U.S. Catholic Bishops' Statement on Capital Punishment
Approved by the U.S. Bishops in November 1980
In 1974, out of a commitment to the value and dignity of human life, the U.S.
Catholic Conference, by a substantial majority, voted to
declare its opposition
to capital punishment. As a former president of the National Conference of
Catholic Bishops pointed out in 1977, the issue of capital punishment involves
both "profound legal and political questions" as well as "important moral and
religious issues."(1) And so we find that this issue continues to provoke public
controversy and to raise moral questions that trouble many. This is particularly
true in the aftermath of widely publicized executions in Utah and Florida and as
a result of public realization that there are now over 500 persons awaiting
execution in various prisons in our country.
The resumption of capital punishment after a long moratorium, which began in
1967, is the result of a series of decisions by the United States Supreme Court.
In the first of these decisions, Furman v. Georgia (1972), the Court held
that the death penalty as then administered did constitute cruel and unusual
punishment and so was contrary to the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.
Subsequently in 1976 the Court upheld death sentences imposed under state
statutes which had been revised by state legislatures in the hope of meeting the
Court's requirement that the death penalty not be imposed arbitrarily. These
cases and the ensuing revision of state and federal statutes gave rise to
extended public debate over the necessity and advisability of retaining the
death penalty. We should note that much of this debate was carried on in a time
of intense public concern over crime and violence. For instance, in 1976 alone,
over 18,000 people were murdered in the United States. Criticism of the
inadequacies of the criminal justice system has been widespread, even while
spectacular crimes have spread fear and alarm, particularly in urban areas. All
these factors make it particularly necessary that Christians form their views on
this difficult matter in a prayerful and reflective way and that they show a
respect and concern for the rights of all.
We should acknowledge that in the public debate over capital punishment we
are dealing with values of the highest importance: respect for the sanctity of
human life, the protection of human life, the preservation of order in society,
and the achievement of justice through law. In confronting the problem of
serious and violent crime in our society, we want to protect the lives and the
sense of security both of those members of society who may become the victims of
crime and of those in the police and in the law enforcement system who run
greater risks. In doing this, however, we must bear in mind that crime is both a
manifestation of the great mysteries of evil and human freedom and an aspect of
the very complex reality that is contemporary society. We should not expect
simple or easy solutions to what is a profound evil, and even less should we
rely on capital punishment to provide such a solution. Rather, we must look to
the claims of justice as these are understood in the current debate and to the
example and teaching of Jesus, whom we acknowledge as the Justice of God.
I. PURPOSES OF PUNISHMENT
Allowing for the fact that Catholic teaching has accepted the principle that
the state has the right to take the life of a person guilty of an extremely
serious crime, and that the state may take appropriate measures to protect
itself and its citizens from grave harm, nevertheless, the question for judgment
and decision today is whether capital punishment is justifiable under present
circumstances. Punishment, since it involves the deliberate infliction of evil
on another, is always in need of justification. This has normally taken the form
of indicating some good which is to be obtained through punishment or an evil
which is to be warded off. The three justifications traditionally advanced for
punishment in general are retribution, deterrence, and reform.
Reform or rehabilitation of the criminal cannot serve as a justification for
capital punishment, which necessarily deprives the criminal of the opportunity
to develop a new way of life that conforms to the norms of society and that
contributes to the common good. It may be granted that the imminence of capital
punishment may induce repentance in the criminal, but we should certainly not
think that this threat is somehow necessary for God's grace to touch and to
transform human hearts.
The deterrence of actual or potential criminals from future deeds of violence
by the threat of death is also advanced as a justifying objective of punishment.
While it is certain that capital punishment prevents the individual from
committing further crimes, it is far from certain that it actually prevents
others from doing so. Empirical studies in this area have not given conclusive
evidence that would justify the imposition of the death penalty on a few
individuals as a means of preventing others from committing crimes. There are
strong reasons to doubt that many crimes of violence are undertaken in a spirit
of rational calculation which would be influenced by a remote threat of death.
