Death as a Penalty: A Moral, Practical, and Theological Discussion

Pope Francis has recently called for the abolition of the death penalty, as well as life imprisonment which he has described as a hidden death sentence. The following article provides a discussion of some of the theological issues that have led to a shift in Catholic thinking about capital punishment.

Peter Hung Tran


‘Capital punishment’ or ‘the death penalty’ is a subject of much controversy in modern times.  The authority of the State to administer a death penalty for horrendous crimes against the common good of persons and society has traditionally enjoyed support from biblical and theological resources in the Christian community. Such support is not without criticism, and contemporary ecclesial reflection on this question raises important moral issues. This paper critically examines the justifications for the death penalty and the arguments against its endorsement. These arguments are looked at in the light of biblical perspectives and from the teaching of the Catholic Church.

Some people advocate for capital punishment because it helps protect the innocent from criminals while others believe it can reduce crime rates1 by deterring criminals from acting unlawfully.  However, most people disapprove of capital punishment2, seeing it as just another form of murder and a moral disgrace.3 

Those who believe capital punishment to be an efficient way of discouraging murder often point to the old Bible teaching: "it shall be life for a life, eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth." (Deut 19:21). Within that framework, the argument for capital punishment can be formulated thus: some acts are so evil and so destructive of community that they invalidate the right of the perpetrator to membership and even to life. This is what St. Thomas Aquinas argued. He contended that it is legitimate to kill dangerous criminals as a way of upholding the common good.4 

The Christian theological tradition has likewise supported the administration of the capital punishment in the form of the following arguments:

1.            The authoritative power of the state is affirmed in the New Testament (Rm. 13:1-4),5  and the state is empowered to act on behalf of the common good of the society. When the common good is threatened, particularly when human life is directly assaulted, the state must take appropriate measures to defend the lives of innocent citizens. Such protection may require the execution of the lawless.

2.            Capital punishment serves as a deterrent and contributes to the preservation of public order.

3.            Capital punishment is an exercise in judgment and not hatred. To quote Pope Innocent III: "We assert, concerning the power of the State, that it is able to exercise a judgment of blood, without mortal sin, provided it proceed to inflict the punishment not in hate, but in judgment; not incautiously, but after consideration" (Anti-Waldensian Profession, DS, no. 795).

Perhaps the most compelling argument against capital punishment can be made on the basis of society’s ability to administer it:  There is always a possibility of error; an innocent person could be put to death; capital punishment is also demonstrably unfairly administered; statistics show that it is inflicted disproportionately on the poor and minorities.6 The claim that the threat of capital punishment reduces violent crime is also found to be inconclusive. 7 Meanwhile,  others believe that it is unfair to hold criminals fully accountable for their wrongdoing; persons who commit crimes have often suffered from neglect, emotional trauma, violence, cruelty, abandonment, lack of love, and a host of destructive social conditions.         

More recently, there seems to be a growing tendency in both church and society to restrict the use of death penalty to very limited circumstances or even to abolish it completely. 8 In his homily in St. Louis of Jan. 27, 1999, Pope John Paul II said,

"A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary."9

In a similar vein, Pope Francis in his recent speech to the representatives of the International Association of Penal Law, on 23 October 2014, also called for the abolition of the death penalty:

“It is impossible to imagine that states today cannot make use of another means than capital punishment to defend peoples' lives from an unjust aggressor.”

He reiterated the primacy of the life and dignity of the human person, reaffirming the absolute condemnation of the death penalty, the use of which is rejected by Christians.10 

Although he noted, “According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the traditional teaching of the church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor, but modern advances in protecting society from dangerous criminals mean that cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent”.11

In line with this, certain contemporary theologians have argued for the elimination of the death penalty for the following reasons:

1.            The death penalty is useless and unnecessary. The incidence of violent crime does not appear to be appreciably lessened by the retention of capital punishment. An alternative is to deter the offender by means of lengthy imprisonment.

2.            The death penalty dehumanises society by legitimating violence as a strategy to deal with human wrongdoing. The current climate of violence reflects a genuine lack of social justice and solidarity, which remains unaddressed by recourse to capital punishment as a means to deter crime.

