Pope Francis on capital punishment: a closer look
Exactly 30 years ago, during the sultry summer of 1988, I resigned from my job as a correctional officer at a maximum-security jail in Florida. I had worked there full-time for four years in order to finance my way through college. While in uniform, and as a person of faith, I wrestled with questions regarding criminal justice, the use of force, systemic racism and the death penalty. For that reason, Pope Francis’ recent revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on capital punishment definitely captured my attention.
Although I encountered persons who allegedly committed some of the worst crimes imaginable, and while I occasionally had to dodge either fists or feces thrown my way, I am sure I met people who were innocent and awaiting acquittal at trial. Even those who were probably guilty, however, revealed their humanity at times, expressing remorse for the harm they committed against others and society. Quite a few, too, shared their personal, often tragic, story: living in poverty, lacking literacy, being victims themselves of abuse. And when one of my fellow officers proclaimed during roll call that his dream job was to be an executioner, I felt uneasy—especially since this same officer had proudly boasted about his support for apartheid in South Africa at the time.
Critics of Pope Francis accuse him of going against Scripture and tradition on capital punishment, but recent scholarship suggests these sources are not as supportive of the death penalty as often supposed.
Still, like those who are now critical of the change made by Pope Francis, I had assumed capital punishment to be consonant with the Bible and Christian tradition. So, with my B.A. degree in hand, I turned in my badge and moved to graduate school to study theology and ethics, with particular attention to criminal justice issues. My experience as a correctional officer (and later as a reserve police officer) informed my studies—as well as my subsequent research and teaching as a college professor—even as the latter helped me to make sense of the questions that arose from my experience.
An observation made by the 20th-century Protestant ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr in his An Interpretation of Christian Ethics stands out as an example: “Society must punish criminals, or at least quarantine them, even if the executors of judgment are self-righteous sinners who do not realize to what degree they are involved in the sins they seek to suppress.” Indeed, a Niebuhrian “realism” about finitude and sin (not only personal and individual but social and institutional) has informed my research and teaching, making me leery of sentimental and optimistic treatments of a range of moral issues, from war and peace to bioethics and health care, but also with regard to criminal justice and capital punishment.
Critics of Pope Francis’ revision of the Catechism accuse him of going against Scripture and tradition on capital punishment. Recent scholarship on Scripture and tradition, however, suggests that these sources are not as supportive of the death penalty as often supposed. And while a number of the pope’s critics refer to Cardinal Avery Dulles’s invocation of Scripture and tradition to defend its practice, I think his understanding of the liturgy offers a helpful lens for interpreting the revised Catechism’s judgment that capital punishment is “inadmissible.”
The Hebrew Scriptures and Capital Punishment
Catholics are not fundamentalists who view the Bible as God’s literal words that are perennially true for all times and places. Instead, as the Second Vatican Council’s “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation” put it, Scripture, while inspired by God, was written by human persons during particular times and in specific places; thus, “the interpreter of Sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words.” Although biblical passages contain truths about God, the human condition and salvation, they may also reflect cultural and historical perspectives with regard to some issues: for example, the legitimacy of slavery. Hence, Scripture must be interpreted through methods that consider the original languages, with attention to different genres (poems, laws, letters, et cetera) and historical-cultural contexts and circumstances.
Catholics are not fundamentalists who view the Bible as God’s literal words that are perennially true for all times and places.
Mentions of capital punishment appear mostly in the first five books (the Pentateuch) of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is important to note that murder was not the only offense that warranted capital punishment. As E. Christian Brugger observes in his Capital Punishment and Roman Catholic Tradition, death was the penalty for more than 20 offenses in the Pentateuch, including profaning the Sabbath (Ex 31:14), striking or cursing either of one’s parents (Ex 21:15, 17; Lev 20:9), adultery (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22) and blasphemy (Lev 24:16). I hope Christians today who regard the death penalty as morally justifiable are not seeking to reintroduce this punitive practice for all or even most of these capital offenses from the Pentateuch.
