The Death Penalty: A Radical Shift in Catholic Thinking

September 25, 2011

By Bishop George Leo Thomas, Diocese of Helena, Montana
February 2011

Cardinal Avery Dulles was a renaissance man. A Jesuit priest, scholar, humble disciple and man of the Church, he was a wellspring of wisdom, theological acumen, uncommon insight and personal holiness. When he rose to speak on the floor of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the room fell silent.Cardinal Dulles, who died in New York in 2008, took on some of the most complex issues of the day, “scrutinizing the signs of the times and interpreting them in light of the Gospel.”

The Lawrence G. McGinley Lecture Series, 1988-2007, represents his best thinking as he tackled tough topics through the lenses of theology and prayerful reflection. Cardinal Dulles’ presentation titled “The Death Penalty: A Right to Life Issue?” is emblematic of his complex and sophisticated analyses. He opened his lecture with an attention- capturing sentence: “Among the major nations of the Western world, the United States is singular in still having the death penalty.” Examining Biblical data, Catholic tradition and magisterial teaching, Cardinal Dulles offered deep analysis of the death penalty for the contemporary Catholic’s consideration.

He observed the startling reality that the Fathers of the Church were virtually unanimous in their support of capital punishment. Their vantage is supported by both Old Testament and New Testament teaching. Ambrose, Augustine, Robert Bellarmine and Alphonsus Liguori, are among the figures of the Church who conclude that “the State has the authority to administer appropriate punishment to those judged guilty of crimes, and that punishment may, in serious cases, include the sentence of death.”

The thoughtful Catholic struggles with the seeming shift in Catholic teaching, and must ask the question: Why, in recent years, has the abolition movement gained so much momentum? Why has the Catholic magisterium become increasingly vocal in opposing the practice of capital punishment? Why have the Universal Church, in its revision of the Catechism, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, while not ruling out capital punishment altogether, radically shifted the Church’s approach to this highly charged topic?

“In our day,” Cardinal Dulles wrote, “a new recognition of the dignity and inalienable rights of the human person has dawned.” He quoted the respected Italian Franciscan Gino Concetti as a premier spokesman of the right-to-life theology: “In light of the Word of God, and thus of faith, life—all human life—is sacred and untouchable no matter how heinous the crimes.… [The criminal] does not lose his fundamental right to life for it is primordial, inviolable and inalienable, and thus comes under the power of no one whatsoever.” Concetti’s thinking is founded on the scriptural understanding that every person is fashioned in God’s image, and has inherent worth and dignity. This dignity, writes moral theologian Kenneth Himes, “is neither conferred by society or state nor dependent on any achievement or claim we make for it. Therefore it is not ours to surrender nor can others take it away.”

Cardinal Dulles’ second philosophical consideration arguing against the death penalty is the abolitionist’s conviction that we have moved beyond the outmoded doctrine that the State has a divinely delegated power to kill. He references the “barbaric culture of violence and the absolutist theory of political power, both handed down from the ancient world” as the bases of that position.

In reaching his final conclusions, Cardinal Dulles raised four serious objections commonly embraced by opponents of the death penalty:

  • There is a possibility that the convict may be innocent. Cardinal Dulles expressed concern that in recent years, some death row convicts were exonerated. Columbia Law School, for example, published a devastating report on the irreversible errors in capital sentences.
  •  The death penalty often has the effect of whetting an inordinate appetite for revenge, rather than satisfying a zeal for justice.
  • Capital punishment may cheapen the value of life by fostering a casual attitude toward other evils such as abortion, suicide and euthanasia. Some hold that the death penalty is incompatible with the teaching of Jesus on forgiveness.
  • Finally, Cardinal Dulles gave special consideration to the teaching of Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae, when the pope declared that “as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, cases in which the execution of the offender would be absolutely necessary are very rare if not practically nonexistent.” (no. 56).

Pope John Paul II reiterated his stance during his January 1999 visit to St. Louis, when he appealed for a consensus to end the death penalty in the United States on the ground that it was “cruel and unnecessary.”

The U.S. bishops have further declared in their majority statement that “in the conditions of contemporary American society, the legitimate purposes of punishment do not justify the imposition of the death penalty.” In sum, the antidote to violence is not more violence. Furthermore, advances in public safety, including penal technology and the intensive management of prison populations, provide the means necessary to make the death penalty dated, obsolete and unnecessary.

Placing all of his arguments in the balance, Cardinal Dulles came to his conclusion: “The pope and the bishops, using their prudential judgment, have concluded that in contemporary society, at least in countries like our own, the death penalty ought not to be invoked because, on balance, it does more harm than good. I personally support this position as a responsible prudential judgment in the current situation.”

As citizens and their legislators in the State of Montana struggle to understand the grave moral dimensions of death penalty legislation, I hope they find Cardinal Dulles’ prayerful and scholarly analysis and authoritative Church teaching informative and, more importantly, transformative.