3.            The death penalty does not reflect the consistent biblical trajectory of forgiveness, hope, and redemption. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus instructs his disciples to seek no revenge for wrongdoing. 12

A Biblical Perspective

Supporters of the death penalty frequently cite the Old Testament to justify their position.13 In Genesis 9:6 we read: "If anyone sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has man been made." Any person who murders another is to be killed. The blood of the victim murdered defiles the land. The only way it is cleansed is by administering capital punishment to the murderer (Num. 35:33-34). Then, when God gave the law to Moses, additional offences were considered capital crimes.14 

At the same time, Mosaic law and the later rabbinical tradition established a strict set of judicial procedures for cases involving the death penalty. The standard of proof required to convict someone in such cases went beyond our standard of "beyond reasonable doubt" and required what amounted to absolute certainty. A conviction required at least two eye witnesses (Numbers 35:30) before someone accused of murder could be put to death, and witnesses who lied subjected themselves to the same penalty as the accused (e.g. Deut. 17 and 19). In practice Hebrew law became more restrictive which meant fewer people were convicted. More restrictions were added later so that by the second century the death penalty was rarely carried out.15 

In the New Testament, Jesus' answer to capital punishment was to undermine the penalty by demanding that both judges and executioners be sinless. "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." He reminds his listeners to be careful of condemning others because God's judgments do not necessarily coincide with our own (e.g. Matthew 25, Luke 6). If our judgments are so fallible, how can we make the decision to take a life? In addition, Jesus' pardoning of the woman caught in adultery (a civil offence requiring capital punishment) is an example of his mercy. In this way Jesus challenges the presumption that humans can ever authorize the death penalty as judge and /or executioner. 16

In addition, the New Testament emphasises that the sacrificial aspect of taking a life was fulfilled "once and for all" by the sacrifice of Christ.17  Christ's death on the cross, itself an application of capital punishment, wiped away the Old Testament ceremonial and moral basis for the death penalty (e.g. Hebrews 10).18  No more blood needs to be shed to testify to the sacredness of life. Christ has died so that others may live.

Jesus also constantly reiterated our responsibility to see Christ in our needy neighbor, even in our enemies; we are told to love and forgive those who harm us. When Christ was executed, he gave a model response to his enemies in his dying words: "Father, forgive them." By doing that Jesus replaces the law of retribution with the law of reconciliation (Mt 5:23-4). He also teaches that we are to love those who harm us, “I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:43-45).

Reflection and Conclusion

The biblical perspective on the death penalty is of relevance to our society and raises a series of critical questions: If the death penalty does not actually further the effort to maintain order, if indeed it may actually interfere with good order, is the State using its authority appropriately? When the State punishes arbitrarily and discriminatorily, especially with a penalty so final, is it properly carrying out its God-given role?

Jesus teaches that life belongs to God and is not ours to take. We should repudiate capital punishment because it is incompatible with the basic focus of the Gospel - reconciliation and redemption. Christ's concern is redemptive, and he has provided us a model by giving himself for his enemies. We must give the opportunity for redemption to every sinner, without exception, even for a murderer who failed to do that for his or her victim. Jesus did not die only for certain sinners, he died for all. To either deprive a person of the possibility of reconciling themselves to God and humanity or to end the life of someone who has reconciled is the real tragedy of capital punishment.

Finally, debates about the death penalty all too easily sidetrack us from deeper issues: the causes of violence and its meaning for both victim and offender. Before we can find answers to these, we need to reach within ourselves. We must realise that each of us has suffered, that we are all in some sense victims. But we also need to identify the roots of violence and injustice that are in us all. We need to acknowledge our own complicity and failure, that we have all sinned and fallen short of what we could and should be.  So, we are all offenders and we are all victims; we all need redemption. It is only in realising this that we can build a future where violence will be unnecessary.

“Is the human family made more complete, is human personhood made more loving, in a society which demands life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth?” (Cardinal Joseph Bernardin).   

Rev Dr Peter Hung Tran STD, is a Catholic Moral Theologian and Bioethicist. He works at the L.J. Goody Bioethics Centre in Western Australia and is a sessional lecturer at the University of Notre Dame, Australia and Good Shepherd College, New Zealand.


1. See R. Michael Dunnigan, JD, JCL., “The Purposes of Punishment.” Source: (accessed 06.10.2012).

2. The death penalty is outlawed in most of Europe, Canada, Australia, and most other countries in the world; more than 135 nations have abolished capital punishment. “The death penalty: A flawed system we can't afford to keep.” Published By Times Herald. Posted: 07 Oct, 2012. Source: (accessed 08.10.2012).

