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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
18 Mar 2003
The Death Penalty and Catholic Morality
   by J. Christopher Pryor

On January 18, 2003, Thomas Roeser, columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote an article entitled "Is the Death Penalty Moral?" In it he argued that the death penalty should be "curtailed severely." Roeser based his argument on two basic points. Firstly, like governor Ryan of Illinois, who recently exonerated all death row inmates in his state, Roeser made the claim that since many people are wrongfully imprisoned or cannot afford decent attorneys, the death penalty should be severely limited or abrogated. Secondly, Roeser made use of recent comments by Pope John Paul II, in order to argue that the nature of the death penalty, even when there is certitude of the guilt of the condemned, is in itself harsh and un-merciful. Both of these arguments, although commonly used by modern well-meaning Catholics, are without logic or merit.

Arguing for the curtailing of the death penalty, Roeser said, "One reason is that there have been proven police brutalities and modern tests of DNA that overrule other evidence. A second is that the poor are not equipped as are the wealthy to mount a vigorous defense."

If these facts put forth by Roeser are sufficient to curtail the death penalty, why would they not be sufficient to justify the immediate release of all prisoners throughout the country? The issue of whether or not the particular people arrested and punished for various crimes are in fact guilty is a matter of the effectiveness of our methods of gathering and evaluating evidence. It is not a question of whether our means of punishment are proper. It would be illogical to argue that the police should never arrest or imprison anyone because of the possibility of convicting the wrong person.

Roeser, a Catholic, then moved on to the essence of the question of the morality of the death penalty. He quoted Pope John Paul II as having said that the death penalty should only be used in "strict necessity." The Pope's personal opinion, emanating in part from the Vatican II document Dignitatis Humane, is based on the idea that man has been created and redeemed by God and therefore has an ontological dignity. According to this theory, man's dignity is so ingrained in the person that even the most violent and evil criminals posses it and, therefore, should be treated with dignity and not be put to death for their crimes.

In Evangelium Vitae Pope John Paul II wrote, "The problem [of the death penalty] must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity." The American Bishops believe in this idea so strongly that they say all sentencing should be used in order to rehabilitate criminal offenders rather than to punish them (Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Punishment, USCCB).

The idea that there should be no death penalty because of the dignity of the human person is completely new to Catholic theology. In the Old Testament, God Himself ordered Moses to tell the Israelites that they should condemn to death those who murder (Exodus, Chapter 22, 3). Also, at the words of St. Peter, God struck Anaias and Saphira dead because of their actions (Acts, ch. 5, vs 1-10). St. Thomas also gave many reasons for which the death penalty should be used when the crimes go against the public good, as is the case with murder and heresy. "They deserve not only to be severed from the Church by excommunication, but also severed from the world through death" (Summa, Pt. II-II, Q. 11, Art. 3).

The constant teaching of the Church on the death penalty has also been upheld as recently as 1952 by Pope Pius XII. (Papal Address to the First International Congress on the Histopathology of the Nervous System, September 14, 1952). The Vatican City itself had the death penalty until 1969 (

It does not appear that Our Lord or the Catholic Church place the same value on the dignity of the human person as do the American Bishops or Roeser when it comes to the death penalty. One important reason for this is that the American Bishops put all their emphasis on the ontological dignity of the human person as opposed to the operative dignity. In other words, the American Bishops believe that one is due particular treatment because of the fact that he is human and not because he operates or behaves in a moral way befitting what God expects of humans. The Church has always taught that when one commits an evil act he looses his operative dignity. This is why God could have told Moses to condemn murderers to death even though they possessed human ontological dignity. People are not rewarded or punished for what they are, but for what they do.

One last argument that Roeser made against the death penalty was, "A vitally important argument is that no matter how long it takes for execution, the death penalty may well cut off the time needed for remorse or contrition, which in the Christian sense is needed for redemption of the soul."

It appears obvious that if we were to adopt this idea as the basis for a law, no sane criminal would ever admit to converting or repenting in order that his execution would not be carried out. Another important point is that the death penalty actually fosters repentance because the criminals are often made to consider their sinful state before they "meet their Maker." This is seen many times throughout history including in the case of Timothy McVeigh who asked for the Last Sacraments from a Catholic priest just minutes before being executed even though he declared himself an agnostic the night before his death (

In his article, Thomas Roeser claimed that the death penalty should be "severely curtailed" because some people will be found guilty who are innocent and because the Pope believes that humans have a dignity so profound that even if they kill, they should not be punished by death. I do not believe these ideas can stand up to serious scrutiny. If there is a danger of wrongfully convicting a criminal, the system should be fixed, but we should not allow serious offenders to go without appropriate punishment. Instead of looking to novel ways of examining our societal problems, we should look to what the Church has always and infallibly taught both in Sacred Scripture and in Dogma. If the death penalty was just and moral enough for God and the Apostles to order its use, then it should be just and moral enough for 21st Century Americans.

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