Capital Punishment: The Case For

BlogDeath Penalty
Submitted by: Jim Bacik

In 2002, the highly respected Jesuit theologian, Avery Dulles, published an article in the journal First Things, “Catholics and Capital Punishment” that still serves as an excellent summary of the arguments for the right of states to execute criminals. Avery Dulles, who was installed as a Cardinal in 2001 and died in 2008 at the age of 90, pointed out that the Mosaic Law identified some 36 capital offenses, including idolatry and murder, that merited execution. In the New Testament, the right of the State to put criminals to death is taken for granted. Although Jesus refrained from violence and admonished his followers to “put aside the sword” (Matt 26:32), he did not deny the State has the power to impose the death penalty and in his interactions with Pilot seems to affirm it as a right given by God (John 19:11).

The early Christians evidently had nothing against capital punishment. The Apostle Paul in an apparent reference to the death penalty said that a magistrate “does not bear the sword in vain for he is the servant of God to execute His wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). Augustine (d 430) the father of all western theology, taught that a representative of the State who puts criminals to death according to the rule of law does not violate the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” The great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas (d1274) did not produce a comprehensive treatment of capital punishment, but did say it is not intrinsically evil and can in certain circumstances be imposed as a last resort to protect the good of the community.

The Catechism of the Council of Trent published in 1566 taught that God entrusted the power of life and death to civil authorities and the use of this power was not a crime of murder but an act of obedience to the fifth commandment. In modern times, St. John Henry Newman (d1890) wrote in a letter to a friend that magistrates have the right to execute criminals and that the Church should sanction its use. Based on evidence from the Scripture and tradition, Avery Dulles concluded that it is a “settled point of doctrine” that the State has the authority to impose the death sentence in serious cases.

We should note that Avery Dulles went on to argue that in the contemporary world the State should not exercise its right to execute criminals because capital punishment on balance does more harm than good.

Nevertheless, I know from several private conversations with Avery that his passion on this issue was to defend the traditional teaching so there would be doctrinal continuity. Over the years, Dulles came to fear the relativizing of doctrine in the post Vatican II Church and did all he could to support doctrinal continuity, including maintaining the “settled doctrine” on the right of the State to execute criminals convicted of murder.


What is my reaction to the way Avery Dulles approached the issue of the death penalty?

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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