Is the Death Penalty Contrary to the Gospel?

November 06, 2017

On October 11, 2017, in his speech to the participants in a meeting organized by the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization, Pope Francis declared that the death penalty is “inhumane,” an attack on “personal dignity”, and even “contrary to the Gospel.” Did all the philosophers, theologians, and popes who upheld the legitimacy of the death penalty before the sovereign pontiff we have today betray the Gospel?

The Death Penalty According to Francis

“It must be clearly stated that the death penalty is an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity.  It is per se 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 and of which – ultimately – only God is the true judge and guarantor.”[1] Such were Pope Francis’s recent words for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of the New Catechism. This remark is nothing new. His speech in October 2017 was but a repetition of ideas that were extensively developed by the Sovereign Pontiff in a letter in 2015[2] that referred to two other documents from 2014.[3]

Francis believes his predecessor John Paul II already condemned the death penalty in his encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae (n. 56) and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 2267).[4] For his part, he includes in this condemnation of the death penalty the penalty of life imprisonment, which according to him is a “hidden death sentence”[5]. The recent speech given in October of 2017 did not intend to promote a revision of the 1992 New Catechism, but simply to point out that this condemnation of the death penalty ought to “find in the Catechism of the Catholic Church a more adequate and coherent treatment in the light of” this doctrine that should be “directed to the love that never ends.” If the catechism is to be revised, it should make this doctrine take a step forward in order to preserve it, and to cease “to defend arguments that now appear clearly contrary to the new understanding of Christian truth.” This position and these arguments had their moment of glory in the period before Vatican Council II, but they are now contrary to the “change in the awareness of the Christian people which rejects an attitude of complacency before a punishment deeply injurious of human dignity.”

The Pope uses four basic arguments to justify this change of awareness[6]. First of all, “human life is sacred because from its beginning, from the first moment of conception, it is the fruit of the creative action of God….Life, human life above all, belongs to God alone. Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this.” Proof of this can be found in the fact that God did not wish to punish Cain for his murder by taking away his life. From this viewpoint, the death penalty logically appears to be contrary to the fifth commandment.

Secondly, inflicting death upon a guilty person can never be a just penalty, and that for two reasons. First of all, the death penalty cannot be justified as “legitimate self-defense” on the part of society, a sort of analogy of personal legitimate self-defense; “in fact, when the death penalty is applied, people are killed not for current acts of aggression, but for offences committed in the past,” and for this reason, legitimate self-defense has no object in this case, since “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.” Nor can the death penalty be justified as an act that reestablishes the order broken by the injustice, for “justice is never reached by killing a human being.” Capital punishment “does not render justice to the victims, but rather foments revenge.”

Thirdly, the death penalty is contrary to divine mercy. “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.” Along the same lines, the death penalty also “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.”

Fourthly, “it is impossible to imagine that States today fail to employ a means other than capital punishment to protect the lives of other people from the unjust aggressor,”[7] for “there are means of effectively addressing the crime without definitively depriving criminals of the chance to reform.”[8]

Lastly, allow us to explain why life imprisonment is a “hidden” or “disguised” death sentence. The pope sees it as the death of hope: “Life imprisonment, as well as those sentences which, due to their duration, render it impossible for the condemned to plan a future in freedom, may be considered hidden death sentences, because with them the guilty party is not only deprived of his/her freedom, but insidiously deprived of hope. But, even though the criminal justice system may appropriate the guilty parties’ time, it must never take away their hope.” For this reason, “a short time ago the life sentence was taken out of the Vatican’s Criminal Code.”[9]

In short, the death penalty is seen by Pope Francis as “inadmissible” based on a double argument of authority (it is condemned by the New Catechism and by the encyclical Evangelium Vitae), and on a quadruple argument of reason: because it goes against the sacred nature of created life, because it is unjust and ineffective in reestablishing justice, because it is an obstacle to mercy, and because other means of addressing crimes suffice.

The Death Penalty According to Traditional Catholic Doctrine[10]

And yet it is an obvious fact that has always been seen as just, even in the most Christian societies, except by a number of generally modern theorists, that political authorities punish certain crimes with death. And Revelation confirms what common sense has to say. When the Decalogue forbids killing,[11] the word “unjustly” is implied. For we see that the death penalty is prescribed several times by the Old Testament.[12] On this point, the New Testament did not abolish the Old. St. Paul, when speaking of political authority, mentions the sword, instrument of death: “For he is God's minister to thee, for good. But if thou do that which is evil, fear: for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is God's minister: an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil.”[13] And in the City of God, St. Augustine comments these passages from Scripture as follows: “However, there are some exceptions made by the divine authority to its own law, that men may not be put to death. These exceptions are of two kinds, being justified either by a general law, or by a special commission granted for a time to some individual. And in this latter case, he to whom authority is delegated, and who is but the sword in the hand of him who uses it, is not himself responsible for the death he deals. And, accordingly, they who have waged war in obedience to the divine command, or in conformity with His laws, have represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government, and in this capacity have put to death wicked men.”[14]

