Pope Francis’s Teaching on the Death Penalty: A Rupture With Divine Revelation and the Church’s Constant Teaching

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Pope Francis’s Teaching on the Death Penalty: A Rupture With Divine Revelation and the Church’s Constant Teaching
Pope Francis’s Teaching on the Death Penalty: A Rupture With Divine Revelation and the Church’s Constant Teaching

In a speech to a delegation of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty, on December 17, 2018,1 Pope Francis denied the moral licitness of the death penalty by stating that it “is always inadmissible,” “contrary to the Gospel,” and “deeply injurious to human dignity.”

Francis’s declaration could not be blunter: If the death penalty is “always inadmissible,” that is tantamount to saying that it is intrinsically evil; this is all the more so as he adds that it is “contrary to the Gospel.”

A Doctrine and Practice Always Accepted and Taught by the Church

However, this affirmation contradicts natural law, the teaching of Holy Scripture (both Old and New Testaments), Tradition, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and the constant Pontifical and Conciliar Magisterium, which affirm its legitimacy.2

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For example, the Profession of Faith that Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) imposed on Waldensian heretics to be reconciled with the Church required them to acknowledge this legitimacy:

“Concerning secular power we declare that without mortal sin it is possible to exercise a judgment of blood as long as one proceeds to bring punishment not in hatred but in judgment, not incautiously but advisedly.”3

Also, the Church has always allowed Catholic States to apply the death penalty. In the papal territories themselves, of which the pope was the sovereign, it was applied until 1870, just two months before Piedmontese troops took over the Eternal City and ended the Pope’s temporal dominion. In 1929, when the Lateran Treaty established the Vatican City State, the death penalty law was imposed on anyone who tried to kill the pope. That law was abolished by Paul VI in 1969.

It is thus clear that the moral licitness of the death penalty has always been accepted by the Church from its earliest days, both in doctrine and practice. There may be divergences as to the prudential appropriateness of applying this penalty in certain circumstances or concrete cases; not, however, regarding its legitimacy in principle.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 2004 Memorandum

In that sense, in 2004, there was a disagreement among US bishops about denying Communion to politicians who supported abortion and euthanasia. Some prelates claimed that, to be consistent, they should apply the same measure to those who supported the death penalty, since John Paul II had expressed opposition to its application today. A memorandum from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the Archbishop of Washington, signed by then-Prefect Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, made it clear that support for abortion or euthanasia cannot be equated with support for the death penalty.

The document affirmed that the bundling together of these issues is not possible because the Church accepts the legitimacy of the death penalty while admitting the divergence of opinion on its application in concrete cases even between the faithful and the pope. Cardinal Ratzinger wrote as follows:

Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment.4

Infallible Teaching of the Church’s Ordinary Magisterium

Pope Francis’s present statement, as well as previous ones along the same lines indicate a clear rupture with the Divine Revelation and the constant Magisterium of the Church, since it peremptorily denies, in doctrinal terms, the licitness of the death penalty in principle, and not just the appropriateness of its application in specific cases.

This rupture is all the more serious since the perennial teaching of the ordinary Magisterium of the Church is infallible, as the illustrious Spanish theologian Fr. José de Aldama, S.J. emphasizes: “Though the ordinary Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff is not infallible in itself, if, however, it teaches constantly and for a long time a certain doctrine in the entire Church …. Its infallibility must be absolutely admitted; otherwise it would lead the Church into error.”5

Therefore, even if there is no solemn declaration of the ecclesiastical Magisterium defining the legitimacy of the death penalty, its infallibility must be accepted because of the Church’s long and unvarying teaching and approval in this regard.

Distorting the Thought of the Angelic Doctor

Moreover, to justify his innovative position, Francis was unable to find a single passage in Scripture, pontifical or Conciliar documents or in the works of the great treatise writers and Doctors of the Church. He attempts to corroborate his stance by making a truncated quotation of Saint Thomas which distorts the thought of the Angelic Doctor.

He mentions question 64 of II-IIa of the Summa Theologica, but instead of referring to articles 2 and 3, in which the Saint specifically deals with the death penalty, he cites article 7 which discusses self-defense. However, even here the pope omits the part of the text (below) in which the Saint contradicts him by admitting the legitimacy of the application of capital punishment by public authority: “…it is unlawful to take a man’s life, except for the public authority acting for the common good, as stated above (Article 3).”

Is a “More Legalistic Than Christian” Church the True Church?

In addition to the seriousness of denying a truth contained in Revelation and constantly taught by the Magisterium of the Church, equally or perhaps even more serious are the reasons Francis gives to prove that the Church would have hitherto erred by accepting the death penalty.

“Even in the Papal States recourse was made to this inhuman form of punishment, ignoring the primacy of mercy over justice… we acknowledge that the acceptance of this type of penalty was due to the mentality of an era that was more legalistic than Christian, which held sacred the value of laws lacking in humanity and mercy. ….”