The small number of death sentences in relation to the number of murders also
makes it seem highly unlikely that the threat will be carried out and so
undercuts the effectiveness of the deterrent.
The protection of society and its members from violence, to which the
deterrent effect of punishment is supposed to contribute, is a value of central
and abiding importance; and we urge the need for prudent firmness in ensuring
the safety of innocent citizens. It is important to remember that the
preservation of order in times of civil disturbance does not depend on the
institution of capital punishment, the imposition of which rightly requires a
lengthy and complex process in our legal system. Moreover, both in its nature as
legal penalty and in its practical consequences, capital punishment is different
from the taking of life in legitimate self-defense or in defense of society.
The third justifying purpose for punishment is retribution or the restoration
of the order of justice which has been violated by the action of the criminal.
We grant that the need for retribution does indeed justify punishment. For the
practice of punishment both presupposes a previous transgression against the law
and involves the involuntary deprivation of certain goods. But we maintain that
this need does not require nor does it justify taking the life of the criminal,
even in cases of murder. We must not remain unmindful of the example of Jesus
who urges upon us a teaching of forbearance in the face of evil (Matthew
5:38-42) and forgiveness of injuries (Matthew 18:21-35). It is morally
unsatisfactory and socially destructive for criminals to go unpunished, but the
forms and limits of punishment must be determined by moral objectives which go
beyond the mere inflicting of injury on the guilty. Thus we would regard it as
barbarous and inhumane for a criminal who had tortured or maimed a victim to be
tortured or maimed in return. Such a punishment might satisfy certain vindictive
desires that we or the victim might feel, but the satisfaction of such desires
is not and cannot be an objective of a humane and Christian approach to
punishment. We believe that the forms of punishment must be determined with a
view to the protection of society and its members and to the reformation of the
criminal and his reintegration into society (which may not be possible in
certain cases). This position accords with the general norm for punishment
proposed by St. Thomas Aquinas when he wrote: "In this life, however, penalties
are not sought for their own sake, because this is not the era of retribution;
rather, they are meant to be corrective by being conducive either to the reform
of the sinner or the good of society, which becomes more peaceful through the
punishment of sinners." (2)
We believe that in the conditions of contemporary American society, the
legitimate purposes of punishment do not justify the imposition of the death
penalty. Furthermore, we believe that there are serious considerations which
should prompt Christians and all Americans to support the abolition of capital
punishment. Some of these reasons have to do with evils that are present in the
practice of capital punishment itself, while others involve important values
that would be promoted by abolition of this practice.
II. CHRISTIAN VALUES IN THE ABOLITION OF CAPITAL PUNISHMENT
We maintain that abolition of the death penalty would promote values that are
important to us as citizens and as Christians. First, abolition sends a message
that we can break the cycle of violence, that we need not take life for life,
that we can envisage more humane and more hopeful and effective responses to the
growth of violent crime. It is a manifestation of our freedom as moral persons
striving for a just society. It is also a challenge to us as a people to find
ways of dealing with criminals that manifest intelligence and compassion rather
than power and vengeance. We should feel such confidence in our civic order that
we use no more force against those who violate it than is actually required.
Second, abolition of capital punishment is also a manifestation of our belief
in the unique worth and dignity of each person from the moment of conception, a
creature made in the image and likeness of God. It is particularly important in
the context of our times that this belief be affirmed with regard to those who
have failed or whose lives have been distorted by suffering or hatred; even in
the case of those who by their actions have failed to respect the dignity and
rights of others. It is the recognition of the dignity of all human beings that
has impelled the Church to minister the needs of the outcast and the rejected
and that should make us unwilling to treat the lives of even those who have
taken human life as expendable or as a means to some further end.
