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In the Name of Mercy and Justice 

A Pastoral Letter Regarding the Morality of Capital Punishment

In recent years, many people in our country have debated the morality of capital punishment. On one hand, proponents see it as an acceptable form of punishment administered by the state in very specific circumstances. On the other hand, those who oppose the death penalty view it as a cruel and unnecessary act of violence. While Catholic moral teaching has traditionally affirmed the right of the state to impose capital sentences upon criminals in certain strict circumstances, a growing  number of believers question whether conditions in the modern world can now justify the exercise of this right. They see the growing use of capital punishment as another manifestation of our society's "culture of death" which deprecates all human life, whether that life be unborn, innocent, defenseless, sick, impoverished, old or even  guilty of serious crime.1

In light of this debate, I offer this pastoral letter on the subject of capital punishment to the faithful of Brooklyn and Queens and to all men and women of good will in the hope that it may guide our minds and hearts to follow the dictates of the Gospel and the teachings of the Church.
I. The Sacredness of All Human Life:

To understand the Church's teaching regarding capital punishment, we must begin by acknowledging that every human life, whether innocent or guilty of sin, is sacred and priceless. This is true for three reasons. First, Genesis teaches us that men and women are made in the image and likeness of God (Gn. 1: 27). "Man has been given a sublime dignity, based in the intimate bond which unites him to his Creator: in man there shines forth a reflection of God himself"2. We reflect the divine image in our ability to reason and understand the world around us, to choose freely those values that promote human life and by exercising dominion and stewardship over all creation. "As manifestations of God in the world, a sign of His presence, a trace of his glory"3, God has created us and found us to be very good (Gn. 1: 31).   

Second, the sacredness of human life is reaffirmed in the Incarnation of the Eternal Son of the Father. God, in his infinite mercy, freely chose to take on our humanity, weakened by sin, so that all who share human life might be healed. The destructive power of sin did not destroy the basic goodness of  human life because of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, St. John teaches us that Jesus is life itself (Jn. 11: 25-26) who from all eternity has received life from the Father (Jn. 5: 26) and shares that life with all humanity. This new life, offered to us through Christ's death and resurrection, gives us membership in His Kingdom and the promise that we will also share the glorified life of the risen Lord. For this reason, our Holy Father rightly calls the Gospel of Christ none other than the "Gospel of Life." 4

Finally, the promise of eternal life reminds us that our life's goal is not confined solely to this earthly existence. Rather, human life is sacred because it is meant to be eternal. In his encyclical entitled Evangelium Vitae, our Holy Father reminds us of this basic truth: ". . . the dignity of this life is linked not only to its beginning, to the fact that it comes from God but also to its final end, to its destiny of fellowship with God in knowledge and love of him."5 In other words, our earthly human life is made to possess God's eternal life in heaven–a life in which the Lord will share the fullness of His love with each of us forever. Thus, since the goal of every human life is eternal happiness, every human life is truly sacred and priceless.   

In light of these three reasons, Catholics join all men and women of good will6 to proclaim that all human life is sacred and a priceless gift from God. Life also has an inviolable value that cannot be measured and gives to each human being basic inalienable rights. These are granted not by any political or civil authority but by God Himself. Chief among these rights is to exist free from all deliberate attacks upon it. Furthermore, our human dignity is not the result of our possessions or even our innocence and guilt but comes from our nature, created in God's image, redeemed by Christ and destined for eternal life. Thus, all human life demands respect and protection. As our Holy Father reminds us, ". . .  the deepest element of God's commandment to protect human life is the requirement to show reverence and love for every person7 and the life of every person." In a world that has sanctioned attacks upon innocent human life in the form of abortion and euthanasia, our defense of human life must be clear and unwavering. "God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can, in any circumstance, claim for himself the right to destroy directly an innocent human being." 8 

However, many ask if this same defense of human life applies to those who are guilty of heinous crimes against their neighbor or society? Can society, in order to defend itself, impose the death penalty upon those criminals who pose an enduring threat to it? Are there valid circumstances in our contemporary society that justify capital punishment?

