Capital Punishment: The Case Against

BlogDeath Penalty
Submitted by: Jim Bacik

In his 2020 encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis teaches that “the death penalty is inadmissible and the Church is firmly committed to calling for its abolition worldwide” (n 263). The pope goes on to justify this teaching ”not even a murderer loses his personal dignity and God himself pledges to guarantee this” (n 269).

This official teaching was the culmination of growing opposition to capital punishment that intensified after the Second Vatican Council that ended in 1965. During the 1970s, Dorothy Day (d 1980), founder of the Catholic Worker Movement consistently spoke out publicly against the death penalty. In his 1995 encyclical “The Gospel of Life,” Pope John Paul expressed near total opposition to the death penalty, arguing that with modern improvements in penal systems, the need for capital punishment to protect society from criminals is “very, very rare, if not practically non-existent” (n 56). At the end of his 1999 pastoral visit to the U.S. the pope called on Catholics to proclaim the gospel of life by lobbying against the death penalty which he called “cruel and unnecessary.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church published in 1992 taught that “the traditional teaching of the Church “does not exclude recourse to the death penalty” (n 2267). Under the leadership of Pope Francis the teaching was revised in 2018 to read in “light of the Gospel” the death penalty is “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” (2267). After noting the traditional teaching, the text offers reasons for the revisions. There is today an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. Furthermore, states have developed more effective systems of detention that “ensure due protection of citizens” without definitively depriving the guilty “of the possibility of redemption.” We should note that the fundamental basis for the change of doctrine is the “dignity of the human person” now better understood in the light of the Gospel. In explaining the revision, the Vatican insisted that it “expressed an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the previous teaching of the Magisterium.”

In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis expanded on his rejection of the death penalty. He cites Pope Nicholas I (d 867) who declared efforts should be made to “free from the punishment of death not only each of the innocent, but all the guilty as well” (n 265). He also made reference to the great theologian Augustine (d 430) who in a trial of a murderer who killed two priests pleaded with the judge: “Don’t let the atrocity of their sins feed a desire for vengeance, but desire instead to heal the wounds which theses deeds have inflicted on their souls” (ibid). Following Augustine, Francis argued that the death penalty not only can fuel vengeance but also rules out the possibility of conversion.

Among the many arguments against the death penalty, Pope Francis called attention to the “possibility of judicial error.” In this regard, a 2021 study by the “Death Penalty Information Center” showed that of the last 1,500 U.S. citizens executed at least 185 were later exonerated. Noting that the death penalty can be used to persecute minorities, the pope went on to urge all Christians and people of good will to work for the abolition of the death penalty (n 268). In his September 2022 monthly prayer intention, Pope Francis revisited his major objections to the death penalty that “offers no justice to victims, but encourages revenge.” It is morally wrong because it violates human dignity and destroys life, the most important gift we have received. The pope senses a growing “No” around the world to capital punishment, which he sees as “a great sign of hope.” Finally, Pope Francis invites us to pray that the death penalty may be legally abolished in every country.


What do I make of the case against capital punishment made by Pope Francis?

About the Author

Fr. James J. Bacik has served as a priest of the Diocese of Toledo since his ordination in 1962. He is a widely regarded theologian, writer, lecturer and pastor who served as campus minister and adjunct professor of humanities at the University of Toledo for more than 30 years. Fr. Bacik is an AUSCP member. Visit his website at

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