Key developments in church teaching
April 18, 2019
Some early Christians, including St. Ambrose, were against the death penalty under any circumstances.
St. Augustine taught that capital punishment was among exceptions to the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.”
St. Thomas Aquinas said the state may choose capital punishment, but only if the person is dangerous to society and killing the person won’t result in harm to the good of others.
The Catechism of the Council of Trent taught that civil authorities could use capital punishment to punish the guilty and protect the innocent, as an effort to preserve and secure human life.
Later theologians like St. Robert Bellarmine (d. 1621) saw the death penalty as an opportunity for conversion since government actions were seen at the time as an extension of God’s will.
St. Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical “Evangelium Vitae,” or the “Gospel of Life,” concluded that the death penalty could be used only if there is no other way to protect public safety. And because of steady improvements in prison systems, such cases today are very rare, if not practically non-existent.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church aligns with the language of St. John Paul II.
Source: Omar Gutierrez, archdiocesan director of Pontifical Society for the Propagation of the Faith
“It is the prudential assessment of the popes, the U.S. bishops and the bishops of Nebraska that society is sufficiently protected by life in prison without parole. There is not a sufficient moral reason for reinstating the death penalty. Those who dissent from this assessment would have to demonstrate that life in prison does not protect society effectively and that the common good would be enhanced by state-sponsored executions.”
– Archbishop George J. Lucas, Aug. 10, 2016,
“Shepherd’s Voice” column, Catholic Voice