In 1997, the Roman Catholic Church decided to amend the 1992 Universal Catechism to reflect the writings of Pope John Paul II in his 1995 encyclical, The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae). Therein, the Pope finds that the only time executions can be justified is when they are required “to defend society” and that “as a result of steady improvements . . . in the penal system that such cases are very rare if not practically non existent.” 

The Pope is misinformed.  Such cases are not at all rare. 

Furthermore, defending society is an outcome of the death penalty, but is secondary to the foundation of justice and biblical instruction.

Contrary to the Pope’s belief, that his new opinion represents a tougher stance against the death penalty, the opposite is true.

Three issues may have escaped the Pope’s consideration. 

First, in the Pope’s context, “to defend society” means that the execution of the murderer must save future lives or, otherwise, prevent future harm.  History details that murderers murder and otherwise harm again, time and time again — in prison, after escape, after release, and, of course, after we fail to capture or incarcerate them.  What, apparently, escaped the Pope’s attention is that living murderers are infinitely more likely to harm and murder again than are executed murderers. 

History, reason and the facts support an increase in executions based upon a defending society foundation.

Secondly, the Pope’s position is not based upon biblical principles, but is now dependent upon social science.  If such science concludes that executions provide an enhanced deterrence for murders, then the Pope must call for increased executions.  If the Pope decides that the deterrent effect of executions does not exist and, therefore, chooses not to execute, and he is wrong, this will sacrifice innocent lives and also give those murderers the opportunity to harm and murder again.  If we choose to execute, believing in the deterrent effect, and we are wrong, we are executing our worst human rights violators and preventing such murderers from ever harming or murdering again. 

These options tell us that executions provide an enhanced defense of society.

If unsure about deterrence, the Pope must choose the option which protects innocent lives or that which sacrifices innocent lives.  No responsible social scientist has or will say that the death penalty deters no one.  And quite a few studies find that executions do deter.  Is there any evidence that the potential for negative consequences does not deter the actions of some?  Of course not. 

If the Pope’s defending society position has merit, then the Pope must actively support executions, as it offers an enhanced defense of society.

Thirdly, we know that some criminals don’t murder because of their fear of execution.  This is known as the individual deterrent effect.  Unquestionably, the incapacitation effect (execution) and the individual deterrent effect both exist and they both defend society.  Furthermore, individual deterrence assures us that general deterrence must exist, because individual deterrence could not exist without it.  Executions save lives. 

Therefore, the Pope’s defending society standard should be a call for increasing executions. Instead, the Pope has chosen a position that spares the lives of known murderers, resulting in more innocents put at risk — a position which contradicts the Pope’s emphasis on defending society.

Even though Romans and additional writings do reveal a “defending society” consideration, such references pale in comparison to the mandate that execution is the required punishment for murder, regardless of any consideration “to defend society.”  Both the Noahic covenant, in Genesis 9:6 (“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.”), and the Mosaic covenant, throughout the Pentateuch (Ex.: “He that smiteth a man so that he may die, shall be surely put to death.”  Exodus 21:12), require execution as the punishment for unjustifiable/intentional homicide, otherwise known as murder. 

These texts, and others, offer specific rebuttal to the Pope’s position that if “bloodless means” for punishment are available then such should be used, to the exclusion of execution.  Again, we see that the Pope’s position is social, not biblical.

For those who erroneously contend that Jesus abandoned the Law of the Hebrew Testament, He states that He has come not “to abolish the law and the prophets . . . but to fulfill them.”  Matthew 5:17-22.  While there is honest debate regarding the interpretation of Mosaic Law within a Christian context, there seems little dispute that the Noahic Covenant is still in effect and that Genesis 9:6 deals directly with the sanctity of life issue in its support of execution. (read “A Seamless Garment In a Sinful World” by John R. Connery, S. J., America, 7/14/84, p 5-8).

Saint Pius V reaffirms this mandate, in the Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent (1566), stating that executions are acts of “paramount obedience to this [Fifth] Commandment.”  (“Thou shalt not murder,” sometimes improperly translated as “kill” instead of “murder”).  And, not only do the teachings of Saints Thomas Aquinas and Augustine concur, but both saints also find that such punishment actually reflects charity and mercy by preventing the wrongdoer from sinning further.  The Saints position is that execution offers undeniable defense of society as well as defense of the wrongdoer.

Such prevention also expresses the fact that execution is an enhanced defense of society, over and above all other punishments.

The relevant question is “What biblical and theological teachings, developed from 1566 through 1997, provide that the standard for executions should evolve from ‘paramount obedience’ to God’s eternal law to a civil standard reflecting ‘steady improvements’ . . . in the penal system?”.  Such teachings hadn’t changed.  The Pope’s position is now social, not biblical nor theological. 

The Church’s position on the use of the death penalty has been consistent from 300 AD through 1995 AD.  The Church has always supported the use of executions, based upon biblical and theological principles.