Perhaps the most frequently recited saying used by supporters of the death penalty is the lex talionis, which appears three times in the Hebrew Scriptures: “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Ex 21:24–27; Lev 24:14–23; Deut 19:19–21). The phrase poetically conveys oral folk wisdom: The punishment should fit the crime. The lex talionis did not require vengeance but aimed at establishing a limit on it and preventing escalation into a blood feud, such as when Lamech boasted about making perpetrators pay seventy-fold (Gen 4:23). Also, these three passages do not actually apply a literal retribution when examples are given to illustrate the lex talionis in practice. For instance, if two men brawl and hit a pregnant woman, different penalties result depending on whether the woman dies or if she is injured but has a miscarriage: a life for a life in the first case, a monetary fine in the second (Ex 21:22–25).
Another Old Testament passage cited in support of capital punishment for a murderer is: “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind” (Gen 9:6). In contrast to this English translation, however, the Hebrew wording is unclear. It cannot be determined definitively whether it is simply descriptively saying what tends to happen to violent people or instead, as commonly assumed, prescriptively commanding capital punishment. Unlike the lists of laws elsewhere, this passage is a poetically written proverb, akin to that spoken by Jesus in the New Testament when he tells his disciple to put away his sword, “for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt 26:52). Jesus is not expressing support for capital punishment; he simply states what tends to happen to those who lead violent lives.
Also, like the above lex talionis passages, Genesis 9:6 simply refers to the shedding of a person’s blood without any reference to malicious motive or aggravating (or mitigating) circumstances. Similarly, Leviticus 24:17 and 24:21 merely stipulate that anyone “who kills a human being shall be put to death.” Elsewhere, however, nuance is added, indicating development within Scripture: “If [the killing] was not premeditated, but came about by an act of God,” then the killer may flee for safety at God’s altar; yet, if it was done “willfully” or “by treachery” then the killer shall be taken from that “altar for execution” (Ex 21:13–14; see 1 Kgs 2:28–34).
Notably, passages like Genesis 9:6 reflect how, at the time, the Hebrew people regarded blood as the source of all life, both human and animal. Blood was regarded as sacred, and this was the basis for the Hebrew prohibitions against both the eating of animal blood and the shedding of human blood. Killing a person, therefore, was an offense that demanded ceremonial compensation, a ritual in which the killer is executed for the purpose of expiation. Indeed, anthropologist René Girard argued that capital punishment in passages like Genesis 9:6 was a “mimetic reflex” or a form of sacrificial expiation to placate a God who was believed to have required such practices in order for there to be atonement between the people and God.
The corporate mentality around sin more prevalent at the time lent itself to the idea that a serious offense committed by one person could result in God’s punishment upon the entire community; therefore, some form of ritual cleansing or expiation was required to “purge” the offender and restore the purity or holiness of Israel. Execution by stoning (e.g., 1 Sam 30:6; 1 Kgs 12:18), which was the standard method at the time, was thus, according to the entry on this subject in the Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, “an action conveying a corporate obligation for removing sin from the community.” Further evidence of this mentality may be found in other passages in the Hebrew Scriptures, including Deuteronomy 17:8-13 and 19:19, each of which contain the word “purge” with respect to removing “the evil” in their midst, as well as in Leviticus 20:1-5 and 21:9 and Numbers 35:33, where “profane” is used to describe how the perpetrator and the community are polluted by the offense.
In Ezekiel 33:11, God tells the prophet, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked should turn from their ways and live.”
Although today’s defenders of capital punishment may emphasize individual responsibility for crimes committed, their assumption that the execution of a murderer is required in order to balance some cosmic scale of justice actually echoes that ancient Hebrew sacrificial worldview.
Lest we wrongly assume that the Old Testament is completely supportive of capital punishment, there are passages that instead lean against it. God shows mercy to the Bible’s first murderer, Cain, by sending him into exile and protecting him there (after Cain expresses fear that anyone who meets him might kill him), instead of having him executed (Gen 4:14–15). On this, St. John Paul II emphasized in “Evangelium Vitae,” “Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity” as one made in the image of God. Also, neither Moses nor David were executed for their capital offenses: Moses killed an Egyptian (Ex 2:1–12) and David committed adultery with Bathsheba and arranged for the death of her husband Uriah (2 Sam 11–12:25). In Ezekiel 33:11, God tells the prophet, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked should turn from their ways and live.”
