Traditionally, the Catholic Church has defined capital punishment as ‘legal slaying’. The church has historically supported the principle of natural law which allows state execution of criminals who threaten the safety of innocent citizens and peace in the land. In accordance with this, the state’s duty is to protect its citizens from those who wish to rob them and violate their rights. The state is also subordinate to this law and therefore must protect its citizens at all costs. When a transgressor of this law is allowed to prosper, there is a breakdown of harmony in the society. Controversy arose over the issue of the death penalty when Pope John Paul II wrote an encyclical letter in 1995 titled ‘Evangelium Vitae’ which drew controversy over the death penalty issue (Gonzales 1).
One of the saints of the Catholic Church, St. Augustine supported the death penalty by showing that God may authorize killing either by a general law or by commanding an individual explicitly to do so (Wilton 1). He therefore confers this authority upon an individual who does not bear any responsibility for the killing but acts only as an agent. St Thomas Aquinas also supported the death penalty by pointing out that it was necessary especially when the criminal being alive threatens the safety of their community in comparison to their conversion. He added that in the face of death these criminals have the opportunity to repent and if they failed to do so, then they would have remained a danger to society (Wilton 1).
Pope Innocent III in the year 1210 A.D. affirmed the church’s position by claiming that a non-religious power could carry out a death penalty without committing a mortal sin when this was done as a result of sound judgment for the safety of humanity (Wilton 1). In 1905, St. Pius X, the then pope, affirmed that it was legal for killing to occur in the case of a just war and also in cases of self defence against dangerous aggressors (Woodward et al, 56). During a papal address in September 1952, Pope Pius XII said that public power should be allowed to determine whether a man is executed or not depending on whether his wrongs caused him to dispossess himself of his right to life (Gonzales 1).
In 1992, the Catholic Church approved for the first time in over four hundred years, a catechism which was universal (Gonzales 1). This was done under the leadership of Pope John Paul II who described it as a full exposition of the Catholic Church, allowing the faithful to understand the position of the Church on various issues (Woodward et al., 56). A second version was released in 1997 and it revealed that there had been a revision on the section where death penalty was discussed. Pope John Paul II was averse to the death penalty, and this revision called for bloodless solutions to achieving justice. The new edition defined the only justification for the death penalty as being in defence of the society against the criminal in question. This was much more restrictive than the Church’s earlier position which had allowed more situations where the death penalty was appropriate. This position was restated by Cardinal Ratzinger in 2004; it was also clarified that a Catholic was allowed to hold divergent views on the matter (Gonzales 1).
Gonzales A. Pro-life and Pro-capitalist Punishment: Contradiction in Terms? Web. 12 June 2011. http://www.roman-catholic.com/Roman/Articles/CapitalPunishment.htm
Wilton G. D. The Church’s Evolving View on the Death Penalty. Web. 12 June 2011.
Woodward, Kenneth L., and T. Trent Gegax. “Life, death and the pope.” Newsweek 125.15 (1995): 56. Business Source Complete. EBSCO. Web. 12 June 2011.