpreted with the guidance of the ecclesiastical magisterium.

In the Old Testament the Mosaic Law specifies no less than thirty-six capital offenses calling for execution by stoning, burning, decapitation, or strangulation. Included in the list are idolatry, magic, blasphemy, violation of the sabbath, murder, adultery, bestiality, pederasty, and incest. The death penalty was considered especially fitting as a punishment for murder since in his covenant with Noah God had laid down the principle, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in His own image” (Genesis 9:6). In many cases God is portrayed as deservedly punishing culprits with death, as happened to Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Numbers 16). In other cases individuals such as Daniel and Mordecai are God’s agents in bringing a just death upon guilty persons.

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).

The early Christians evidently had nothing against the death penalty. They approve of the divine punishment meted out to Ananias and Sapphira when they are rebuked by Peter for their fraudulent action (Acts 5:1-11). The Letter to the Hebrews makes an argument from the fact that “a man who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy at the testimony of two or three witnesses” (10:28). Paul repeatedly refers to the connection between sin and death. He writes to the Romans, with an apparent reference to the death penalty, that the magistrate who holds authority “does not bear the sword in vain; for he is the servant of God to execute His wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). No passage in the New Testament disapproves of the death penalty.

Turning to Christian tradition, we may note that the Fathers and Doctors of the Church are virtually unanimous in their support for capital punishment, even though some of them such as St. Ambrose exhort members of the clergy not to . . . (continue reading)



  1. C Crino

    As the family member of a murder victim, allow me to weigh in:We are the people who proponents of the death penalty usually say they are speaking and fighting for. We need the 'closure' – the knowledge that just punishment is exacted for the harm and pain we have suffered.Unless you have cleaned up the site of your own sibling's murder, you can't know how horrible it is. The one thing that kept clanging in my head, as I did this, was "Another death would just be another death." I couldn't believe,for a while, that my own philosophical convictions about the evil of the death penalty were standing up to trying to pack up her things, and finding more bits of blood and gore as I did so. Yet, they did, and were strengthened. I attribute this to the grace of God. Because cleaning up that unholy mess, while trying to wrap my head around the unspeakable loss, is not a time to form a political position. It was, however, the time to realize that God does not desire our deaths – not at the hands of each other, not for any reason.The second argument I have against the death penalty is its failure as a deterrent. My sister was murdered in Texas, which obviously is the state with the most executions under its belt in these last years. I can't believe that my sister's murderer thought, "Gee, I could get the death penalty for this" as he brutally stabbed her to death. He wasn't crazy. He was sane and he did it anyway. If the death penalty is a deterrent at all, it should be so in Texas. Yet, obviously, if it was a deterrent, my sister would still be living.I can't say that I have really forgiven him. Forgivenss is a long, tough road. Every Lent, I work through it again, trying to reach out in my heart to push through the anger. Maybe some day I will know that consolation.But in the meantime, I have put a great deal of energy into trying to tell others what it feels like from this side of the experience. I am not alone. There are two groups in the United States, with thousands of members – Murder Victim Familiies for Reconciliation and Murder Victim Families for Human Rights.I do take great consolation in knowing that I belong to a church that knows that all human beings, regardless of what they have done, are worthy of the respect and dignity of being allowed to live. When you have seen someone deprived of this right in such a brutal way, you know that this is true to your bones.

  2. atquicur

    Capital punishment should open the field for mercy, and as the offense of murder is a violation of the common peace as well as the deprival of life and of a loved one to the survivors of the victim. A system of capital punishment should do three things:1) Assure against all reasonable errors in conviction and execution; 2) Preserve the victim's kin from the reasonable temptations to do vengeance which would widen the injury to the common peace; and3) Once convicted, place the killer's life within the mercy of the victim's kin to save, if they choose — so that the mysteries of mercy may be given a space to work.

  3. Stanley

    Much of the current angst against the death penalty follows the 1960's and the reign of John Paul II. Liberalism/Progressivsm continues to flow from that decade and much jurisprudence has adopted Euro-Socialist attitudes.John Paul was a Catholic priest during Nazi German occupation followed swiftly thereafter by Soviet Stalinist occupation. Both these regimes used the death penalty arbitrarily, capriciously, whimsically and unjustly as instruments of state terror. This undoubtedly left an indelible, scourging brand on the future Pope. Under these circumstances, I would be against the death penalty too.Justice Antonin Scalia of the U.S. Supreme Court has correctly noted that the death penalty is still valid under Church Canon Law.The Cathechism also notes this fact and then quickly says it shouldn't be implemented in modern society. Historically, the Church has always accepted the death penalty as a valid punishment for those justly condemned. That is a fact and the 1960's cannot revise history.What irks me is that many priests and the nefariously liberal USCCB preach aboltion of the death penalty in all circumstances as if it were dogma. It isn't nor can it be because that would infer that the Church during previous 1930 years, or so, were in error regarding the death penalty.

  4. muerk

    I think that as long as we have a secure penal system where people convicted of crimes which could carry the death penalty can be held safely, we should avoid executing them. This gives the offender time to repent and save their souls whilst posing no threat to the wider society.This sends a message that life, even the life of someone who has done monstrous things, is worth something. And that no matter the sin, redemption can be found.

  5. crazylikeknoxes

    C Crino. Well said. You have a credibility that comes from experience.I think the death penalty, like so many things, might be permissible, but it does not follow that it is either useful or beneficial or necessary. Cf. I Cor. 6:12.I think we also lose sight of the fact that one's soul is more important than one's life. I recently read about a bishop (I think an early American bishop) who intervened in the case of three men condemned to die. Two of the men made their peace with God and were executed. The third man refused and the bishop was so distressed about the possible loss of the man's soul that they didn't execute him. That may sound a little odd, but the principle is evidenced in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, where the murderer Bernardine is spared execution for the sake of his soul: "A creature unprepar’d, unmeet for death; And to transport him in the mind he is Were damnable" (IV.iii.67-69).

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