Can Catholics support the death penalty?


Ricardo Saludo

If then I am a wrongdoer, and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death.
— Acts of the Apostles, 25:11

[It] is in no way contrary to the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ to wage war at God’s bidding, or for the representatives of public authority to put criminals to death, according to the law, that is, the will of the most just reason.
— St. Augustine, The City of God, early 5th century

[If] a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and healthful that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since ‘a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump’ (1 Corinthians, 5:6)
— St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 1265-74

The power of life and death is permitted to certain civil magistrates because theirs is the responsibility under law to punish the guilty and protect the innocent. Far from being guilty of breaking this commandment [Thy shall not kill], such an execution of justice is precisely an act of obedience to it.
— Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent, 1566

Even in the case of the death penalty, the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. Rather public authority limits itself to depriving the offender of the good of life in expiation for his guilt, after he, through his crime, deprived himself of his own right to life.
— Pope Pius XII, speaking at histopathology conference, 1952

While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment.
— Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI)

THESE quotations from “Getting It Wrong about the Death Penalty,” a March 2015 blog by Steve Skojec, founding publisher and executive director of the conservative Catholic site, may be helpful to senators and congressmen seeking moral and religious guidance as they deliberate the death penalty bill. (Read the article at: < >.)

For sure, the prevailing Vatican position opposes capital punishment. In a March 2015 letter to the president of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty, of which former President Gloria Arroyo was a member, Pope Francis asserted that capital punishment was ““inadmissible, however serious the crime.”

Justice, he wrote, could never be done by ending human life, and there was no humane way of execution, Vatican News reported. The letter also said that capital punishment is the opposite of God’s mercy, which should be the model for society’s legal systems. The death penalty, Francis declared, was cruel and degrading, and the long wait for execution was tortuous.

The why and how of execution
This writer is no moral authority and does not presume to pass judgment or even expound upon the moral issues involved in capital punishment. At the same time, some points may be made even by a non-expert observer.

First, what are the reasons for executing a convicted criminal, as enacted by Congress? Is it just punishment for transgressions against society, retribution on behalf of the victims or their families, deterrence against future crimes, or simply the wish of a majority of the people or their elected leaders?

Each of these reasons require thorough study and deliberation, to ensure that they are morally sound, and that the death penalty would, in fact, rightly address the reasoning behind enacting the law.

For instance, is revenge morally right in a nation where most citizens adhere to Christianity, which preaches forgiveness, not vengeance? And assuming retribution is ethically acceptable, does killing criminals satisfy the anger and anguish of the victims and their families?

A 2008 study cited date from other reports showing that “people who punish continue to ruminate about the offender, whereas those who do not punish ‘move on’ and think less about the offender.” Plus: many victims feel worse when they finally see the retribution they sought.

As for deterrence, countless studies show that it’s not the gravity of the punishment that makes would-be criminals think twice, but the certainty of being caught and punished. Indeed, most lawbreakers think they would get away with it.

Especially in the Philippines, where the criminal justice system is so gravely dysfunctional, many do not fear being executed, because so many of the guilty don’t get caught, or escape conviction, especially if they are wealthy and well-connected.

Help the poor defendant
Which brings us to the second big issue: the preponderance of poor convicts on death row. Capital punishment is widely opposed for falling mainly on the indigent. Surely, this is a concern for President Rodrigo Duterte, who has loudly championed the less privileged against the abuses and exploitation by the rich.

To address this concern, the death penalty law should include a large fund — P1 billion, for starters — to be spent on topnotch lawyers for poor defendants in capital crimes.

This may not sit well with anti-crime advocates, including President Duterte, who would likely hate to allocate big money to help get criminals off the hook. But there must be measures to redress the death penalty’s well-documented bias against the poor.

Third, but certainly not the last issue about capital punishment, there have been and will continue to be mistakes that condemn innocents to hanging, electrocution, lethal injection, or some other execution.

Hence, the law must include mandatory reviews of death sentences, including automatic motions for reconsideration at the trial court, plus reviews by the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. And regular parole assessment of the convict, to see if his or her punishment should be commuted.

Many, if not most or all of these points are addressed in the bills now going through Congress. Plainly, for capital punishment to uphold justice and the common good, it must listen not only to the Word of God, but also the cry of the poor.


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  1. So the continuous and necessary changes with the ways faiths are practiced, proved that serious mistakes have been made along the way.

    What makes the local c.c. clergy right this time? aren’t they just “like the hypocrite pharisees”?

    • Dudley Sharp on


      You could not be more wrong. First, I think you meant “may” not “can”.

      The Church teaching is well known. The faithful may kill in self defense, in defense of others and in a just way, all against unjust aggressors.

      The death penalty is still a moral sanction, as well.

  2. Leland Sacro on

    Arguing against Death Penalty because of effect on the poor — makes one think that IT IS OK TO COMMIT HEINOUS CRIMES BECAUSE ONE IS POOR.

    If we Christians, Catholics are moral, ethical, WHY IS IT OK TO KILL OTHER ANIMALS FOR FOOD?

  3. “To address this concern, the death penalty law should include a large fund — P1 billion, for starters — to be spent on topnotch lawyers for poor defendants in capital crimes.”

    Good idea. One reason capital punishment is advocated against in the West is because of the many innocent people on death row. Luckily for them some do get off. See the innocence project. It’s too bad though that being a lawyer in the Philippines is a deadly occupation.

  4. It is hypocritical for the catholic church to preach that executing criminals who commit crimes against their fellow humans is immoral and against church teachings. People should read the history of the middle ages where the catholic church burned and executed the pioneers of science and medicine simply because the concepts these pioneers were promoting were so alien to the catholic church then that they simply branded them as heretics.

    • That’s already thousand years ago, sir. Much change had been introduced into the manner by which the Catholic Church deals with people contradicting its teachings, thus, abolition of execution and merely excommunicating those who go against her tenets of faith and morals. “Fresh wind” had been introduced by the Catholic Church into its teachings and ways. So, no need to harp again on a dead issue.