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The Church’s Position on the Death Penality

The Catholic magisterium in recent years has become increasingly vocal in opposing the practice of capital punishment. Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae declared that “as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system,” cases in which the execution of the offender would be absolutely necessary

“are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

Again at St. Louis in January 1999 the Pope appealed for a consensus to end the death penalty on the ground that it was

“both cruel and unnecessary.”

The bishops of many countries have spoken to the same effect. 


Pope Benedict XVI encouraged countries around the world to end the death penalty as a legal sanction. Addressing a group of pilgrims gathered in Rome for an international conference, “No justice without Life” on the controversial topic, the Pope said he hopes that their deliberations “will encourage the political and legislative initiatives being promoted in a growing number of countries to eliminate the death penalty.” The Pope told them that he applauded “the substantive progress made in conforming penal law both to the human dignity of prisoners and the effective maintenance of public order.”


The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that the traditional teaching of the Church “does not exclude” recourse to the death penalty when it is “the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.” It adds, however, that today such cases are “very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

archbishop-harris
In a letter to the President of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty, Pope Francis expressed the Catholic Church’s opposition to the death penalty, calling it “inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed.” He continued, “It is an offence against the inviolability of life and the dignity of the human person, which contradicts God’s plan for man and society, and his merciful justice, and impedes the penalty from fulfilling any just objective. It does not render justice to the victims, but rather fosters vengeance.” He acknowledged society’s need to protect itself from aggressors, but said, “When the death penalty is applied, it is not for a current act of aggression, but rather for an act committed in the past. It is also applied to persons whose current ability to cause harm is not current, as it has been neutralized — they are already deprived of their liberty.” He also addressed questions of methods of execution, saying, “There is discussion in some quarters about the method of killing, as if it were possible to find ways of ‘getting it right’. … But there is no humane way of killing another person.” 


These quotations from the last three popes show us a consistent evolution, where Capital punishment is concerned, in the understanding of the Magisterium of the Church. More and more it is seen as an offence against the inviolability of life and the dignity of the human person, which contradicts God’s plan for man and society, and his merciful justice, and impedes the penalty from fulfilling any just objective.


This of course brings into focus the development of doctrine in the Church. There are many instances in which we see a development of doctrine, beginning with Jesus himself. In the Gospel of Matthew 19:7-9 we read: They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality and marries commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.” The Dogma of the Immaculate Conception is another instance in which doctrine developed. In fact there are many saints who did not believe in this doctrine. Similarly the doctrine on capital punishment has developed and has moved from accepting the Right of the State to impose capital punishment to the point at which the Holy Father can declare that Capital Punishment “is seen as an offence against the inviolability of life and the dignity of the human person, which contradicts God’s plan for man and society, and his merciful justice, and impedes the penalty from fulfilling any just objective.”
The Antilles Episcopal conference has in fact just two months ago put out a statement opposing the use of Capital punishment and asking the governments of Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados to change its laws on this issue.


It is highly irresponsible therefore for any person who speaks in the name of the church or is perceived to be speaking in the name of the church to urge the imposition of the death penalty of any criminal or class of criminal.

+Joseph Harris
Archbishop of POS

Interview with the Archbishop on I95.5 fm on Wednesday 14th December, 2016.