Pope Francis has officially declared that the death penalty is “inadmissible” in all cases because it is “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”
The Pope’s ruling changes the Roman Catholic Church’s official teaching which previously allowed for executions in instances where they are “the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”
The move comes as no surprise, as the Pope made headlines in October by arguing that the death penalty is “contrary to the gospel.” In that speech, reasoned that capital punishment undercuts human dignity, removes God’s prerogative to determine who lives and who dies, and closes off the Church’s ability to bring the offender to faith.
What should we say to Pope Francis’ declaration?
We should say “yes” and “no,” but mostly “no.”
Yes, Christian teaching strongly affirms the dignity and value of every human life—including capital offenders—from the cradle to the grave. And yes, the Christian gospel offers moral and existential redemption to every human being—including capital offenders—from the cradle to the grave.
But no, the death penalty, when properly applied, does not undermine those Christian teachings.
First, the death penalty is a legitimate sanction for capital crimes because the primary purpose of capital punishment is to punish rather than to rehabilitate the criminal or deter future crimes. Even though prisons should seek to rehabilitate criminals and although the death penalty will deter the offender from further crime, nonetheless, the primary response of the government to a capital crime is to punish the capital criminal.
Second, Christian love is not contrary to capital punishment. In fact, the gospel is based upon the very principle—“a life for a life”—that made the cross necessary. It takes a life to atone for a life (Lev 17:11); therefore God, in his love for us, gave his life on our behalf (Jn 3:16). The penalty for capital crimes against God is “death” and therefore it took the death of God’s son to atone for our capital crimes against God. Thus in capital punishment, Christians can speak words of eternal life to a capital offender even as he awaits temporal death.
Third, Christ’s atonement on the cross did not abolish capital punishment. Instead of abolishing the life-for-a-life principle, it exemplified it. In the years after Christ’s resurrection, the apostles still recognize its sway. Consider Paul’s statement to Festus, “I stand at Caesar’s judgment seat, where I ought to be judged…. If I am an offender, or have committed anything deserving of death, I do not object to dying” (Acts 25:10-11). If Paul recognized the continuing legitimacy of the death penalty, so should we.
Fourth, the death penalty affirms human dignity rather than denying it. In fact, it is the highest possible affirmation of human dignity, leaving open the highest possible punishment for shedding innocent blood. C. S. Lewis writes, “To be punished, however severely, because we deserved it, because we ‘ought to have known better,’ is to be treated as a human person made in God’s image.”
Fifth, the death penalty does leave open the possibility of a “moral and existential redemption,” to use Pope Francis’ phrase. The way the death penalty is applied in the United States and similar nations leaves the offender decades to repent of his sin, embrace the Lord of life, and experience redemption and reconciliation.
These are by no means the only reasons in favor of retaining the death penalty. We could also build a sociological argument that the death penalty is an especially just way of expressing society’s moral outrage against the shedding of innocent blood; we could posit that it is our best bet to deter future capital crimes; and that it is not cruel or unusual when applied to violent offenders.
Neither are these the only points to be made concerning the application of the death penalty. We could discuss proper sentencing and appeals, including the existence of any systemic classism or racism that would cause unjust death penalties. We could address humane procedures for putting the offender to death.
In conclusion, the death penalty—when applied properly—is not against the gospel. The government is not the church and, in the case of capital punishment, its primary goal is retribution, even while also securing other goals, such as deterrence and rehabilitation.
And while the government’s primary goal is retribution rather than gospel proclamation, the church’s goal is gospel proclamation rather than retribution. While the government metes out temporal death, the church offers eternal life. While the executioner’s power is a death-inducing needle, the Christian’s power is a life-giving word.
Let the church, therefore, recognize that the gospel is displayed through Christ’s crime-absolving atonement rather than the state’s temporal justice.