Ever mindful of our unwavering defense of human life, we will now explore the issue of capital punishment.

II. Catholic Teaching and Capital Punishment:

A. Society's Right to Self Defense:

Catholic moral teaching traditionally affirmed the legitimacy of capital punishment in certain circumstances. This was true for a number of reasons. First, the Scriptures do not clearly prohibit the practice.  Second, many Church Fathers justified its practice, believing it to be a deterrent to crime, as a way to prevent grave evil and as a means by which society could protect itself from further serious harm.

Many theologians compared capital punishment to a medical procedure that detaches a cancerous limb from the body so that a person may live. In the case of capital punishment, a person who is guilty of serious crime and remains an imminent threat to society is removed so that those who are innocent may live free from harm and fear. When exercised, capital punishment could be imposed only under three conditions- if it was imposed by legitimate public authority, if the gravity of the crime was weighed against the severity of the penalty and if there was moral certainty of the criminal's guilt of the crime.

The principal reason traditionally used to justify capital punishment is society's right to defend itself as a last resort against criminals who pose an enduring threat.

The gravity of the crime committed never in itself justified the death penalty. Rather, the inability of society to defend itself against additional heinous crimes on the part of a criminal justified an appeal to capital punishment. In other words, in order to be morally justifiable, the death penalty must be the only way left to society to protect itself against the persistent attacks of a criminal unwilling to repent.

The right to such self-defense involves two competing values. In this sense, society's self-defense is similar to our individual right to self-defense. This right comes directly from the intrinsic value of human life. The Lord Himself teaches us that we must love our neighbor as ourselves. Proper self-love and respect allows us to insist that our own right to life be respected, especially when attacked without provocation.

"No one can renounce the right to self-defense out of lack of love for life or for self."9 Thus, if someone is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow in an act of self-defense, he or she is not guilty of murder.10 

Second, in conjunction with our own right to life is the duty not to harm anyone else's life. This is especially true when innocent human life is threatened or harmed. Thus, while the right to self-defense is legitimate, it can never be used as an excuse to justify aggressive behavior that can and should be avoided.

The right to self-defense also extends to society. "Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another's life, the common good of the family or of the state."11 In the face of unprovoked aggression, society can and must protect itself and its members in a reasonable fashion against further attack. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:

"Preserving the common good of society requires rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm. For this reason, the traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of  legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty."12

Thus, on a theoretical level, society continues to have the right to impose the death penalty only as a last resort in order to effectively defend itself. In these cases, the fatal outcome of the death penalty is attributable to the aggressor whose action brought it about and not the authority who imposed it.

B. The Right of Self Defense and the Contemporary World:

It is not enough, however, to speak about society's theoretical rights while ignoring the concrete situation in which we live. All societal rights are exercised in concrete situations that can curtail or even prohibit their use. In terms of capital punishment, society may continue to possess the theoretical right to impose the sentence of capital punishment as a means to defend itself as a last resort. However, other questions remain. Given the resources available to modern society to defend itself, can our nation or any other nation legitimately impose capital punishment as a means of self-defense? Have conditions so changed in contemporary society that a society's right to defend itself no longer needs to resort to the use of capital punishment? Have all the circumstances which existed in the past to justify the use of capital punishment been effectively eliminated?  If so, while the theoretical right may still exist, the exercise of capital
punishment can no longer be morally justified in practice. In recent years, the Holy Father has made this point increasingly clear in his teachings. He acknowledges that the conditions in modern society no longer justify the use of capital punishment.

