Here’s What the Catholic Church REALLY Teaches About Capital Punishment

Father X shares the traditional doctrine:

“Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered. Let them that hate Him flee from before His face,” words taken from the Introit for this eleventh Sunday after Pentecost. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.

The great South American Jesuit missionary, Saint Peter Claver (he died in 1654)- he often spent some five consecutive hours in prayer before going out to fulfill his duties. His basic schedule, for something like forty-five years of his life, ran like this: As night fell, he slept for a short while, often three hours or so. Then from midnight to 1:00 he got up to enjoy, so he said, “the silence and peace which God granted him when all slept”.

Then either kneeling or prostrate on the ground, often with the symbols of the Passion on him- like the crown of thorns or a rope around his neck or crucifix in hand- he prayed until 6:00 in the morning. Then he went out to work.

Not surprising, like many of the saints, he had a special gift for bringing souls to God- especially those who seemed farthest away. Among them were those condemned to death by the state; those under the death penalty, the capital punishment. They became his friends, and the officials always called him in shortly before their execution. He would hear their confessions and offer Mass for them in prison. He often instructed them thus: “Brothers, to escape from this torment, there is no other remedy but to keep close to our Lord, as those suffering shipwreck cling to a plank to escape from the sea. Here, brothers, you have the true plank.”

And addressing himself to the condemned man, “Happy are you who know your last day, and happy should I be if I knew mine. It is a piece of great good fortune that death should come to us while we are in full possession of our senses and our reason is free to rest on that point on which our eternal happiness or misery depends. We must all come to it either by a shortcut or by a long way around in time, but what does it matter if the shortcut be the hard one of the gallows if it means that the way is the more certain?”

Thank you, Saint Peter Claver.

He would even encourage them to do penance in the time remaining them, and he would hand them a discipline to make this possible- a scourge- saying, “Suffer my brother, now that you can acquire merit.”

He gave them a last meal to enjoy and he wiped the sweat from their face, and he held them tenderly when they died. And then he would say a public Requiem Mass for those who died repentant. Oh Saint Peter Claver, come back, we need you again.

As many of you may be aware, yet another change has been made in the catechism of the Catholic Church; such that it appears Capital Punishment (that is, putting a criminal to death by the state for grave crimes, grave offences) is no longer permissible in the eyes of the Church, no longer moral.

The exact quote, the new change, reads this: “The Church teaches in the light of the Gospel,” underline that, we’ll address that. “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 there they’re quoting the Holy Father, “and She works with determination for its abolition.”.

Back in 2001, the Jesuit Cardinal Avery Dulles carefully surveyed the Church’s continuous teaching and the current objections to the death penalty, including those used to change the modern catechism at that time under John Paul II. This is the second change its undergone in this paragraph. He presented his findings as a Cardinal and a trained theologian. That was his job; he was a trained theologian of the Church with a great reputation, and he’s a cardinal. And he concluded, among other things, these: “The Catholic Magisterium does not and never has advocated unqualified abolition of the death penalty.”

We need to hear that again. This is from a trained theologian and cardinal of the Church, year 2001. That’s not that long ago. “The Catholic Magisterium does not and never has advocated unqualified abolition of the death penalty.”

He goes on: “In light of all this, it seems safe to conclude that the death penalty is not, in itself, a violation of the right to life. The real issue for Catholics is to determine the circumstances under which the penalty ought to be applied.”

Again, in another place, the Cardinal says this- listen to his words: “Summarizing the verdict of Scripture and tradition, we can glean some settled points of doctrine.” Again: “settled points of doctrine.”

They’re settled. It is agreed that crime deserves punishment in this life, not only in the next. We can mete out punishment in this life, this is settled doctrine. In addition, it is agreed- settled doctrine- that the state has authority to administer appropriate punishment to those judged guilty of crimes and that this punishment may, in serious cases, include the sentence of death. Thank you, Cardinal Dulles.

Notice what this trained theologian states (it is settled doctrine of the Church), in reviewing all the various arguments that were used to support these recent changes, both that under John Paul II and he’s predicting the same exact changes going on today. Okay? So the most recent change and that change then, he’s already addressed in his writings and in his speeches.

It is clear in studying these things- it is clear that a major element is regularly passed over. Why should we have a death penalty? There’s a big element that they seem to want to ignore. What is it? That this form of punishment is a fulfillment of retributive justice, retributive justice. That is, such a death is due payment- or expiation- for the crimes committed.

Listen to Cardinal Dulles. He says, “Pope Pius XII, in an important allocution to medical experts, declared that it was reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned of the benefit of life in expiation of their crimes.” In expiation of their crimes. Number one reason for the death penalty.

Cardinal Dulles goes on in another place, quoting Thomas Aquinas or using him, he says, “Thomas Aquinas held that sins call for the deprivation of some good.” Every parent knows that; kid commits a sin, you deprive them of something. Again, Thomas Aquinas held that sin calls for the deprivation of some good such as, in serious cases, the good of temporal or even eternal life. So in this world, we can take away their temporal life, and God can take away their eternal life. Thus, we have a Hell.

“By consenting to the punishment of death,” Saint Thomas says, “the wrongdoer is placed in a position to expiate his evil deeds and escape punishment in the next life.” After noting this, Saint Thomas adds that even if the malefactor is not repentant, he is benefited by the death penalty by being prevented from committing more sins, a deeper place in Hell, which is exactly what would happen to someone living in a house dedicated to vice, which is what every prison is.

“Let’s lock ‘em away in prison and hope they convert in that house of vice.”

Death, what is death? It is due punishment for sin, the original sin of Adam and Eve that we all inherit upon conception in our mother’s womb. Death is a punishment for the crime of violating the commandment of God. Death is a part of the payment due to God for grave offences. We all owe it, we all are going to pay. We did not even commit that sin.

In some forms of natural death, as we know well from our loved ones’ death, some forms of natural death are quite painful, excruciating, more painful than most executions. Does this make God cruel, inhumane? No, it shows you how bad sin really is.

I think Alan Keyes, Ambassador Alan Keyes under Reagan, expressed many of these points quite well some years ago in an interview. He’s a Catholic, a practicing Catholic. He said (very well said), “In modern society, we go about business as if death is the ultimate harm that can befall you, which it is not. The ultimate penalty is life without God. That’s Hell. We say that punishment should fit the crime, but we have forgotten that there’s a higher tribunal than ours, and sometimes we are punishing acts that are so evil that we should appeal to God’s tribunal.”

In other words, we send them to the highest court- to God’s court- for they are beyond our reach, so bad are their crimes.

He goes on to say this is after Pope John Paul II’s talks about the death penalty. He says, “The Pope hasn’t said that capital punishment is a moral evil, he said that it isn’t needed anymore. This is not a moral judgement by the Pope, but a prudential judgement, and on prudential judgement we are free as Catholics to disagree. We must be careful to take seriously the argument he Pope has made, but we are free to have another opinion.”

Thank you, Alan Keyes.

Avery Dulles adds that “Retribution by the state in using the death penalty symbolically anticipates God’s perfect justice.”

Now, as we heard with Saint Peter Claver, knowing the time of your death can actually serve as a great grace, a reason to turn back to God. Far from taking away the dignity of a person, it has the effect of making him return to his former dignity with the help of good priests, something that will not likely take place under a life sentence in prisons filled with vice, in which they just commit sin after sin and blind themselves further and further to God’s moral law.

Time and time again, the saints converted souls on the way to execution or even the gallows. I believe Saint Joseph Cafasso is called ‘the Gallows Priest’, and he has a 100% success rate of converting sinners on the way to the gallows. We rarely, if ever, hear of these saints seeking to get the condemned released. Instead, they taught them to embrace this expiation, and in some cases the saints were granted a vision, they saw the executed criminal go straight to Heaven after fully embracing their just punishment.

Doesn’t that sound familiar? “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” as our Lord said to the good thief who embraced his suffering as a just retribution for his crimes.

Now briefly, something needs to be said about the claim that the Gospel is against capital punishment. Once again I turn to this theologian, Avery Dulles, cardinal of the Church. He says, “At no point, at no point does Jesus deny that the state has authority to exact capital punishment. In His debates with the Pharisees, Jesus cites with approval the apparently harsh commandment, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die.’

When Pilate calls attention to his authority to crucify Him, Jesus points out that Pilate’s power comes to him from above, that is to say, from God.”

He goes on, “Jesus commends the good thief on the cross next to Him who has admitted that he and his fellow thief are receiving the due reward for their deeds.”

Thank you, Cardinal Dulles.

To this we might add that Gospel parable- there’s two of them, one of the marriage feast and the other of the pounds. I’ll read both quotes. From the marriage feast parable we hear this, “But when the king had heard of it, he was angry. And sending his armies, he destroyed those murderers and burnt their city.” In the parable of the pounds it says, “But as for those, my enemies, who would not have me reign over them, bring them hither and kill them before me.” This is from our Lord.

Cardinal Dulles notes that the Apostles did not object when the divine punishment was meted out to Ananias and Sapphira. They died instantly before Saint Peter when they were rebuked by him for their fraudulent action, they lied to Saint Peter.

The letter to the Hebrews makes an argument from the fact that a man who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy at the testimony of two or three witnesses. Paul does not deny this, Paul repeatedly refers to the connection between sin and death. He writes to the Romans with an apparent deference to the death penalty- apparent reference to it- that the magistrate who holds authority does not bear the sword in vain, for he is a servant of God, to execute His wrath on the wrongdoer, Romans chapter 13.

So Dulles concludes: “No passage in the entire New Testament disproves the death penalty.” No passage in the New Testament disapproves of the death penalty.

Now, although we may disagree on the application of the death penalty- maybe this person shouldn’t be put to death, we might disagree with that or agree with it- but the institution itself, as Avery Dulles rightly concluded, “is settled doctrine”. It cannot be undone, it is part of the natural law.

As if forseeing the present change in the Catechism, Cardinal Dulles concludes, “In coming to this prudential conclusion, that is, the changes we see in the modern stance of capitalism, the Magisterium is not changing the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine remains what it has been, that the state in principle has the right to impose the death penalty on persons convicted of very serious crimes.”

Finally, why is there all this fuss? Why this change? Listen to Dulles again explain the main reasons why we’re experiencing this: “The main supporters of the abolition of the death penalty have consistently,” he says, “been those who are hostile to the Church, those for whom death came to be understood as the ultimate evil, rather than as a stage on the way to eternal life, seeking to dismiss capital punishment as useless annihilation.”

In other words, it really came about out of the French Revolution. It really came on strong. Thus, Cardinal Dulles concludes that “This opposition is probably due in part to the evaporation of the sense of sin, guilt, and retributive justice, all of which are essential to biblical religion and Catholic faith. The abolition of the death penalty in formerly Christian countries may owe more to secular humanism than to deeper penetration into the Gospel.”

Again, “The abolition of the death penalty in formerly Christian countries may owe more to secular humanism than to deeper penetration into the Gospel.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.

Transcribed from the original audio by Emma Cassman

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