But, if the Church permitted, for so long, the use of death punishment even in the Papal States “due to the mentality of an era that was more legalistic than Christian,” can we say that she is guided by the Holy Spirit and that she is the true Church of Christ? Or is she to be considered an imposter that needs to be unmasked, and that this is what Francis would be doing throughout his pontificate?6

The Authority of Divine Revelation Is At Stake

Among the numerous studies that show the legitimacy of the death penalty according to the Scriptures and Tradition, a scholarly article by the late Avery Cardinal Dulles, in 2001, had great repercussion.7

After an extensive analysis of the subject, the Cardinal concludes:

“The Catholic Magisterium does not, and never has, advocated unqualified abolition of the death penalty. I know of no official statement from popes or bishops, whether in the past or in the present, that denies the right of the State to execute offenders at least in certain extreme cases.”

The Cardinal warns of the deleterious consequences to morality and dogma that would lead to abandoning the doctrine on the licitness of the death penalty in the name of a “progress of ethical consciousness.”

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Indeed, he says, since the licitness of the death penalty is supported by the authority of Scripture and Tradition, its abandonment would lead to the abandonment of that authority. But since it is by that authority that the Church condemns divorce, abortion, homosexual relations and the ordination of women to the priesthood, once this authority is denied the way is open for the acceptance of such errors and aberrations.8

Therefore, at stake in the condemnation of the licitness of the death penalty is the very authority of Divine Revelation, without which the Magisterium of the Church loses its meaning, becoming the mere result of human intellectual elaboration and subject to the errors and variations inherent to all human reasoning. In more direct terms, the Magisterium would not have the divine guarantee and would be subject to the mutations of the times, as sustained by the Modernist heresy.

Natural Law Also Affirms the Licitness of the Death Penalty

In addition to Divine Revelation, the licitness of the death penalty is clearly assured by natural law.

The argument of Saint Thomas Aquinas, natural law’s commentator par excellence, is classic: Just as a surgeon may amputate an infected limb to prevent infection from spreading throughout the body and endangering life, so legitimate authority may eliminate an infected member of society, a malefactor, to safeguard the common good.9

Elsewhere, the Angelic Doctor says:

“[T]he common good is better than the particular good of one person. So, the particular good should be removed in order to preserve the common good. But the life of certain pestiferous men is an impediment to the common good which is the concord of human society. Therefore, certain men must be removed by death from the society of men.”10

Rupture Rather Than “Harmonious Development of Doctrine”

In his speech, Francis insists that his new doctrine on the non licitness of the death penalty “does not imply any contradiction with past teaching” but it is a “harmonious development of doctrine,” since “the Church has always defended the dignity of human life.” For this reason, “the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that the death penalty is always inadmissible because it offends the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

According to the laws of logic, if two propositions are contradictory and one of them is true, the other is necessarily false. Traditional doctrine affirms the legitimacy of the death penalty, while Francis’s new teaching denies it. These are, therefore, contradictory propositions and cannot be harmonized. As a result, the new teaching does not constitute a “harmonious development of doctrine” in relation to the preceding Magisterium but rather a rupture with it.

A Capital Distinction: “Ontological Dignity” and “Moral Dignity”

The campaign to abolish the death penalty began in the eighteenth century, based on the philosophy of the Enlightenment, especially on the optimism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and later, on utilitarianism. Today, the main argument against it is based on an erroneous conception of human dignity, a position subscribed to by Francis.

In this speech he follows the same line of reasoning as in other pronouncements: the criminal should not undergo capital punishment because he never loses his dignity even if he commits most heinous crimes.

This argument is basically flawed because it fails to take into account the difference between ontological dignity, which derives from human nature and thus cannot disappear, and moral dignity, which is acquired dignity resulting from the conformity of the person’s actions with right reason and Divine law. When he intentionally practices evil, a criminal loses this moral dignity.

The Criminal Deprives Himself of His Human Dignity

With his usual clarity and simplicity, Saint Thomas explains in the Summa Theologica that when a man commits a grievous sin, he “departs from the order of reason, and consequently falls away from the dignity of his manhood. Hence, although it be evil in itself to kill a man so long as he preserves his dignity, yet it may be good to kill a man who has sinned, even as it is to kill a beast. For a bad man is worse than a beast and is more harmful.”11

As for depriving an individual of his right to life, the explanation of Pope Pius XII goes along the same line:

“Even in the case of the death penalty the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. Rather public authority limits itself to depriving the offender of the good of life in expiation for his guilt, after he, through his crime, deprived himself of his own right to life.”12

Disregarding the Common Good of Society Is a Serious Omission

Another serious shortcoming in Pope Francis’s pronouncements against the death penalty, shared by other abolitionists, is to consider only one aspect of punishment—correcting the wrongdoer and preventing him from committing new crimes.

Now, as Fr. Victor Cathrein, S.J. emphasizes in his Philosophia Moralis, this is not the primary end of punishment: “To correct the delinquent is the secondary end of public punishments; the primary end is the common good of society.13

Making it Difficult to Understand Divine Justice and the Dogma of Hell

The expiatory goal of punishment is all the more important since it is difficult to understand divine justice and the dogma of Hell without it. Since in the next life, the need for protection and the possibility of conversion are nonexistent, eternal punishment can be understood only as expiation for the evil committed and reparation of transgressed divine justice, representing the triumph of good over evil.

