Church Death Penalty the Evolving Position Research Paper

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Church Death Penalty

The Evolving Position of the Catholic Church on the Death Penalty

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Capital punishment is the most extreme of legal penalties. The notion of granting the state or nation an entitlement to impose this punishment is therefore a subject of great and continued debate. So is this the case within the Catholic Church, where the death penalty has been treated with nuance and an evolving perspective. Indeed, like many organized religious traditions, the Catholic Church can trace its historical acceptance of the death penalty to a combination of biblical endorsement and sociological commonness. Indeed, as the discussion will show, for many generations, the Church viewed the death penalty as an appropriate power to be wielded by the state. What's more, in addition to supporting the right of the state or nation to enforce the death penalty, the Catholic Church has at points in its history also taken an active role in prosecuting the crimes of those who would inevitably be dealt this punishment. However, capital punishment does reveal itself as an issue on which the Church has sought to shift its position in consonance with what it has increasingly come to view as a change in social necessity and humanitarian standards. In spite of a history of acceptance of, biblical justification for and even judicial participation with the dealing of the death penalty, the Church is today roundly against the use and maintenance of the capital punishment system. As the discussion hereafter will demonstrate, this position underscores a vocal movement toward the elimination of the death penalty in common civil usage. As the discussion will also demonstrate, much of the effort derived from this push has targeted the United States, which is the only major industrialized and modern nation which continues to employ capital punishment as a regular punitive strategy.

Catholic History on Capital Punishment:

TOPIC: Research Paper on Church Death Penalty the Evolving Position of Assignment

Many of the monotheistic ethical models which governed the ancient world would reflect the punitive values of the secular and pagan traditions from which they were initially spawned. Therefore, with respect to governance, law enforcement and punishment, the Judeo-Christian tradition had been clear on the role of penalty in the redressing of sin. So denotes Knight (2009), who finds Old Testament commands serving as a basis for clergy-supported state use of the death penalty in the instance of 'capital crimes.' Accordingly, "the first Divine pronouncement which seems to sanction the death penalty is found in Genesis 9:6: 'Whosoever shall shed man's blood, his blood shall be shed; for man was made to the image of God.'" (Knight, 1)

This accords the highest degree of punishment for those who have committed the act of murder, a pronouncement which God is said to have imposed subsequently in reflection Cain's murder of his brother Abel. Here, in addition to a biblically sanctioned use of the death penalty is a demonstration that this is to be seen with the appropriate level of gravity such that perhaps it could only be considered warranted in cases where acts of murder have been committed. With respect to the Catholic Church that would be produced in the Christian biblical tradition, the New Testament would explicate a yet more general and perhaps less judicial justification for invoking capital punishment. According to Knight, the Jewish adherents to the Old Testament (The Torah) would employ stoning and hanging as methods of execution for a wide range of offenses called sins. This strategy would turn up more explicitly in the Christian scriptures.

So demonstrates the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) which, in a section referred to as "The Wages of Sin" finds that according to Romans 6:23, "the wages of sin is death." CCEL goes on to indicate that "the death here spoken of is that which is due as the penal sanction of God's law." (CCEL, p. 1)

By this stage in its history, the monotheistic tradition that had splintered into the Catholic movement had begun to ingratiate itself with statewide power structures and had additionally come to involve itself highly in judicial affairs. In doing so, the Church would eventually come to associate the imperatives of civil law with the commands of its theology. The categories under which sin could fall grew greater in number and so too, therefore, did the circumstances in which the death penalty would be invoked. This would be particularly so as the Roman state would converge with the Catholic Church. It would be at this juncture that legal prescription would take on both the spiritual dogma of the Catholic Church and the hard line state system of the Roman Empire. Overberg (1998) indicates on this point that "the Church's teaching about the death penalty, reflecting this ambiguity, has changed several times. The early Church generally found taking human life to be incompatible with the life and teachings of Jesus. Later, after Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, opposition to the death penalty declined. Augustine recognized the death penalty as a means of deterring the wicked and protecting the innocent" (Overberg1, 1)

As this philosophy is concerned, the Catholic Church would for most of the centuries to follow come to reflect this position in some regard. Indeed, the coalescence of the Catholic Church and many conservative forms of governance over the Middle Ages would make the Church a constant party to the invocation of the death penalty. As the text by Knight shows, this would be done only in partial deferment to religious doctrine, with an endorsement of state authority more typically figuring into its invocation. Our research does demonstrate to this point that at the point in its history when the Church had proliferated throughout Europe, in its inextricable relationship with monarchies and the feudal hierarchy made it a dominant conduit for the channeling of state authority. Therefore, its connection to the death penalty would be direct, even if not rhetorically acknowledged as such. Knight reports that "canon law has always forbidden clerics to shed human blood and therefore capital punishment has always been the work of the officials of the State and not of the Church. Even in the case of heresy, of which so much is made by non-Catholic controversialists, the functions of ecclesiastics were restricted invariably to ascertaining the fact of heresy. The punishment, whether capital or other, was both prescribed and inflicted by civil government. The infliction of capital punishment is not contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church, and the power of the State to visit upon culprits the penalty of death derives much authority from revelation and from the writings of theologians." (Knight, 1)

This is, therefore, the position which has dominated in the Catholic Church almost exclusively until the latter part of the 20th century. Indeed, research denotes that just as the Church had long taken this position of entitlement for judgment but withdrawal from sentencing or implementation of punishment, so too have its adherents in the general public come to view the death penalty as appropriate in certain instances. According to Overberg (1996), roughly 70% of American Catholics support the continued retention of the death penalty in the arsenal of law enforcement methods.

Modern Position on the Death Penalty:

This position has come under heavy fire in recent decades though as adherents and Church leaders have come to place more explicit stock in the determination that Catholics are in no way to enable or engage in the shedding of human blood. As a basis to this position, representatives of the Church have come to associate the ethical and spiritual arguments against capital punishment with logical claims regarding its effectiveness. As Overberg (1996) finds, its critics argue "that there is no solid evidence that the death penalty serves as a deterrent. Indeed, they note, examples point in the opposite direction: Some countries that have eliminated the death penalty have had decreasing rates of violent crime, and some death-penalty states have had increasing rates of homicide." (Overberg, 1)

This is the view which over the last 40 years has grown from a point of discourse within the Church to the official position of the Vatican on the use of Capital punishment. The late 1970s would represent a point of transition for the Church, which at this juncture would seek to take a more progressive stance on certain ethical issues relating to its time and place. With the modern refinement of judicial systems and due process, contexts like the United States no longer were viewed as being appropriate for the use of the death penalty. The Catholic Church would take the first steps at establishing this position with a statement in 1980 within which "the bishops begin by noting that punishment, 'since it involves the deliberate infliction of evil on another,' must be justifiable. They acknowledge that the Christian tradition has for a long time recognized a government's right to protect its citizens by using the death penalty in some serious situations. The bishops ask, however, if capital punishment is still justifiable in the present circumstances in the United States."… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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APA Style

Church Death Penalty the Evolving Position.  (2010, September 22).  Retrieved January 16, 2022, from

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"Church Death Penalty the Evolving Position."  22 September 2010.  Web.  16 January 2022. <>.

Chicago Style

"Church Death Penalty the Evolving Position."  September 22, 2010.  Accessed January 16, 2022.