Catholic Teaching and the Death Penalty
Indiana Catholic Conference
"...the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and
decided upon and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in
cases of absolute necessity: In other words, when it would not be
possible otherwise to defend society. Today, however as a result of steady
improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare,
if not practically non-existent."
--Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 1995
"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."
--U.S. Catholic Bishops, Statement on Capital Punishment, 1980
As believers in Jesus Christ and in his Gospel of Life, the Indiana
Catholic Conference wishes to reiterate and to strengthen its opposition to the
imposition of the death penalty as a punishment for capital offenses. This
brochure expands upon our earlier statement by explaining the positions taken in
light of Catholic teaching.
In December 1994, after 10 years, the state of Indiana resumed
capital punishment with the execution of Gregory Resnover. Three others have
been executed since 1977, including Tommie J. Smith, who, on June 14, 1996,
became the first person in Indiana to be executed by lethal injection.
The Indiana Catholic Conference, while realizing that the morality of capital
punishment is complex and controversial, reiterates its deep concern regarding
the resumption of the death penalty at all levels of government.
In their recent statement, "Confronting a Culture of Violence," the Catholic
bishops of the United States once again express their commitment to a consistent
ethic of life. Because Catholics believe in the sacredness and dignity of all
human life, we must speak out strongly against the violence and death that now
permeate all aspects of our society.
As Catholics, we refuse to shrink from recognizing, naming, and rejecting all
actions that threaten, diminish, or extinguish life, such as abortion,
euthanasia, the physical and sexual abuse of women and children, and capital
IS IT EVER APPROPRIATE?
Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of
Life) says that punishment "ought not go to the extreme of executing the
offender except in cases of absolute necessity," that is, only when it would be
otherwise impossible to defend society. And the pope teaches that such cases of
absolute necessity where society cannot be defended in any other way are "very
rare, if not practically nonexistent." (#56) That view is echoed in the
Catechism of the Catholic Church, which applies the principle of
self-defense to the protection of society, and states:
"Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully
determined, 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.
"If however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's
safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete
conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the
"Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has
for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense
incapable of doing harm without definitively taking away from him the
possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the
offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically
CONCERNS FOR SOCIETY AND VICTIMS OF CRIME
The effects of violent crimes upon people are easily seen, and we share
their fear at the increase in crime. We are troubled by the fact that little or
no attention is directed to the needs of victims and their loved ones, and we
believe that society must find ways to support them, compensate them, and help
Our parishes have undertaken efforts to prevent violence and promote
reconciliation and healing. Contrast those real actions with the reality of the
death penalty, which allows no opportunities for reconciliation. In addition,
the long process between conviction and execution does little to foster healing
for the victims and loved ones and may, in fact exacerbate their pain.
WHAT DOES CATHOLIC TEACHING SAY?
In the past, Catholic teaching permitted the taking of life in certain
exceptional circumstances such as self-defense and capital punishment. In the
face of a society that grows more violent with every passing year, the teaching
against taking lives has been strengthened and exceptions made more restrictive.
While the Church has not denied its traditional position that the state has
the right to employ capital punishment, many Catholic bishops, together with
Popes Paul VI and John Paul II, have spoken against the exercise of that right
by the state.
It is our best judgment as pastors and lay members of the Church who are
devoted to defending life that capital punishment will only serve to inflame the
culture of violence that is already too prevalent in our state. We believe that
capital punishment undermines the sacredness of human life. It fails to combat
crime effectively and doesn't contribute to building a society that is free from
crime. Furthermore, it neither helps the victims who survive nor does it
mitigate the loss of the victims who do not.
NO DETERRENT VALUE
We know of no evidence that the death penalty has, in fact, deterred
violence and crime in those states where it has been restored, and, therefore,
we do not believe that the circumstances of our day provide sufficient moral
justification for the death penalty.
We believe that the more effective deterrent to criminals would be life
imprisonment without parole. We acknowledge serious concerns about the cost of
criminal imprisonment. In response to that concern, we note the existence of
studies(1) that document the fact
that the death penalty - with the appeals which are part of that process - is
financially more costly to our society than is life imprisonment.
As the U.S. Catholic bishops have stated, "Increasingly, our society looks to
violent measures to deal with some of our most difficult social problems ...
including increased reliance on the death penalty to deal with crime ....