Third, abolition of the death penalty is further testimony to our conviction,
a conviction which we share with the Judaic and Islamic traditions, that God is
indeed the Lord of life. It is a testimony which removes a certain ambiguity
which might otherwise affect the witness that we wish to give to the sanctity of
human life in all its stages. We do not wish to equate the situation of
criminals convicted of capital offenses with the condition of the innocent
unborn or of the defenseless aged or infirm, but we do believe that the defense
of life is strengthened by eliminating exercise of a judicial authorization to
take human life.
Fourth, we believe that abolition of the death penalty is most consonant with
the example of Jesus, who both taught and practiced the forgiveness of injustice
and who came "to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:45) In this
regard we may point to the reluctance which those early Christians who accepted
capital punishment as a legitimate practice in civil society felt about the
participation of Christians in such an institution(3) and to the unwillingness
of the Church to accept into the ranks of its ministers those who had been
involved in the infliction of capital punishment.(4) There is and has been a
certain sense that even in those cases where serious justifications can be
offered for the necessity of taking life, those who are identified in a special
way with Christ should refrain from taking life. We believe that this should be
taken as an indication of the deeper desires of the Church as it responds to the
story of God's redemptive and forgiving love as manifest in the life of his Son.
III. DIFFICULTIES INHERENT IN CAPITAL PUNISHMENT
With respect to the difficulties inherent in capital punishment, we note
first that infliction of the death penalty extinguishes possibilities for reform
and rehabilitation for the person executed as well as the opportunity for the
criminal to make some creative compensation for the evil he or she has done. It
also cuts off the possibility for a new beginning and of moral growth in a human
life which has been seriously deformed.
Second, the imposition of capital punishment involves the possibility of
mistake. In this respect, it is not different from other legal processes; and it
must be granted our legal system shows considerable care for the rights of
defendants in capital cases. But the possibility of mistake cannot be eliminated
from the system. Because death terminated the possibilities of conversion and
growth and support that we can share with each other, we regard a mistaken
infliction of the death penalty with a special horror, even while we retain our
trust in God's loving mercy.
Third, the legal imposition of capital punishment in our society involves
long and unavoidable delays. This is in large part a consequence of the
safeguards and the opportunities for appeal which the law provides for
defendants; but it also creates a long period of anxiety and uncertainty both
about the possibility of life and about the necessity of reorienting one's life.
Delay also diminishes the effectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrent,
for it makes the death penalty uncertain and remote. Death Row can be the scene
of conversion and spiritual growth, but it also produces aimlessness, fear, and
Fourth, we believe that the actual carrying out of the death penalty brings
with it great and avoidable anguish for the criminal, for his family and loved
ones, and for those who are called on to perform or to witness the execution.
Great writers such as Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky in the past and Camus and
Orwell in our time have given us vivid pictures of the terrors of execution not
merely for the victim but also for bystanders. (5)
Fifth, in the present situation of dispute over the justifiability of the
death penalty and at a time when executions have been rare, executions attract
enormous publicity, much of it unhealthy, and stir considerable acrimony in
public discussion. On the other hand, if a substantial proportion of the more
than five hundred persons now under sentence of death are executed, a great
public outcry can safely be predicted. In neither case is the American public
likely to develop a sense that the work of justice is being done with fairness
Sixth, there is a widespread belief that many convicted criminals are
sentenced to death in an unfair and discriminatory manner. This belief can be
affirmed with certain qualifications. There is a certain presumption that if
specific evidence of bias or discrimination in sentencing can be provided for
particular cases, then higher courts will not uphold sentences of death in these
cases. But we must also reckon with a legal system which, while it does provide
counsel for indigent defendants, permits those who are well off to obtain the
resources and the talent to present their case in as convincing a light as
possible. The legal system and the criminal justice system both work in a
society which bears in its psychological, social, and economic patterns the
marks of racism. These marks remain long after the demolition of segregation as
a legal institution. The end result of all this is a situation in which those
condemned to die are nearly always poor and are disproportionately black.(6)
Thus 47% of the inmates on Death Row are black, whereas only 11% of the American
population is black. Abolition of the death penalty will not eliminate racism
and its effects, an evil which we are called on to combat in many different
ways. But it is a reasonable judgment that racist attitudes and the social
consequences of racism have some influence in determining who is sentenced to
die in our society. This we do not regard as acceptable.
