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History of the Catholic Church on the Death Penalty

Traditionally, the Catholic Church has been in favor of the death penalty in some specific circumstances. However, this is a position that has changed in recent times. Currently, the teachings of the Church totally and unequivocally oppose the death penalty. In this text, I concern myself with the history of the Catholic Church on capital punishment. In so doing, I will amongst other things highlight how the position of the Church with regard to the death penalty has changed over time.

The Death Penalty: A Concise Definition

The death penalty is a form of punishment in which case a wrongdoer incurs "a more severe loss, that of life itself" (Pojman and Reiman, 1998, p. 46). This is the definition of the death penalty that will be adopted in this text. Some of the wrongdoings which were punishable by death, most particularly in the Old Testament, include bestiality, blasphemy, witchcraft, adultery, and murder.


From the onset, it is important to note that the Roman Catholic Church has according to Feinberg (2010), supported capital punishment for much of its history. It should however be noted that in the recent past, this support has largely been on the decline especially after significant changes were made in the Catechism. Indeed, despite having been a supporter of the death penalty in some specific circumstances, the Catholic Church has in recent times emerged as one of the most visible critics of this form of punishment. Before addressing the current position of the Church with regard to the death penalty, it would be prudent to offer a preview of its traditional teachings and position on the death penalty, i.e. prior to the Catechism changes.

Quite a number of proclamations in the bible seem to offer justification for capital punishment. Indeed, statements including but not limited to an "eye for an eye" as contained in Leviticus 24:18-20 have all along been seen as prescriptions for the death penalty in some specific circumstances, i.e. In those instances where an individual is accused of killing another. Indeed, as it is pointed out in Genesis 9:6, "if anyone sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed." The Church seems to have founded its position on the death penalty on this retributive point-of-view during the first four centuries. It is during this period, particularly after the Edict of Milan by Constantine, that support for capital punishment grew particularly amongst Church authorities. Centuries later, capital punishment was sanctioned by Pope Innocent III who observed that the said form of punishment was permissible as far as its execution was prudent and just. It should however be noted that the Fourth Council of the Lateran banned clerics from participating in any way in the execution of criminals. Indeed, from the very beginning, canon law forbade clerics from shedding human blood. It is for this reason that despite endorsing capital punishment in some select circumstances, the Church left the actual enforcement of the death penalty to officials of the State.

Some of those who aggressively supported or justified the death penalty in some specific cases in the Church's history include St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. Indeed, to some extent, St. Augustine's position on the death penalty informed much of the classical position of the Church on capital punishment. In his opinion, the death penalty was legit if it played a prominent role in the protection of the innocent and if it acted as a deterrent against evil deeds. According to St. Augustine, the act of taking human life was only forbidden in the fifth commandment if the life being taken was an innocent life. Prescribing capital punishment for those who had grossly wronged the society did not therefore contravene the fifth commandment in any way. Like St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas also advanced a case for the death penalty in some specific circumstances. In St. Thomas Aquinas' opinion, the death penalty was necessary when it came to the preservation and protection of the entire society. He related the said penalty to the cutting off of a decaying limb of an individual in an attempt to cater for the well-being of the said individual's entire body. He was thus convinced that the execution of a wrongdoer by the state was correct as far as it resulted in the defense of the overall society. It was Aquinas' teachings on violence and capital punishment that continued to inform the position of the Church on capital punishment up until the 20th century.

The death penalty has in the past also found the full backing of the Catechism of the Catholic Church which at first supported the said penalty based on its ability to offer retributive justice (Feinberg, 2010). For instance, the very first edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church reaffirmed not only the duty but also the right of the state to punish as well as execute felons by pointing out that "the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty" (Dinn, 2000, p. 32).

As can be deduced from the discussion above, prior to the 1970, the position of the Catholic Church with regard to the death penalty was largely clear. As Hodgkinson and Schabas (2004) observe, it was the 25-year period between 1970 and 1970 that saw the Church review its position on the death penalty. It was during and after this period that Church leaders begun to be vocal with regard to their opposition to the death penalty. There was however a minority that still chose to stick to the earlier position of the Church. Hodgkinson and Schabas (2004) refer to this latter group as the "retentionists." It should however be noted that in the recent past, the position of the Church on the issue has been largely uniform.

The Church's impetus to abandon capital punishment in the words of Fienberg (2010) "stems from Pope John Paul II's Evangelism Vitae ('the gospel/good news of life,' published in 1995) and changes made to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1997) to make it consistent with the Pope's earlier pronouncements" (p. 228). In the Evangelism Vitae, the Pope as the author further points out observes that like euthanasia and abortion, the death penalty essentially advances or fosters a death culture (Fienberg, 2010). To further steer the Church in the direction of forgiveness, Pope John Paul II lived by example, i.e. By amongst other things requesting for the pardoning of Mehmet Ali Agca - his would be assassin. It is important to note that although Pope John Paul II's clear stand on the issue helped define the position of the Church, several other factors played a prominent role in the Church's move to abandon its previous stance on the death penalty. One of these factors was the adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. According to Hodgkinson and Schabas (2004), the Encyclical Letter that Pope John XXIII issued in the year 1963 contained a list of human rights that significantly resembled those outlined in the Universal Declaration. In the words of the authors, "this linkage provides a partial explanation as to why the Catholic Church today stands so opposed to the death penalty, in quite striking contrast to its stance in earlier centuries" (Hodgkinson and Schabas, 2004, p. 126).

It should also be noted that although Pope John Paul II's Evangelism Vitae as I have already stated out elsewhere in this text is widely regarded the turning point as far as the Church's position on the death penalty is concerned, several other statements opposing the death penalty had been raised by the Church's leadership on several occasions. For instance, during mid 70s, Catholic Bishops in the U.S. adopted a resolution that essentially opposed the death penalty (Hodgkinson and Schabas, 2004). As the authors further point out, this was one of the clearest indicators at the time that some massive historical changes were in the offing. Given its previous position on the topic, this turnaround was largely unanticipated (Hodgkinson and Schabas, 2004).

Recent Catechism of the Catholic Church promotes self-defense (of society) as opposed to retribution. The Catechism in basic terms "deliberately reconceives the legitimacy of capital punishment in terms of the state's authority to defend life against the unjust aggressor rather than in terms of redressing the disorder in society caused by grave crime" (Feinberg, 2010, 228-229). It is important to note that the key point of departure between recent Catechism of the Catholic Church and earlier Catechism is the purpose of punishment. While the earlier Catechism essentially upholds and promotes the traditional teaching of the Church with regard to capital punishment, recent Catechism encourages mercy as opposed to vengeance. It is also important to note that the support for capital punishment has significantly waned amongst the Catholic faithful. For instance, according to a poll conducted in 2005,…[continue]

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