Among the signs of hope we should also count the spread at many levels of public opinion of a new sensitivity ever more opposed to war as an instrument for the resolution of conflicts between peoples . . . In the same perspective there is evidence of a growing public opposition to the death penalty, even when such a penalty is seen as a kind of "legitimate defense" on the part of society. Modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance of reform.13

Part of the change experienced in modern society is the steady improvements made in the security and organization of the penal system. The Pope states that since society no longer needs to execute its criminals in order to effectively defend itself, then the exercise of capital punishment as a last resort is no longer justifiable. He concludes, " . . . such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent."14  "On this matter, there is a growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished."15

In his recent trip to St. Louis, the Holy Father further elaborated his opposition to capital punishment. He did so within the context of calling all Christians to participate in a new evangelization of the modern world. This evangelization, needed to reinvigorate all believers as we prepare to celebrate the Great Jubilee of the year 2000, must be "unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life in every situation.

"To be pro-life means to recognize and  proclaim God's love for man, the dignity of the human person and the value of all human life."  

The Pope continues: "A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance of reform. I renew the appeal I made recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary."16

In summary, it seems clear that the exercise of capital punishment can no longer be morally justified in practice. While some may suggest that some countries do not yet have at their disposal the means by which they can effectively defend themselves without the use of capital punishment, this is certainly not true for our own country. We do possess adequate means to defend ourselves from heinous criminal acts without resorting to the violence associated with the death penalty.  As  a result, we face the moral imperative to cease its use immediately and without exception.

C. Other reasons cited to justify capital punishment:
In addition to self-defense, there are other reasons traditionally cited to justify the use of capital punishment. They are all inadequate.

1. Capital Punishment as Retribution:

Some argue that capital punishment restores the balance of justice by inflicting punishment upon a criminal in exchange for the harm that he or she has done. Such harm cannot be undone. Misguided proponents of capital punishment mistake vengeance for justice. They believe that justice demands a strict, proportionate punishment so that the crime committed can be redressed. Such punishment can also extend to the administration of the death penalty when heinous crimes are committed. Thus, these proponents of capital punishment argue that the ultimate cause for the death penalty lies with criminals and not society.

The attempt to justify capital punishment in terms of justice is flawed however because it forgets the true purpose of administering punishment to criminals. Society must punish criminals in order "to redress the disorder caused by the offender."17 The punishment must be adequate to allow the defense of public order as well as offer an incentive to help change the offender's behavior. The nature and extent of such punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon "and ought not to 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".18 In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.19

If our goal is to establish a penal system more in line with human dignity and true rehabilitation, capital punishment cannot be justified in the name of punishment or justice.

Against the civil concern for retribution is the Christian desire and design for redemption. This affords the murderer opportunities to acknowledge evil, repent and search for forgiveness.

2.  Capital Punishment as a Deterrent to Crime: 
There are others who justify capital punishment because they believe it to be a deterrent to serious crime. If the penalty of death is administered quickly and impartially for certain crimes, the contention is that criminals will avoid such crimes for fear of being put to death.

However, the deterrent quality of the death penalty has been called into question by recent impartial studies. They show that there is no convincing evidence that the death penalty deters crime. It has been reported that States which have the death penalty have higher civilian murder rates than those that do not. The average murder rate per 100,000 people in States which have capital punishment is about eight percent, while it is only 4.4 percent in States that have abolished it.

3. Other Weaknesses in Capital Punishment

The fact that innocent people have unjustly faced the death penalty is indisputable. Since 1972, seventy-three men and two women were released from
death row after being found innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. This means that one out of every seven executions involves an innocent person being freed.20

Finally, there is evidence that the death penalty is imposed disproportionately on racial and ethnic minorities, the poor and disadvantaged persons who cannot afford the best legal assistance.

III. The Mystery of Divine Justice and Mercy:

If our society wishes to seek true justice, then it must rediscover the power of God's divine mercy. For it is only with mercy that true justice can be administered.