Violence is not the solution; it is the most clear sign of our failures .... We
cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing." ("Confronting a Culture of
Nor does our opposition stem exclusively from theological concerns. Many
thoughtful people have come to oppose the death penalty for a variety of
- It does not effectively deter serious crime in our nation.
- It does not alleviate the fear of violent crime or better safeguard
- It fails to protect more effectively than alternatives such as life
imprisonment without parole.
- It does not restore the social order breached by the offenders.
- It is often imposed unfairly, falling disproportionately on racial and
ethnic minorities and the poor. It is not imposed in a way that prevents the
execution of possibly innocent persons.
In 1993, Indiana passed a law allowing a jury to sentence a person to life
imprisonment without parole as an alternative to the death penalty. We believe
this alternative meets society's need for protection.
VENGEANCE OR FORGIVENESS?
We believe much of capital punishment's support springs from a desire for
revenge or from a desperate attempt to balance the terrible damage wrought by a
capital crime. And such feelings are understandable in the face of brutal and
senseless violence inflicted upon innocent people. Justice is a legitimate
However, we believe that justice cannot be achieved through vengeance. This
belief is deeply rooted in our Scriptures. While many people claim that the
bible endorses capital punishment, the verse generally used as a support
(Leviticus 24:20, "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth") is in fact a plea
for less violence, by urging people not to avenge one offense with a larger one.
In the Gospels, Jesus said that retaliation was an incorrect response to
violence. Rather, Jesus tells us to offer the other cheek and extend our hand in
blessing and healing (Matthew 5:38-48).
Humane and effective methods of defending society exist and should be
used. Exacting the death penalty is not one of them. Our Church remains
consistent in its support of the sacredness of human life and the dignity of the
human person from the moment of conception until natural death.
In "Confronting a Culture of Violence," the U.S. bishops say:
"We cannot ignore the underlying cultural values that help to create the
environment where violence grows: a denial of right and wrong, education that
ignores fundamental values, an abandonment of personal responsibility, an
excessive and selfish focus on our individual desires, a diminishing sense of
obligation to our children and neighbors, a misplaced priority on acquisitions,
and media glorification of violence and sexual irresponsibility. In short, we
often fail to value life and cherish human beings above possessions, power and
pleasure.... A consistent ethic of life remains the surest foundation of our
We affirm the inherent dignity of all persons because we believe that all
persons are called into life bearing the image and likeness of God. Each of us
bears the stamp of our creator. We recognize the inestimable value of each life
brought into being by that creator. For these reasons, we call on all Catholics
in the state of Indiana - nearly three-quarters of a million people - to join us
in opposition to the death penalty and in the celebration of life.
1 "Millions Misspent: What Politicians Don't Say About
the High Costs of the Death Penalty," Death Penalty Information Center, October
1992. (Contains 109 footnotes, many referring to additional studies).
"The Penalty of Death-What It Does to the Living," Focus, Michigan Catholic
Conference, Vol. 21, No. 2, April 1993.
Indiana Catholic Conference
P.O. Box 1410
Indianapolis, Indiana 46206-1410
The Indiana Catholic Conference is the public policy arm of the Roman
Catholic Church in Indiana, which is organized in five dioceses and comprises
more than 700,000 persons.
Indiana Catholic Conference Board of Directors:
ARCHDIOCESE OF INDIANAPOLIS
Most Rev. Daniel M. Buechlein, O.S.B., D.D. (General Chairman)
James Loughery, CLU, ChFC
DIOCESE OF EVANSVILLE
Most Rev. Gerald A. Gettelfinger, D.D.
Diane L. Bender, J.D.
DIOCESE OF FORT WAYNE-SOUTH BEND
Most Rev. John Michael D'Arcy, S.T.D.
Most Rev. Daniel R. Jenky, C.S.C.
Dean David T. Link, J.D. LL.D.
DIOCESE OF GARY
Most Rev. Dale J. Melczek, D.D.
Gregory A. Sobkowski, J.D.
DIOCESE OF LAFAYETTE-IN-INDIANA
Most Rev. William L. Higi, D.D.
John P. Nichols, Ph.D.
M. Desmond Ryan, Ph.D.
Teachings of the
Magisterium on Abortion