It is also unclear how often the ancient Israelites actually executed offenders. After all, the Torah required at least two eyewitnesses to the offense whose testimonies had to be in complete agreement (Deut 19:15–20; Num 35:30; Deut 17:2–7). Close relatives, women, slaves or people with bad reputations were prohibited from serving as witnesses. If a witness were to be judged as giving false testimony with malicious intent, then he would instead receive the punishment that would have been administered to the defendant (Deut 10:16). In post-exilic Jewish society, the Mishnah (the record of authoritative oral interpretation of the written law of the Torah by Jewish religious leaders from about 200 B.C.E. to about 200 C.E.) required 23 judges for a capital case. By the time of Jesus, capital punishment by Jews was nearly impossible to implement, and most penalties could instead be addressed by monetary payments.
The New Testament and Capital Punishment
When passages appear to contradict each other on a moral issue, most Christians go with what the New Testament passage instructs. Likewise, if there are passages in the New Testament that appear to be in tension or problematic (again, wherever slavery, for instance, seem accepted or even approved), Christians interpret them with an eye toward what Jesus Christ taught or did, since the Gospel of John refers to him, rather than to a book, as “the Word” of God (Jn 1:1). Thus, the revised paragraph No. 2267 of the Catechism notes that the “Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel,” that the death penalty is “inadmissible.”
New Testament authors probably saw capital punishment as a given practice at the time, much like slavery, by governing authorities such as the Roman Empire. St. Paul’s warning to Christians in Rome is often quoted by defenders of capital punishment: “But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom 13:4). Their assumption is that this passage, especially with its words translated as “the sword” and “to execute,” directly refers to and endorses capital punishment. “Execute” here, however, merely refers to “carry out” or “implement.” This verse simply refers to government’s authority to use force to maintain law and order.
The passage’s historical and literary context, too, is important. Paul was not writing to Christians who wielded political authority, for at that time (between 54 C.E. and 59 C.E.) Christians were a minority group, not in positions of power. A few years earlier, in 49 C.E., a tax revolt had led to the forceful expulsion of Jews, including Christians like Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:2–3), by Emperor Claudius from Rome. After Claudius’s death in 54 C.E., the edict expelling Jews lapsed, with Jews and Christians returning to Rome during the reign of his successor, Emperor Nero. Paul was discouraging this small Christian community, which was already under some scrutiny for being subversive, from participating in another similar insurrection against Nero’s latest tax, which might provoke soldiers who accompanied toll and tax collectors to use their swords against them.
The cross should remind Christians that we all need mercy and should not be so eager to impose the death penalty on others.
A few other New Testament passages are invoked by supporters of capital punishment. Some claim that Paul recognized certain crimes as warranting the death penalty when he says in his defense before Festus, “If therefore I do wrong and have committed anything worthy of death, I refuse not to die” (Acts 25:11). Some also refer to the penitent malefactor who says about his and the other criminal’s crucifixion, in contrast to Jesus’: “And we indeed [are crucified] justly, for we receive the due reward for our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss” (Lk 23:41). However, again, at that time, these persons likely assumed that the practice of capital punishment by the Romans was a given. Indeed, no governments or political authorities at the time had abolished capital punishment, nor would doing so even have occurred to them then.
Some death penalty supporters further assert that Jesus must have believed capital punishment to be morally legitimate because of his acceptance of crucifixion. However, the cross should remind Christians that we all need mercy and should not be so eager to impose the death penalty on others. Indeed, while dying, Jesus forgives his enemies who were crucifying him (Lk 23:34). His doing so is in keeping core Gospel themes of mercy, forgiveness, love, reconciliation and peace. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs his followers to forgive those who have wronged them and to love and pray for their enemies (Mt 5:44; 6:14–15). Here Jesus explicitly mentions the lex talionis, and he says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the evildoer” (Mt 5:38–39). In this way, he does not abolish the law of the Torah but fulfills it by redirecting his followers toward its ultimate end or goal (Mt 5:17). Jesus “closed the loophole” by teaching that the lifeblood of every person, including evildoers, belongs to God and is sacred. So, too, does Pope Francis close any lingering loopholes in the Catechism about capital punishment.