3.  See “A Good Friday Appeal to End the Death Penalty.” By the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, April 2, 1999. Source: (accessed 07.10.2012).

4. Thomas Aquinas,   Summa theologiae  II-II, q. 64, a.2.

5. While some argue that St. Paul affirms the right of governing authorities to punish offenders (see John Berkman and Stanley Hauerwas, "Capital Punishment," in Paul Barry Clarke and Linzey (eds.) Dictionary of Ethics, Theology and Society.  (New York: Routledge: 1996), 102),  this view has been rejected by Jean Lasserre: "No Christian justification of the death penalty can be deduced from Roman 13, so there is no single text in the New Testament which approves it." Cited by Peter Black, "Do Circumstances Ever Justify Capital Punishment?" Theological Studies 60(1999), 342-3.

6. John Langan "Capital Punishment,"Theological Studies, 54(1993),114.

7. See Jewish-Catholic Consultation, "To End the Death Penalty," Origin 29 (1999), 463; and also John Berkman and Stanley Hauerwas, "Capital Punishment," in Paul Barry Clarke and Linzey (eds.) Dictionary of Ethics, Theology and Society.  (New York: Routledge: 1996),p.103.

8. John Paul II,  Evangelium vitae, nos. 53-57; John Paul II's homily Jan. 27, 1999, in St. Louis, MO; U.S. Catholic Conference, "Statement on Capital Punishment," Origins 10 (1980), 373-77; The "Good Friday Appeal to End the Death Penalty" issued by the Administrative Board of the U.S. Catholic Conference on April 2, 1999; Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines, "Restoring the Death Penalty: A Backward Step," Catholic International 3 (1992), 886-888; John Langan, "Capital Punishment," Theological Studies 54 (1993), 111-24; Significantly was the joined statement between Jewish-Catholic Consultation, "To End the Death Penalty," Origin 29 (1999), 463-4.

9. Jewish-Catholic Consultation, "To End the Death Penalty," Origin 29 (1999), 463.

10. See Pope Francis calls for abolishing death penalty and life imprisonment. By Francis X. Rocca,  Catholic News Service. Published on 23 October 2014 .  (accessed 28 Oct. 2014) and also Pope to Association of Penal Law: Corruption is Greater Evil than Sin. By Vatican News - 23 October 2014.  (accessed 28 October 2014).

11. Ibid.

12. John Berkman and Stanley Hauerwas, "Capital Punishment," in Paul Barry Clarke and Linzey (eds.) Dictionary of Ethics, Theology and Society.  (New York: Routledge: 1996), pp.100-105.

13. Yet it is important to keep in mind that the New Testament must be the primary standard for Christians.

14. In the Law of Moses fifteen different crimes were singled out for the death penalty including hitting your parents (Ex. 21:15); Kidnapping (Ex. 21:16); Killing an unborn infant (Ex 21:22-25); Adultery (Lev. 20:10); Incest (Lev. 20:11-12 & 14); Rape under some circumstances (Deut. 22:25). It should be noted that from Noah until the institution of the Law, the Bible only sanctioned capital punishment for murder. See John Berkman and Stanley Hauerwas, "Capital Punishment," in Paul Barry Clarke and Linzey (eds.) Dictionary of Ethics, Theology and Society.  (New York: Routledge: 1996), 102.

15. Jeremiah J. McCarthy, "Capital Punishment," in Judith A. Dwyer, (ed.)  The New Dictionary of Catholic Social Thought. (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1994), 109-111, at 109

16. God alone is the author of life, therefore only God has the dominion of life, says the National Jewish-Catholic Consultation in a Dec. 6, 1999, report - Origins 29 (1999), 463; Similarly, John Berkman and Stanley Hauerwas, in the same way, would claim it also, "all life, guilty or not, belongs to God and is to be given and taken only by God." (p. 104)

17. John Berkman and Stanley Hauerwas,  Ibid.

18. John Berkman and Stanley Hauerwas, "Capital Punishment," in Paul Barry Clarke and Linzey (eds.) Dictionary of Ethics, Theology and Society.  (New York: Routledge: 1996), p.102.