Thus did Pope Innocent III simply defend a biblical and traditional truth when he proposed to heretics who wished to enter into the Church a profession of Faith that included, among other truths: “concerning secular power we declare that without mortal sin it is possible to exercise a judgment of blood as long as one proceeds to bring punishment not in hatred but in judgment, not incautiously but advisedly.”[15] Leo X likewise condemned Luther’s claim according to which “that heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit.”[16] Leo XIII in his condemnation of duels recognized that the public authority has the right to inflict the death penalty.[17] And Pius XII declared with the most remarkable clarity: “Even in the case of the execution of a person condemned to death, the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. The public power alone can deprive the condemned person of the good of life in expiation for his fault after he has, by his crime, despoiled himself of his right to life.”[18]

St. Thomas[19] thought it perfectly possible for the death penalty to be legitimate, even in the light of natural law, without the need of supernatural revelation. This legitimacy is the result of two principles that are both absolutely necessary. The first[20] is the necessity of the common good. Just as one can, in order to save the body, amputate a putrid member that threatens the whole, in the same way one can, for the good of all, amputate from the social body one of its individual members when he is a danger for all, if only because of the type of crime his example would permit if not sufficiently chastised. But this first principle, while sufficient for the amputation of a member of a physical body, when applied to the social body, encounters a difficulty that would reduce it to naught if there were no other principle to complete it. In the physical body, only the person is a subject of rights, and the different members of his body belong to him and have no particular rights whatsoever. If it is true that the person cannot do absolutely whatever he wants with them, this is because he shares his right with God, and it consists in using his members for their natural ends. But within this essential limit, the person remains master of all and his members master of nothing. However, in the social body, those analogically designated as “members” of the society are persons who have over themselves and their corporal lives a right that comes before the society’s right. They are not part of society in the same way that the members are part of the body that is a physical whole, for “man is not ordained to the body politic, according to all that he is and has.”[21] The good that is their life belongs, after God, first to them and not first to the State. Consequently, the right of the State cannot prevail over their personal right. Another principle, therefore, is needed[22], the principle by which a man loses his personal dignity through crime: “By sinning man departs from the order of reason, and consequently falls away from the dignity of his manhood, in so far as he is naturally free, and exists for himself, and he falls into the slavish state of the beasts, by being disposed of according as he is useful to others.”

By using his liberty to act against nature and against God, he abandons the context in which his right is authentically exercised. He therefore deserves a chastisement in the same order as the goods he is abusing. It belongs not only to God, but to human authority, to deprive him not precisely of the right to life – for this right does not depend on the authority and the criminal has already lost it by his crime – but of the good of corporal life, to which he can no longer claim a personal right. This is exactly what Pius XII said, repeating St. Thomas’ remark: “The public power alone can deprive the condemned person of the good of life in expiation for his fault after he has, by his crime, despoiled himself of his right to life.”

The doctrine of the Church, confirmed by the light of theological reason, maintains that by natural law, the public authority has the right to inflict the death penalty. This does not mean that the same natural law requires the authority to exercise this right, still less does it determine the cases in which this practice is necessary. Concretely, the death penalty will always be determined as a legislation of positive human law, civil law, and therefore subject to modifications, evolution, and limitations. It is indeed possible and it would not be illegitimate to consider that this type of penalty would not be appropriate in a given context, or even to demand that it be abolished on the level of human civil law. But it remains true that the public authority always has the right to maintain the death penalty or to return to it, if need be. And if it is appropriate to avoid employing it, it is up to this same authority to determine this appropriateness. However, those who advance their arguments for the suppression of the death penalty usually make the mistake of seeking to prove that it goes against natural law, or at least, when they do not have a very clear idea of this law (which is often the case), against what they call the dignity of the human person or the unconditional value of life. These arguments are not good. The death penalty is consistent with natural law. The positive determination of this law that is accomplished by civil law is another issue. While it is not illegitimate to demand the abolition of the death penalty, it would be false and blameworthy to do so in the name of natural law. Or in the name of the Gospel and of charity, neither of which can deny natural law.

What to Think of Francis’ Opinion?

He cannot base it on the teachings of John Paul II. John Paul II made the distinction between the legitimacy of the principle of the death penalty and the opportuneness of its application in the context of modern society. Paragraph 56 of Evangelium Vitae says: “It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

As for n. 2267 in the New Catechism (quoted in Evangelium Vitae), it simply says that “if bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.” We will not go so far as to say that John Paul II’s teaching is an entirely satisfactory echo of the Tradition of the Church. The echo is weak, for the distinction between the legitimacy of the principle and the opportuneness of the practice, although present, remains purely implicit and it is not said that the death penalty receives its legitimacy from natural law by reason of the double principle recalled by St. Thomas Aquinas. But this is simply an insufficiency, and it in no way justifies Pope Francis’ radical change of stance.

