Frequently Asked Questions About the Catholic Church and the Death Penalty

October 9, 2011

The following material is adapted from material issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on April 2, 1999, in conjunction with its issuance of the statement,”A Good Friday Appeal to End the Death Penalty,” and from a publication by the New York State Catholic Conference entitled “Preaching Against Capital Punishment.”


Q: Aren’t most Catholics in favor of the death penalty?

A: Until recently, polling data showed there was very little difference between Catholics and non-Catholics in support of the death penalty — around 65%-70%. But a poll taken by Zogby International in late 2004 indicated that less than half (48%) of Catholics support the use of the death penalty. What`s more, that poll and others show that support for capital punishment decreases even further when people are offered the option of life without parole combined with attempts at restitution for the surviving victims.

Our culture often sees violence as a way to solve problems. A common human response to violence is to seek revenge for these grisly crimes.

But our faith calls us to proclaim life at every level — from the moment of conception until natural death. “As the U.S. Catholic bishops have said in their document “Living the Gospel of Life,“:

“Our witness to respect for life shines most brightly when we demand respect for each and every human life, including the lives of those who fail to show that respect for others. The antidote to violence is love, not more violence.”
Q: Doesn’t the Bible support the death penalty (an eye for an eye, respecting the authority of the state, etc.)?

A: The Hebrew scriptures call for the death penalty for many offenses, including being disrespectful toward your parents, using God’s name in vain, and adultery. The saying “an eye for an eye” was meant to limit punishment to no more than what would restore the community, and not to call for excessive punishment.

God’s own punishment to Cain, who killed his brother Abel, was not death, but banishment. And a special mark was given to Cain, so no others would harm him.

The New Testament message of Our Savior underscores the rich Catholic tradition of respect for life and repaying evil with love. Jesus confronted the would-be executioners of the adulteress (John 8) and forgave those who were crucifying Him (Luke 23:34). He preached about life in abundance and forgiveness and urged non-violent ways to confront violence and evil in passages such as:

  • Matt 5:38 (When injured, turn the other cheek)
  • Matt 7 (to avoid judgment, stop passing judgment)
  • Matt 20:1-14 (the laborers in the vineyard: the last shall be first, and the first last)
  • Matt 25-35-40 (The Last Judgment: what you do to the least among you, you do for Me)
  • Luke 6:35-37 (love your enemy and do not condemn)
  • Luke 15:11-32 (the Prodigal Son)
  • John 1 (the law was received through Moses; grace came through Jesus Christ)
  • Acts 7:60 (Stephen’s martyrdom)
  • Romans 7:4 (we are “dead” to the law through the body of Jesus Christ)
  • Romans 12:14-19 (vengeance is to be left to God)
  • Galatians 3:23-24 (by virtue of faith in Jesus, the law is no longer in charge)

Q: Doesn’t the death penalty deter others from murder?

A: There are no studies that clearly show this. Most murders are done out of misplaced passion, or under the influence of alcohol or drugs. It is doubtful that many of them would be deterred by some future threat.
Q: The Church seems to be standing up only for the criminals, not the victims. Why is that?

A: We understand the enormous pain that those close to a murdered loved one must feel. Our family of faith must stand with all victims of violence as they struggle to overcome their terrible loss and fear, and find some sense of peace.

We understand that those who commit violent crimes must be separated from society lest they create new victims. We do not suggest that they should not be punished. Jesus Himself was not “soft on crime.” What He did was to shift the locus of judgment to a higher court, one that has absolute knowledge of the evidence, of good deeds and evil, of faith, and of things private and public.
Q: Isn’t the death penalty something that family members deserve, so they can feel that justice is done?

A: Vengeance is an understandable human reaction when great evil confronts us. However, as people of faith living in a violent culture, we urge victims’ families and friends to seek justice without vengeance, and to seek an end to the cycle of violence by punishing murderers without executing them. Not too long ago a death sentence was given to a man who murdered a doctor who performed abortions. This is a prime example of the cycle of violence.
Q: What other reasons can you give to support your position?

A: In addition to the faith-based arguments outlined above, one can cite many other problems related to the death penalty:

  • It extinguishes the possibility for rehabilitation and compensation.
  • Executions attract enormous publicity, much of it unhealthy. They fuel the human desire for revenge, which is not a Christian virtue.
  • Recent news stories about the exoneration of over 90 former death row inmates show there is the possibility that innocent persons may be executed.
  • Long and unavoidable delays in death penalty cases are harmful to local communities. They divert public funds from law enforcement and other more pressing needs, and create anxiety, anguish and uncertainty for the loved ones of both the victim and the criminal.
  • The death penalty is applied in a discriminatory manner. The poor and minorities are more likely to be executed than those who commit similar crimes but who can afford better legal help. It is applied arbitrarily — almost like a lottery — when one considers that only a small proportion of the many homicides that occur result in death sentences.

Q: Isn’t it true that the Vatican supports the death penalty?

A: Yes, but only on a theoretical level — in cases where executing an offender is the only way of protecting society against an unjust aggressor. This was often the case in past eras, when the scarcity of law enforcement personnel and the absence of maximum security prisons left governments with no other recourse to protect human lives.

But, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out, such instances “are rare, if not practically non-existent” as a result of the ability of present-day states to effectively prevent offenders from doing harm without killing them.

The Vatican’s position was made clear in its June, 2001 declaration the the World Congress on the Death Penalty in France. Calling the practice “a sign of desperation,” it stated: “The Holy See has engaged itself in the pursuit of the abolition of capital punishment as an integral part of the defense of human life at every stage of its development, and does so in defiance of any assertion of a culture of death.”
This resource was originally posted on the Catholics Against Capital Punishment (CACP) website, which was turned over to CMN in 2012. For more information on CACP’s history and other resources, click here.