Until 1995, says John Grabowski, associate professor of Moral Theology at Catholic University, ” . . .  Church teachings were supportive of the death penalty.  You can find example after example of Pope’s, of theologians and others, who have supported the right of the state to inflict capital punishment for certain crimes and certain cases.” Grabowski continues: “What he (the Pope now) says, in fact, in his encyclical, is that given the fact that we now have the ability, you know, technology and facilities to lock up someone up for the rest of their lives so they pose no future threat to society — given that question has been answered or removed, there is no longer justification for the death penalty.”  (All Things Considered, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO, 9/9/97.)

The Pope’s position is now based upon the state of the corrections system — a position neither biblical nor theological in nature.  Furthermore, it is a position which conflicts with the history of prisons.  Long term incarceration of lawbreakers in Europe began in the 1500s.  Of course, long term incarceration of slaves had begun thousands of years before — something that all historians and biblical scholars — now and then —  are aware of.

History confirms that executions defend society at a higher degree than incarceration.

Since it’s inception, the Church has issued numerous pronouncements, encyclicals and previous Universal Catechisms.  Had any biblical or theological principle called for a replacement of the death penalty by life imprisonment, it could have been revealed long before 1995.  They hadn’t changed
because the biblical writings are clear that there is a mandate for execution under specific circumstances.  And there is nothing in the biblical record or in Catholic tradition that conflicts with that mandate.

There is, finally, a most disturbing reality regarding the Pope’s new standard.  The Pope’s defending society standard requires that the moral concept of justice becomes irrelevant.  The Pope’s standard finds that capital punishment can be used only as a vehicle to prevent future crimes. Therefore, using the Pope’s standard, the moral/biblical rational — that capital punishment is the just and required punishment for murder — is no longer relevant to the sin/crime of murder.  If defending society is the new standard, the Pope has decided that the biblical standards of atonement, expiation, justice and required punishments have all, necessarily, been discarded, with regard to execution. 

The Pope’s new position establishes that capital punishment no longer has any connection to the harm done or to the imbalance to be addressed.  Yet, such connection had always been, until now, the Church’s historical, biblically based perspective on this sanction.  Under a defending society standard, the injury suffered by the murder victim is no longer relevant to their punishment.  Executions can be justified solely upon that punishments ability to prevent future harm by the murderer. 

Therefore, when considering executions in regard to capital murder cases, a defending society standard renders justice irrelevant.  Yet, execution defends society to a degree unapproachable by any other punishment and, therefore, should be fully supported by the Pope.

“Some enlightened people would like to banish all conception of retribution or desert from our theory of punishment and place its value wholly in the deterrence of others or the reform of the criminal himself.  They do not see that by doing so they render all punishment unjust. What can be more immoral than to inflict suffering on me for the sake of deterring others if I do not deserve it?” (quote attributed to the distinguished Christian writer C. S. Lewis)

In fact, neither the Church nor the Pope would accept a defending society standard for use of the death penalty, unless the Church and the Pope believed that such punishment was just and deserved, as well.  The Church has never questioned the authority of the government to execute in “cases of extreme gravity,” nor does it do so with these recent changes.  The Church concurs that executions represent just punishment for some crimes. 

And, certainly, the Church and the Pope believe that the prevention of any and all violent crimes fulfills a defending society position.  And there is no doubt that executions defend society at a level higher than incarceration. Why has the Pope and many within the Church leadership chosen a path that spares murderers at the cost of more innocent lives, when they could have chosen a stronger defense of society which spares more innocents?

Properly, the Pope does not challenge the biblical and theological support for capital punishment.  The Pope has only amended his belief as to the appropriate application of that penalty. 

So why has the Pope come out against executions, when his own position — a defense of society — both rationally and factually, has a foundation supportive of more executions?

It is unfortunate that the Pope, along with some other leaders in the Church, have decided to, improperly, use a defending society position to speak against the death penalty.

1) Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., “The Death Penalty: A Right to Life Issue?” at
NOTE: although Dulles makes palpable errors of fact and logic within the
sections “The Purposes of Punishment” and “Harm Attributed to the Death Penalty”,
it is, otherwise, a solid historical treatment of the Church and the death penalty

2) Father Robert Ellis’ “In Defense of the Death Sentence”, at

3) “The Death Penalty”, by Solange Strong Hertz at

4) “Capital Punishment: What the Bible Says”, Dr. Lloyd R. Bailey, Abingdon Press, 1987. The definitive biblical review of the death penalty.

copyright 1997-2005 Dudley Sharp

Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters
e-mail,  713-622-5491,
Houston, Texas

Mr. Sharp has appeared on ABC, CBS, CNN, FOX, NBC, NPR, PBS, BBC and many other TV and radio networks, on such programs as Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The O’Reilly Report, etc., has been quoted in newspapers throughout the world and is a published author.
A former opponent of capital punishment, he has written and granted interviews about, testified on and debated the subject of the death penalty, extensively and internationally.
Pro death penalty sites

My focus has been on violent crime issues and what can be done, within the criminal justice and legislative systems, to lessen injury to the innocent and to prosecute the guilty.  To accomplish that goal, involvement in community education, elections, legislation, victim’s rights issues, including assistance in individual cases are all important.

One thought on “Pope John Paul II: a pro-death penalty essay

  • May 13, 2011 at 10:49 pm

    That saves me. Thanks for being so sesnilbe!


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