This is what Pope Pius XII taught in his memorable speech at the Sixth Congress of International Penal Law on October 3, 1953:

“Finally, it is the expiatory function which gives the key to the Last Judgment of the Creator Himself, Who ‘renders to everyone according to his works’ (Matt. 16:27; Rom. 2:6). The function of protection disappears completely in the after-life. The almighty and all-knowing Creator can always prevent the repetition of a crime by the interior moral conversion of the delinquent; but the Supreme Judge, in His Last Judgment, applies uniquely the principle of retribution. This, then must be of great importance.”14

Eternal and Natural Law: The Foundation of Morals and Law

Fr. George William Rutler points out this consequence of Francis’s speech:

“The obvious meaning [of Francis’s assertion that the death penalty is ‘inadmissible’] is that capital punishment is intrinsically evil, but to say so outright would be too blatant. He also calls all life “inviolable,” a term which applies only to innocent life and has no moral warrant otherwise. Then there is the ancillary and unmentioned consideration of the role of punishment and hell in all this, conjuring a suspicion of universalism, which is the denial of eternal alienation from God.”15

“Universalism” is the theological error that all people will eventually be saved no matter what kind of life they lead, and therefore, that Hell is empty.

If there is no eternal punishment for those who practice evil, why avoid it? The gates are open to complete amorality. This helps us to better understand the liberalism of Amoris Laetitia.


  1. “Address of His Holiness Pope Francis to the Delegation of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty,” Dec. 17, 2018, http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2018/december/documents/papa-francesco_20181217_commissione-contropena-dimorte.html.
  2. Cf. Charles Journet, The Church of the Word Incarnate (London-New York: Sheed and Ward, 1955), 281-3; E. Thamiry, s.v. “Mort (Peine de),” Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique (Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1929), vol. 10, Second part, cols. 2500-8; Avery Cardinal Dulles, “Catholicism & Capital Punishment,” First Things, 112, Apr. 2001:30-35, http://www.firstthings.com/article/2001/04/catholicism-amp-capital-punishment; Luiz Sérgio Solimeo, “The Death Penalty Is Needed To Understand Divine Justice and the Dogma of Hell,” TFP.org, Aug. 18, 2018, https://tfp.org/the-death-penalty-is-needed-to-understand-divine-justice-and-the-dogma-of-hell/; Luiz S. Solimeo, “Is the Death Penalty Contrary to the Gospel?” TFP.org, Oct. 18, 2017, https://tfp.org/death-penalty-contrary-gospel/; Edward Feser and Joseph M. Bessette, By Man Shall His Blood be Shed (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017); Edward Feser and Joseph Besette, “The Church Cannot Reverse Past Teaching on Capital Punishment,” Crisis Magazine, https://www.crisismagazine.com/2016/church-cannot-reverse-past-teaching-capital-punishment; Edward Feser, “Capital punishment and the infallibility of the ordinary Magisterium,” The Catholic World Report, Jan. 20, 2018, https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2018/01/20/capital-punishment-and-the-infallibility-of-the-ordinary-magisterium/.
  3. Denzinger, no. 425, http://patristica.net/denzinger/#n400.
  4. https://www.ewtn.com/library/curia/cdfworthycom.htm, accessed Jan. 2, 2018.
  5. Josephus A. de Aldama, S.J., Mariologia, in Sacrae Theologiae Summa (Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 1961), 3:418, quoted in Arnaldo Vidigal Xavier da Silveira, Can Documents of the Magisterium of the Church Contain Errors? Can Catholic Faithful Resist Them? (Spring Grove, Penn.: The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property – TFP , 2015), 15.
  6. See José Antonio Ureta, Pope Francis’s “Paradigm Shift” (Spring Grove, Penn.: The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, 2018).
  7. Avery Cardinal Dulles, “Catholicism & Capital Punishment,” First Things, 112, Apr. 2001:30-5, http://www.firstthings.com/article/2001/04/catholicism-amp-capital-punishment.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 64, a. 2, c.
  10. Summa Contra Gentiles, bk. III, ch. 146, “That it is lawful for judges to inflict punishments,” no. 4, https://dhspriory.org/thomas/ContraGentiles3b.htm#146.
  11. Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 64, a. 2, at 3.
  12. Pius XII, “Ai Partecipanti al Congresso Internazionale di Istopatologia del Sistema Nervoso,” Sept. 14, 1952, Discorsi e Radiomessagi, 15:328.
  13. Victor Cathrein, S.J., Philosophia Moralis (Barcelona: Editorial Herder, 1945), no. 735, obj. 3, Rep.
  14. Pius XII, Discorsi e Radiomessagi di Sua Santità Pio XII (Vatican: Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana), 15: 352; The Major Addresses of Pope Pius XII, Vincent A. Yzermans, ed. (St. Paul: The North Central Publishing Company, 1961), 257. We use Yzermans’ translations.
  15. Fr. George William Rutler, “Pope Francis’ new comments on the death penalty are incoherent and dangerous,” The Catholic World Report, Dec. 18, 2018, https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2018/12/18/pope-francis-new-comments-on-the-death-penalty-are-incoherent-and-dangerous/.

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