Most important, the New Testament letter to the Hebrews states that Jesus “offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins” (Heb 10:12) that “abolishes” the sacrificial sin offerings of the “first covenant” (Heb 10:9). In view of this, another major 20th-century Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, asked, “Now that Jesus Christ has been nailed to the cross for the sins of the world, how can we still use the thought of expiation to establish the death penalty?” If Christians believe that animal and grain sacrifices should no longer be performed to placate God, neither should criminals be sacrificed to satisfy God’s justice.
For us Catholics, the liturgy of the Eucharist especially underscores this point. As Brugger suggests, “The re-presentation in the Eucharist of that timeless sacrifice is an august reminder of the fact that blood (human or otherwise) need no longer be spilt for the expiation of sins.” Similarly, liturgical scholar Kevin Irwin observes that Eucharistic worship offers an experience and understanding of justice that “should be the measure of the world’s and the church’s expectations” and runs counter to the “eye for an eye” retributive justice emphasized in society. The Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the papal household (under Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis), made precisely this connection in some of his Lenten homilies in 2004 and 2005.
If Christians believe that animal and grain sacrifices should no longer be performed to placate God, neither should criminals be sacrificed to satisfy God’s justice.
In his third Lenten sermon from 2005, Father Cantalamessa suggests: “The believer has another reason—Eucharistic—to oppose the death penalty. How can Christians, in certain countries, approve and rejoice over the news that a criminal has been condemned to death, when we read in the Bible: ‘Do I indeed derive any pleasure from the death of the wicked? says the Lord God. Do I not rather rejoice when he turns from his evil way that he may live?’” (Ezek 18:23). While connecting the liturgy of the Eucharist with the Ezekiel passage that circles back to the mercy that was shown to Cain in Genesis, Father Cantalamessa also brings up the Girardian “sacrificial” and “expiatory” aspects of capital punishment: “Something of the mechanism of the scapegoat is under way in every capital execution, including in those endorsed by the law.”
Echoing the letter to the Hebrews on how Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross abolishes all sacrifices, Cantalamessa proclaims: “Jesus unmasks and tears apart the mechanism of the scapegoat that canonizes violence, making himself innocent, the victim of all violence.... Christ defeated violence, not by opposing it with greater violence, but suffering it and laying bare its injustice and uselessness.”
This consideration of the liturgy would make Scripture seem more than inconclusive on the death penalty. Rather, its trajectory would appear to be against it. Reflecting on the liturgy also shifts our attention to the tradition.
Christian Tradition and Capital Punishment
Some critics of the change made by Pope Francis cite Cardinal Avery Dulles’s defense of capital punishment by the state on the basis of the church’s tradition. Yet, in an article on “The Ways We Worship,” Dulles wrote, “Liturgy, however, is recognized as a prime instance of tradition.” He also quoted Yves Congar, who affirmed that “liturgy is the privileged locus of tradition, not only from the point of view of conservation and preservation, but also from that of progress or development.” Dulles added, “Although liturgy does not coincide with the entirety of the Christian life, the whole life of the Christian should be permeated by the spirit of the liturgy.” Perhaps it is in this spirit that we should try to understand the recent developments in Catholic teaching on capital punishment.
Before doing so, though, it is important to recognize, as Brugger observes, that the tradition can be divided into three historical periods with regard to capital punishment. First, during the initial three centuries of Christianity, Christians rejected the death penalty, although they assumed the state could use it. Second, from the fourth to the 19th centuries, Christians accepted or approved of capital punishment (e.g., Aquinas). But during much of this period, a sense of the disconnect between capital punishment and the Mass was present, I reckon, in that clergy were prohibited from executing anyone, and even executioners were required to do penance after conducting an execution. Third, during the 20th and early 21st centuries, opposition to the death penalty gained traction among Christian churches, including Catholicism.