We do not propose the abolition of capital punishment as a simple solution to
the problems of crime and violence. As we observed earlier, we do not believe
that any simple and comprehensive solution is possible. We affirm that there is
a special need to offer sympathy and support for the victims of violent crime
and their families. Our society should not flinch from contemplating the
suffering that violent crime brings to so many when it destroys lives, shatters
families, and crushes the hopes of the innocent. Recognition of this suffering
should not lead to demands for vengeance but to a firm resolution that help be
given to the victims of crime and that justice be done fairly and swiftly. The
care and the support that we give to the victims of crime should be both
compassionate and practical. The public response to crime should include the
relief of financial distress caused by crime and the provision of medical and
psychological treatment to the extent that these are required and helpful. It is
the special responsibility of the Church to provide a community of faith and
trust in which God's grace can heal the personal and spiritual wounds caused by
crime and in which we can all grow by sharing one another's burdens and sorrows.
We insist that important changes are necessary in the correctional system in
order to make it truly conducive to the reform and rehabilitation of convicted
criminals and their reintegration into society. (7) We also grant that special
precautions should be taken to ensure the safety of those who guard convicts who
are too dangerous to return to society. We call on governments to cooperate in
vigorous measures against terrorists who threaten the safety of the general
public and who take the lives of the innocent. We acknowledge that there is a
pressing need to deal with those social conditions of poverty and injustice
which often provide the breeding grounds for serious crime. We urge particularly
the importance of restricting the easy availability of guns and other weapons of
violence. We oppose the glamorizing of violence in entertainment, and we deplore
the effect of this on children. We affirm the need for education to promote
respect for the human dignity of all people. All of these things should form
part of a comprehensive community response to the very real and pressing
problems presented by the prevalence of crime and violence in many parts of our
We recognize that many citizens may believe that capital punishment should be
maintained as an integral part of our society's response to the evils of crime,
nor is this position incompatible with Catholic tradition. We acknowledge the
depth and the sincerity of their concern. We urge them to review the
considerations we have offered which show both the evils associated with capital
punishment and the harmony of the abolition of capital punishment with the
values of the Gospel. We urge them to bear in mind that public decisions in this
area affect the lives, the hopes and the fears of men and women who share both
the misery and the grandeur of human life with us and who, like us, are among
those sinners whom the Son of Man came to save.
We urge our brother and sisters in Christ to remember the teaching of Jesus
who called us to be reconciled with those who have injured us (Matthew 5:43-45)
and to pray for forgiveness for our sins "as we forgive those who have sinned
against us." (Matthew 6:12) We call on you to contemplate the crucified Christ
who set us the supreme example of forgiveness and of the triumph of
(1) Statement of Capital Punishment, Archbishop Joseph L. Bernardin,
President National Conference of Catholic Bishops, January 26, 1977. Cf.
Community and Crime, Statement of the Committee on Social Development and
World Peace, United States Catholic Conference, February 15, 1978, p.8.
(2) Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, TT-II, 68, 1; tr, Marcus
Lefebure, O.P. (London, Blackfriars, 1975).
(3) Tertulliam, De Idolatria, c. 17.
(4) Code of Canon Law, Canon 984.
(5) William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, Act II, Scene 1;
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot; George Orwell, "A Hanging"; Albert Camus,
"Reflections on the Guillotine."
(6) Cf. Charles Black, Jr., Capital Punishment (New York: Norton,
1974), pp. 84-91.
(7) Cf. The Reform of Correctional Institutions in the 1970s,
Statement of the United States Catholic Conference, November 1973.