As for the four arguments of reason, in the light of the principles recalled by St. Thomas and repeated by Pius XII, they are clearly ineffective sophisms. The first reposes upon the inalienable dignity of the human person and the sacred and inviolable character of human life. It forgets that by sin, man loses his dignity and his right to life. It omits the essential distinction between ontological dignity, which is inalienable, and moral dignity, which is lost when a man makes poor use of his liberty. “Hence, although it be evil in itself to kill a man so long as he preserve his dignity, yet it may be good to kill a man who has sinned, even as it is to kill a beast. For a bad man is worse than a beast, and is more harmful, as the Philosopher states” (Polit. i, 1 and Ethic. vii, 6).[23] As for the inviolable character of human life, one must not forget that, as Pius XII recalls, by his crime, the criminal has already “despoiled himself of his right to life”.

The second argument is based on the fact that the death penalty cannot be legitimate self-defense, and cannot reestablish the order broken by the injustice. This is a confusion between the death penalty and legitimate self-defense. Any legitimate self-defense entails a death penalty, but the death penalty is not simply legitimate self-defense, in the strict sense of the reaction of a person being attacked against his attacker during an actual attack. The penalty is the chastisement deserved by the sinner. And it can be not only defensive but also preventive and dissuasive. As for justice, it consists precisely in giving to every man his due, and not only in repairing material damage. The death of a criminal does not materially repair his crime (it does not bring his victims back to life), but it does justice, for when the man who sins in harming the social order grants to his own will a good to which he has no right, he makes up for this when he is deprived of that which his will would chose on its own: “he who by sinning has exceeded in following his own will suffers something that is contrary to this will.”[24] Taking away his life thus constitutes a just reparation and it is required by the common good of the social order.

The third argument forgets that mercy consists in forgiving the fault committed, but not in taking away the penalty. Sacramental forgiveness comes with a penance, that is to say, a willingly accepted penalty. The death penalty can be just that and it can give the condemned man an opportunity to redeem himself. Examples of this sort of situation are common knowledge, beginning with that of the good thief.

The fourth argument could lead to the conclusion that the death penalty is no longer opportune, but not that it is illegitimate.

What More Can We Say?

First of all, the pope’s viewpoint represents an impious attitude towards all of the Church’s Tradition, that he accuses of having odiously betrayed the Gospel. Secondly, it seems to disregard of the gravity of sin, that makes a person lose his moral human dignity and deserve a proportionate punishment. Thirdly, it neglects the primacy of the common good of society and of the Church, a good far superior to all particular goods. Fourthly, it confuses the legitimacy of the principle with the opportuneness of the application, and thus makes the value of things depend upon the change in the awareness of the Christian people. Fifthly and lastly, it departs even from the line followed by the pope’s predecessors since Vatican Council II.

For Catholics today, it is unfortunately yet another scandal, after the attack on the moral teaching on marriage and the rehabilitation of Luther.

Fr. Jean-Michel Gleize, SSPX

[1] Francis, Address to the participants in the meeting promoted by the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization, Wednesday, October 11, 2017.

[2] Francis, Letter to the president of the International Commission against the Death Penalty, March 20, 2015 (DC #2519, p. 94-96)

[3] Francis, Letter to participants in the 19th International Congress of the International Association of Penal Law and of the 3rd Congress of the Latin American Association of Penal Law and Criminology, May 30, 2014, and

Address to the delegates of the International Association of Penal Law, Thursday, October 23, 2014.

[4] Address, October 23, 2014.

[5] Speech, October 23, 2014, and Letter, March 20, 2015.

[6] The details can be found in the Letter from March 20, 2015.

[7] Address, October 23, 2014.

[8] Letter, March 20, 2015.

[9] Address, October 23, 2014.

[10] Michel-Marie Labourdette, Cours de théologie morale, “La justice”, p. 100-105 (on 2a2ae, question 64, article 2), Toulouse, 1960-1961; Charles Journet, L’Eglise du Verbe Incarné, vol. I “La Hiérarchie apostolique”, Desclée, 1955 (2e édition revue et augmentée), p. 356-358.

[11] Exodus 20:13.

[12] Leviticus 20:2; 20:9-10; 20:27; 24:16-17.

[13] Rom. 13:4.

[14] St. Augustine, The City of God, Book I, chapter 21.

[15] Innocent III (1198-1215), Letter Ejus Exemplo to the archbishop of Tarragon, December 18, 1208, DZ 795.

[16] Leo X (1510-1522), Bull Exsurge Domine, June 15, 1520, DZ 11483.

[17] Leo XIII (1878-1903), Letter Pastoralis officii to the bishops of Germany and Austria, September 12, 1891, DZ 3272. The pope says that “clearly, divine law, both that which is known by the light of reason and that which is revealed in Sacred Scripture, strictly forbids anyone, outside of public cause, to kill or wound a man”.

[18] Pie XII (1939-1958), Address to the Congress on Histopathology, September 13, 1952, Les Enseignements Pontificaux by the monks of Solesmes, “Le corps humain”, n. 375.

[19] Summa theologica, 1a2ae, question 94, article 5, ad 2; question 100, article 8, ad 3; 2a2ae, question 64, article 2.

[20] 2a2ae, question 64, article 2, corpus.

[21] Summa theologica, 1a2ae, question 21, article 4, ad 3.

[22] 2a2ae, question 64, article 2, ad 3.

[23] 2a2ae, question 64, article 2, ad 3.

[24] 2a2ae, question 108, article 4, corpus.