Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of Congress in Washington Sept. 24, 2015. The pope strongly spoke against the death penalty in the address. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The Church and the death penalty

Originally Appeared in : 9916-8/1/19

The United States Department of Justice’s Office of Public Affairs announced the following on July 25, 2019: “Attorney General William P. Barr has directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to adopt a proposed Addendum to the Federal Execution Protocol—clearing the way for the federal government to resume capital punishment after a nearly two decade lapse, and bringing justice to victims of the most horrific crimes.  The Attorney General has further directed the Acting Director of the BOP, Hugh Hurwitz, to schedule the executions of five death-row inmates convicted of murdering, and in some cases torturing and raping, the most vulnerable in our society—children and the elderly.”


Pope Francis ordered a revision of Paragraph 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding the death penalty or capital punishment. The Vatican’s English translation of the revised paragraph reads as follows: “Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good. Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even [by that person] after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption. Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”


This revision strengthens the Church’s official teaching that has been increasingly favorable to the abolition of the death penalty in countries or states where it is still inflicted.


The following is a close analysis of the three iterations of Paragraph 2267, from my point of view as the original English translator of the Catechism of the Catholic Church published in 1992 (now out of print). I proposed this translation of Paragraph 2267 into English in 1991: “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 human lives can be defended against aggressors and the public order and the safety of persons protected without bloodshed, the authorities are obliged to do so because such measures are more proportionate to the actual conditions of the common good and more appropriate to the dignity of the human person.” The bottom line here is that if capital punishment is not the only possible way of defending human lives from unjust aggressors, then the civil authorities are obliged to avoid bloodshed, that is to use only “unbloody” means in order to defend human lives and protect their safety.


In 1995, Pope Saint John Paul II ordered a reworking of Paragraph 2267 in 1995, in light of his Encyclical Letter, Evangelium Vitae, the “Gospel of Life.” The first sentence of the paragraph remained intact (“Assuming….). The second was revised slightly: “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 with the dignity of the human person.” But a third sentence was added, including a significant quote from Evangelium Vitae: “Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offence incapable of doing harm — without definitively 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 non-existent’.” In essence, this revised paragraph implies that in any functioning state with secure prisons, the absolute necessity of executing an offender is non-existent. Only in failed states unable to protect its citizens from murderers would such a rare necessity arise.
Pope Francis’ revision of Paragraph 2267 of the Catechism follows the trajectory of thought of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who called for the abolition of the death penalty where it still exists, to its logical conclusion.  The reader will note that Pope Francis has replaced the second edition’s description of “cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically non-existent’” with the phrase non posse admitti, literally “cannot be admitted” (“inadmissible” in the Vatican translation).


Although the crimes of the five brutal murderers of children and elders who are scheduled to be executed soon by the Federal government are as heinous as can be imagined, the official teaching of the Catholic Church is that their executions are not an absolute necessity, because the U.S. Penitentiary at Terre Haute, Indiana, is the most secure in the nation, and that their executions will, therefore, be morally inadmissible. Killing these killers cannot defend those already dead. And in the famous words of Sister Helen Prejean, “Killing people to show that killing people is wrong—is wrong.”


Father Douglas K. Clark is the retired pastor of Saint Matthew Church, Statesboro and state chaplain of the Knights of Columbus.

Go to top