A powerful example of divine mercy is found in the story of Cain's murder of his brother Abel (cf., Gn. 4: 1-16). This first murder violated the "spiritual kinship" which unites the human family- a kinship that recognizes our fundamental good and equality in personal dignity.21  In the face of this crime, God cannot leave Cain unpunished. The blood of Abel demands justice because blood, as the source of life, belongs only to God. As a result, God curses Cain because "whoever attacks human life, in some way attacks God himself."22

However, along with punishment, God also shows His mercy. The Scriptures remind us that the Lord put a mark on Cain lest any who come upon him would seek to kill him. Pope John Paul concludes:

He [the Lord] thus gave him a distinctive sign, not to condemn him to the hatred of others but to protect and defend him from those wishing to kill him, even out of a desire to avenge Abel's death. Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity and God himself pledges to guarantee this. And it is precisely here that the paradoxical mystery of the merciful justice of God is shown forth.23

It is not solely Abel's blood that cries out for justice. Christ shed His blood for all mankind for the forgiveness of sins. "It is precisely by His death that Jesus reveals all the splendour and value of life, inasmuch as his self-oblation on the Cross becomes the source of new life for all people (Jn. 12: 32)."24  The blood of Christ "speaks more graciously" than the blood of Abel (Heb. 7: 25) because . . . indeed it expresses and requires a more radical "justice", and above all it implores mercy, it makes intercession for the brethren before the Father and it is the source of perfect redemption and the gift of new life.25

Christ in His mercy allows the sinner to face the truth of his sin, seek true repentance and conversion of mind and heart. The blood of Christ, shed at the hands of executioners, shows how precious every human life is and how great is the Father's merciful love, who stands ready to forgive all who truly seek it. Only when we stand before the love of God can we admit our sinfulness, recognize its full seriousness and seek true change. God alone in His mercy allows us this opportunity to experience true conversion. Thus, mercy leads to repentance which ultimately opens the door to eternal life.

Since the death penalty robs a criminal of the opportunity in the future to recognize his or her own sinfulness and seek true repentance, then in the name of divine mercy it must be abandoned.     

IV. Conclusion:

As I end this pastoral letter, I commend all believers to be unwavering in the defense of all human life, even those guilty of serious crimes. In an age that has known great violence and despair, our eyes must now turn to the new beginning offered to us in the coming of the Great Jubilee. May the dawn of the new millennium be the occasion for a rediscovered respect and protection for all human life–a respect without which no society can hope to prosper. May Mary our Mother, who bore Life itself into the world, bless and guide our work on behalf of all human life, now and forever.

Sincerely in Christ,

                  Most Reverend Thomas V. Daily
                  Bishop of Brooklyn

May 22, 1999


1) Evangelium Vitae, no. 12.
2) Ibid., no. 34.
3) Ibid.
4) Ibid., no. 29.
5) Ibid., no. 38; cf. Evangelium Vitae, no. 2.
6) Evangelium Vitae, no. 2: "Every person sincerely    open to truth and
goodness can, by the light of reason and the hidden action of grace, come to
recognize in the natural law written in the heart (cf. Rom. 2: 14-15) the
sacred value of human life from its beginning until its end, and can affirm
the right of every human being to have this primary good respected to the
highest degree."
7) Ibid.,  no. 41.
8) Ibid., no. 53.
9) Ibid., no. 55.
10 )The Catechism of the Catholic Church, art. 2264.
11) Ibid., art. 2265.
12) Ibid., art. 2266.
13) Evangelium Vitae, no. 27.
14) Ibid., no. 56.
15) Ibid.
16) Papal Homily at the Trans World Dome, January 27, 1999, par. 5.
17)The Catechism of the Catholic Church, art. 2266
18) Evangelium Vitae, no. 56.
19) The Catechism of the Catholic Church, art. 2267.
20) "Survivors Make the Case Against Death Row," New York Times,  Nov. 23,
21) Evangelium Vitae, no. 9
22) Ibid.
23) Ibid.
24) Ibid., no. 33.
25) Ibid., no. 25.



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved