Is the death penalty ever “legitimate defense”?

A well reasoned essay by Mike Lewis (Where Peter Is) on the need for Catholic assent to Church teaching on the inadmissibility of the death penalty today.

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Certain crimes are so disgusting that the death penalty seems (for me personally) the only way that justice can be done.

Well and good, but I don’t think we’re talking about personal disgust so much as Church teaching. From the citations of this article, it sounds like the only “legitimate defense” is if there are not prisons available to prevent the perpetrator from killing others. Anger toward someone’s crime isn’t enough to justify the death penalty.

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It’s not just my personal anger, but the Bible:

This is a Protestant source, and as such, cannot be looked to as a guide to Catholic teaching, at least not as a final authority (i.e., where it coincides with Catholic teaching, fine, but not otherwise). The passage from Romans cited on this page says nothing whatsoever about CP, it just speaks of state authority in general.

CP is an issue on which I am actually in agreement with the more progressive thought of the Church in our time. (There are other such issues, I’m a traditionalist, but I’m not a mindless traditionalist, I think for myself and approach each issue on its merits.) This said, I would establish “Devil’s Island”-style places of exile, as far from the rest of society as possible, and put the worst offenders there for life.

And a life sentence without parole is the “death penalty”, it just differs in duration (or maybe not, people die on Death Row all the time) and manner of death (viz. natural causes rather than execution).

One of the great things that distinguishes us as Catholics is our ability to place Scripture in its proper context without resorting to fundamentalist and personal interpretations, as your Protestant source does. Our Church, in her wisdom, recognizes that in an age without maximum security prisons, a death penalty would have made sense to protect the general populace from a killer. Where this factor is no longer an issue, the OP’s article makes sense; there is no morally justifiable use for its application.


I know that is a Protestant site, so I use it sparingly.

I still don’t think it is that JP2 or Francis have the right to abrogate verses from the Bible, as well as all pre-WW2 Catholic teachings.

According to 1911 Catholic encyclopedia, “the infliction of capital punishment is not contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church, and the power of the State to visit upon culprits the penalty of death derives much authority from revelation and from the writings of theologians”. These aren’t musings of some Victorian pedant, this has been taught since Apostolic times.

There is no conflict here. The mind of the Church is that, given the ability of states in our time to keep capital criminals safely and securely confined, and away from the rest of society, CP cannot be justified. CP is a “final resort”, as it were, but a final resort that is deemed unnecessary today. If it were not possible for states to confine capital criminals in such a way that they are no longer a danger to society, then CP would once again be licit.

Here is what Baltimore Catechism #3 says (emphasis mine):

Q. 1276. Under what circumstances may human life be lawfully taken?

A. Human life may be lawfully taken:

    1. In self-defense, when we are unjustly attacked and have no other means of saving our own lives;*
    1. In a just war, when the safety or rights of the nation require it;*
    1. By the lawful execution of a criminal, fairly tried and found guilty of a crime punishable by death when the preservation of law and order and the good of the community require such execution.*

The Church in our time says that conditions never rise to such a level.

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I can honestly say that I never gave much thought to the use of CP. I always thought it was deemed a justifiable punishment for a certain type of crime. And I’m sure it was viewed as a good deterrent as well. Maybe more so before the turn of the 20th century, where the sentence was carried out swiftly and prisoners were not kept on “death row” for decades.

I don’t find a strong case for the use of the death penalty as a means for measuring civility in our society today. In other words, I don’t view it as cruel and usual or as a form of punishment that is unbiblical or contrary to the views of the Church.

I’m not always comfortable with labeling decisions, such as those made by Pope Francis, as coming from “the Church”. Did he act based on a consensus of the clergy who, by majority, all agreed with him? Or was it merely his view on the matter that moved him to act?

Decisions such as these can be based on a pope’s individual views on what they believe is best for the faithful. Paul VI acted similarly when he issued Humanae vitae, which was not a popular choice given the direction the Church was moving during those times.

I guess time will tell what effect, if any, this will have on the faithful as a whole.

No, the Vatican is not a democracy, a concept that can be hard for us red-blooded Americans to accept (not sure if you’re American). The Pope holds Magisterial authority, i.e. authority to speak for the Church universal. That doesn’t mean you’re going to be comfortable with everything he says - our Church seemingly asks the impossible of us with all of its many complex and sometimes uncomfortable teachings. But Church teaching is Church teaching.

According to 1911 Catholic encyclopedia

@BlueKumul I’m familiar with this non-Magisterial source authored by a lay Catholic. Let’s take a look at what it also says:

The advisabilty of exercising that power is, of course, an affair to be determined upon other and various considerations.

At this point, the Vatican ahs weighed these considerations and deemed the death penalty inadmissible.

It is an excellent deterrent, however, that alone cannot be a justification for the death penalty. The end does not justify the means. If CP is performed under legitimate circumstances, yes, potential criminals will see others executed and think “hey, I don’t want to end up like that guy”, but intimidating people into avoiding capital crimes because they think they will die cannot be a reason for inflicting CP.

And you could also have the criminal who wants to die, for whatever reason. Even though it’s not CP, there is such a thing as “suicide by cop”, when someone who wants to end their life will do something that will provoke a police officer to shoot them.

My impression is that the Vatican is adapting to the “zeitgeist” which advocates being “humane” and soft on crime.

If you’ll forgive me one nitpick, I can’t even go that far.

Compare the states with the highest murder rate . . .

To the states with the death penalty in active use . . .

Only three states on that first list, (the three lowest ranking), do NOT have the death penalty. If it’s such a deterrent, shouldn’t their murder rates be almost nil, rather than the highest in the nation?

There may be other factors in play, besides death penalty (deterrent) and no death penalty (ergo not a deterrent). The seven states with the highest murder rates are all Southern states with large African American populations, and black-on-black murder (let me be at pains to say it tends to be young black males) is far more prevalent than any other types of murder in the US. This is not racism, it is just statistics, attested to by no less an authority than the US Department of Justice:

I live in a heavily African American region, and you see it on the local TV news almost every day, like clockwork, one young black male has shot another young black male. It’s a tragedy.

I’ve heard the death penalty leads more people to repentance as they prepare for a scheduled execution, rather than living their life out in the midst of prison gangs, fully immersed in criminal culture.

There may be something to that, but I’d think that if a deterrent works, it works regardless of race. :woman_shrugging: Out of curiosity, have you read Dead Man Walking or seen the movie?

I have not. I’m really not all that big of a movie person, and the book wouldn’t have been of interest to me. I was a big movie buff at one time, but one’s tastes change.

I said it was an excellent deterrent, and perhaps it is, if a person is thinking clearly and plotting out a cold, calculated murder. I have to think that many of the “ghetto murders” in my area are the result of a devil’s brew of drugs, alcohol, money, wounded pride (getting “dissed”), and possibly even sexual passion (a man caught another man with his woman), a combination of any of the above, and one thing leads to another in very short order. Still, though, the young man has the gun with him, so he’s probably predisposed to do something. I don’t know, but I do know there are areas of town one is best advised to avoid at night, especially on the weekends.

To be fair, “heat of the moment” murders also take place in pockets of white poverty, such as southern Appalachia, where drug dealing and addiction are rampant.

Checking in again at the old board.

I’m a Catholic in the U.S.

I support a limited use of the death penalty when (1) the crime is particularly heinous and (2) there is practically no doubt about the person’s guilt (a higher standard than “beyond a reasonable doubt”).

It’s true that there would still be one chance in a million or a billion of making a mistake and executing the wrong person. But, if the guilty person is not executed there’s a chance that person could be set free to kill again.

It seems that what Catholic leaders are saying is that there is no need today in the U.S. to impose the death penalty because it’s possible to ensure public safety without it.

I’m going to disagree with the second part of that (that it’s possible to ensure public safety without it):

(1) The person could be set free because of an administrative error or because of misconduct on the part of someone in the prison system (it has happened).

(2) The person could qualify for “compassionate release” or “medical parole” (and there’s a chance they could recover and kill again).

(3) The legislature could retroactively abolish life without parole. Last week there was an article about a proposal in California to allow someone sentenced to life withour parole to petition for resentencing after 25 years. A person could put on a presentation about how they’re a different person than when they committed the crime and be set free (and then kill again).

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And that’s when you make sure that “life without parole” means precisely that. Infirm or gravely ill inmates can always be interned in medical prisons (such as the one in North Carolina). As to compassionate release, just don’t do it. As to administrative errors, tighten up the ship.


Article from USA Today:

‘Extremely dangerous’ man escapes Pa. prison after getting life for murdering ex-girlfriend (

A man recently convicted of murdering his former girlfriend in front of her two young children has escaped a Pennsylvania prison, officials said Thursday.

A manhunt was underway for 34-year-old Danelo Cavalcante, who was sentenced to life in prison without parole last week for stabbing 33-year-old Deborah Brandao to death in 2021 while her 7-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son were present, the Chester County District Attorney’s Office said. He was awaiting transfer to a state facility when he escaped.

So, it happens.

So much for the argument that we don’t need the death penalty in the modern world because we can keep society safe without it.

The trouble is, you and I can’t guarantee that.

We can’t guarantee the performance of every person we hire in the prison system. There was in fact the story a while back about an inmate being in a romantic relationship with a woman prison employee who let him out.

We can’t guarantee that a legislature might not do something in the future.

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