In 1967, Donald Campion, S.J., provided the entry on the death penalty for the New Catholic Encyclopedia, wherein he considered Scripture and the thinking of Aquinas but also observations from the social sciences that ancient cultures used the death penalty “not only to retaliate for murder or treason, but also to appease spirits offended by sorcery, incest, or sacrilege.” Father Campion added, presciently, “Any further Catholic thought on the topic will undoubtedly reflect a new emphasis on the notion of the inalienable rights of the human person as set forth in recent authoritative documents,” such as Pope John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical, “Pacem in Terris.”
The U.S. Catholic bishops went on record in opposition to the death penalty for the first time in 1974. A lengthier statement was issued in 1980, in which the bishops concluded that “in the conditions of contemporary American society, the legitimate purposes of punishment do not justify the imposition of the death penalty.” But the real turning point began with John Paul II’s “The Gospel of Life,” which was issued in 1995. It emphasized human dignity and the sanctity of life as contrary not only to abortion and euthanasia but also capital punishment. During John Paul II’s papacy, a new Catechism was published in 1992 and revised in 1997, wherein development in the teaching about capital punishment became more pronounced.
Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the papal household: "Christ defeated violence, not by opposing it with greater violence, but suffering it and laying bare its injustice and uselessness.”
Capital punishment is considered in the Catechism’s section dealing with the Fifth Commandment, “You shall not kill,” connected with the subsection on “legitimate defense” (Nos. 2263–2267). That the Catechism deals with the death penalty adjacent to the subsection on “legitimate defense” is significant, since that phrase is also used for other forms of lethal force in recent Catholic teaching, including just war, humanitarian intervention and personal self-defense.
In the 1992 edition, the Catechism referred to capital punishment in No. 2266, which read: “Preserving the common good of society requires rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm. For this reason, the traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty.” However, these last 10 words were omitted when the Catechism was revised in 1997—partly due to the influence of Sister Helen Prejean, whose letter about precisely this matter was delivered to the pope on Jan. 22, 1997, seven days before Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger announced that a change would be made in the Catechism to reflect recent “progress in doctrine” about the death penalty.
The 1997 Catechism refers to the death penalty only in No. 2267, which consisted of three paragraphs that permitted “recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” Because “non-lethal means are sufficient” for protecting society against such a threat, “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.” The Catechism then concluded that “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically nonexistent’.”
Pope Francis’ change to No. 2267 of the Catechism now deems that the “death penalty is inadmissible” altogether. It continues the development in teaching that was already underway on this practice. It highlights even more the “increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.” It also recognizes “the possibility of redemption” for the guilty, which capital punishment prevents.
Prior to Pope Francis’ latest revision to the Catechism, I suggested in a number of places that it might be argued that the Catholic Church, theoretically, permits the killing of an offender who poses a clear and present danger to other persons—if no other non-lethal means are available—as legitimate defense. This, however, would no longer be called capital punishment or a deathpenalty. While I agree with those who say that “what was admissible, at least in some cases, is now simply inadmissible” with regard to capital punishment, I suspect that legitimate defense remains in effect as morally justified on the part of the state.
Donning my “realist” hat again, if an inmate with a record of violent crimes is on the verge of escaping from prison and a correctional officer’s only means of stopping him is to shoot him, then that would be legitimate defense but not capital punishment or the death penalty. As with other examples of legitimate defense, the defender is forced to use lethal force by the circumstances. I do not think that such a case would be “inadmissible” because it would not be “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” A lethal injection or an electrocution, however, does intentionally attack the prisoner and his or her dignity. The prison staff administering lethal injection or electrocution is not without other means to protect society from this dangerous person.
In the end, even if legitimate defense remains a possibility, state-sanctioned executions (whether called capital punishment or the death penalty) are clearly “inadmissible” for the reasons that Pope Francis’ revised Catechism gives. I also believe that this development in church teaching regarding this practice is consonant with both Scripture and tradition, especially given what we practice in the liturgy.