Catholic Teaching and the Death Penalty

Indiana Catholic Conference

Publication Date: August 01, 1998

"...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 punishment.


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 human person.

"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 nonexistent." (#2267)


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 them heal.

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.


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.


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 Violence")

Nor does our opposition stem exclusively from theological concerns. Many thoughtful people have come to oppose the death penalty for a variety of reasons:

  • It does not effectively deter serious crime in our nation.
  • It does not alleviate the fear of violent crime or better safeguard the people.
  • 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.


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 desire.

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 life together."

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:


Most Rev. Daniel M. Buechlein, O.S.B., D.D. (General Chairman)

James Loughery, CLU, ChFC


Most Rev. Gerald A. Gettelfinger, D.D.

Diane L. Bender, J.D.


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.


Most Rev. Dale J. Melczek, D.D.

Gregory A. Sobkowski, J.D.


Most Rev. William L. Higi, D.D.

John P. Nichols, Ph.D.

M. Desmond Ryan, Ph.D.

Executive Director

Priests for Life
PO Box 236695 • Cocoa, FL 32923
Tel. 321-500-1000, Toll Free 888-735-3448 • Email: