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Death Penalty: The Voice of our Popes

The Catholic response to crime and punishment has been rooted in biblically grounded convictions about good and evil, sin and redemption, justice and mercy. While many of the church fathers acknowledged the need to use force in shoring up the defenses against injustice, there was also resistance to allowing Christian believers to participate in state-sanctioned violence.


Pope Benedict XVI asserts that “the church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the state. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.” While the objectives of church and state remain distinct, we believe that our faith has an important and reasonable voice in the moral debates of our time.


Thus, the respect for the sanctity of all human life, the protection of innocent human life, the preservation of order in society and the achievement of justice through law are the end goals the Teaching office of the Catholic Church wants to pursue as always. The traditional teaching quotes:


“The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people’s rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people’s safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.


Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.







Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” (CCC 2266-67).

The church doesn’t meddle with a particular state authority in its vision and goal to seek for a more ordered society which means a place where life security of everyone is, among others, being guaranteed through implementation of stricter penal punishments inclusive of them is capital punishment.  Furthermore, being an Institution that seeks to promote more humane advocacies through fostering merciful and charitable works as inspired by its very own divine tradition, the Church will always plead for a way that is less detrimental than quick lethal injection.

In 2011 before a General audience in Rome, Pope Benedict XVI inspired everyone on the matter by saying that as part of any state’s justice system “substantive progress be made in conforming penal law both to the human dignity of prisoners and the effective maintenance of public order.”

That statement is no irrelative to the CCC 2258 & 2264 that quote:

“Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being.”56

“Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow”

Human dignity as ever must not be erased from the facets of a person’s life even if he/she erred heavily in the eyes of laws. And for the view of how Justice should be distributed by the state, that must likewise take balance between the demand for restitution to the offense made and the demand for the rehabilitation of the erring individual.

As Pope Francis quotes in his speeches:

“There’s no fitting punishment without hope!”

“Punishment for its own sake, without room for hope, is a form of torture, not of punishment,”

“In certain circumstances, when hostilities are underway, a measured reaction is necessary in order to prevent the aggressor from causing harm, and the need to neutralize the aggressor may result in his elimination; it is a case of legitimate defence (cf. Evangelium Vitae, n. 55). Nevertheless, the prerequisites of legitimate personal defence are not applicable in the social sphere without the risk of distortion. In fact, when the death penalty is applied, people are killed not for current acts of aggression, but for offences committed in the past. Moreover, it is applied to people whose capacity to cause harm is not current, but has already been neutralized, and who are deprived of their freedom. […]


For a constitutional State the death penalty represents a failure, because it obliges the State to kill in the name of justice […] Justice is never reached by killing a human being. […] The death penalty loses all legitimacy due to the defective selectivity of the criminal justice system and in the face of the possibility of judicial error. Human justice is imperfect, and the failure to recognize its fallibility can transform it into a source of injustice. With the application of capital punishment, the person sentenced is denied the possibility to make amends or to repent of the harm done; the possibility of confession, with which man expresses his inner conversion; and of contrition, the means of repentance and atonement, in order to reach the encounter with the merciful and healing love of God. Furthermore, capital punishment is a frequent practice to which totalitarian regimes and fanatical groups resort, for the extermination of political dissidents, minorities, and every individual labelled as “dangerous” or who might be perceived as a threat to their power or to the attainment of their objectives. As in the first centuries and also in the current one, the Church suffers from the application of this penalty to her new martyrs.


The death penalty is contrary to the meaning of humanitas and to divine mercy, which must be models for human justice. It entails cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, as is the anguish before the moment of execution and the terrible suspense between the issuing of the sentence and the execution of the penalty, a form of “torture” which, in the name of correct procedure, tends to last many years, and which oftentimes leads to illness and insanity on death row.”


Thus, the Church through the voice of her leader, the Pope, will always adhere to the traditional teaching of Jesus about love to neighbors.  It is in fact clear that the Church through her Bishops do speak on the Catholic faithful about common good through bloodless fight against criminality, as she, the  church as well makes a prudential application of these catholic principles to the contingent circumstances of contemporary society.





By: Terrence Gil Relucio


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