Catholic Scholars Appeal to Pope to Clarify Teaching on Death Penalty

Print Friendly and PDF
by Church Militant  •  •  August 16, 2018   

The legitimacy of capital punishment is the consistent teaching of the magisterium for two millennia

You are not signed in as a Premium user; we rely on Premium users to support our news reporting. Sign in or Sign up today!

VATICAN CITY ( - On August 15, the Feast of the Assumption, 75 Catholic academics signed an open letter to the cardinals of the Catholic Church asking them to insist that the Holy Father teach clearly on the issue of capital punishment.

"The stated goal is a clarification and (as far as public perceptions go) correction of the recent letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the death penalty," said Dr. Joseph Shaw, spokesman for the group, in comments to Church Militant. "The fundamental issue is the relationship between the Holy Father and the CDF and what they say today, and Scripture, Tradition and the Papal Magisterium of the past, including the very recent past."

The appeal follows the Vatican's recent change in wording in the Catechism, which seems to state that every use of the death penalty is forbidden and an attack on human dignity — a revision that has caused confusion, as it appears to contradict Scripture and the traditional teaching of the Church.

"Catholics hold that while a pope has the right to clarify matters of faith and morals, he has no right to introduce new doctrines, or to contradict what the Church has always believed," reads a press conference issued by the group. "They likewise hold that a pope must not seek to impose his private opinions on the faithful."

Catholics hold that while a pope has the right to clarify matters of faith and morals, he has no right to introduce new doctrines.

Shaw makes clear they have not yet received any officials response, and may not receive any, if the past is any indication. 

"We act as we do because we feel it is our duty both to appeal to our lawful superiors and to warn our fellow Catholics, articulating the concerns many of them have on these issues," he said.

He also notes that no cardinals or bishops are behind the initiative: "It is very much a project of lay academics and priests."

The full text of the letter follows:

An Appeal to the Cardinals of the Catholic Church

Pope Francis has revised the Catechism of the Catholic Church to read, “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” This statement has been understood by many, both inside and outside the Church, to teach that capital punishment is intrinsically immoral and thus is always illicit, even in principle.

Though no Catholic is obliged to support the use of the death penalty in practice (and not all of the undersigned do support its use), to teach that capital punishment is always and intrinsically evil would contradict Scripture. That the death penalty can be a legitimate means of securing retributive justice is affirmed in Genesis 9:6 and many other biblical texts, and the Church holds that Scripture cannot teach moral error. The legitimacy in principle of capital punishment is also the consistent teaching of the magisterium for two millennia. To contradict Scripture and tradition on this point would cast doubt on the credibility of the magisterium in general.

Concerned by this gravely scandalous situation, we wish to exercise the right affirmed by the Church’s Code of Canon Law, which at Canon 212 states:

The Christian faithful are free to make known to the pastors of the Church their needs, especially spiritual ones, and their desires. According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.

We are guided also by the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, who states:

If the faith were endangered, a subject ought to rebuke his prelate even publicly. Hence Paul, who was Peter’s subject, rebuked him in public, on account of the imminent danger of scandal concerning faith, and, as the gloss of Augustine says on Galatians 2:11, “Peter gave an example to superiors, that if at any time they should happen to stray from the straight path, they should not disdain to be reproved by their subjects.” (Summa Theologiae, Part II-II, Question 33, Article 4, ad 2)

Hence we, the undersigned, issue the following appeal:

To their Most Reverend Eminences, the Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church,

Since it is a truth contained in the Word of God, and taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Catholic Church, that criminals may lawfully be put to death by the civil power when this is necessary to preserve just order in civil society, and since the present Roman pontiff has now more than once publicly manifested his refusal to teach this doctrine, and has rather brought great confusion upon the Church by seeming to contradict it, and by inserting into the Catechism of the Catholic Church a paragraph which will cause and is already causing many people, both believers and non-believers, to suppose that the Church considers, contrary to the Word of God, that capital punishment is intrinsically evil, we call upon Your Eminences to advise His Holiness that it is his duty to put an end to this scandal, to withdraw this paragraph from the Catechism, and to teach the word of God unadulterated; and we state our conviction that this is a duty seriously binding upon yourselves, before God and before the Church.


Hadley Arkes
Edward N. Ney Professor in American Institutions Emeritus
Amherst College

Joseph Bessette
Alice Tweed Tuohy Professor of Government and Ethics 
Claremont McKenna College

Patrick Brennan
John F. Scarpa Chair in Catholic Legal Studies
Villanova University

J. Budziszewski
Professor of Government and Philosophy
University of Texas at Austin

Isobel Camp
Professor of Philosophy 
Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas

Richard Cipolla
Diocese of Bridgeport

Eric Claeys
Professor of Law
Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University

Travis Cook 
Associate Professor of Government 
Belmont Abbey College

S. A. Cortright 
Professor of Philosophy 
Saint Mary’s College

Cyrille Dounot 
Professor of Legal History 
Université Clermont Auvergne

Patrick Downey 
Professor of Philosophy 
Saint Mary’s College

Eduardo Echeverria 
Professor of Philosophy and Theology 
Sacred Heart Major Seminary

Edward Feser 
Associate Professor of Philosophy 
Pasadena City College

Alan Fimister 
Assistant Professor of Theology 
St. John Vianney Theological Seminary

Luca Gili 
Assistant Professor of Philosophy 
Université du Québec à Montréal

Brian Harrison 
Scholar in Residence 
Oblates of Wisdom Study Center

L. Joseph Hebert 
Professor of Political Science 
St. Ambrose University

Rafael Hüntelmann 
Lecturer in Philosophy 
International Seminary of St. Peter

John Hunwicke 
Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham

Robert C. Koons 
Professor of Philosophy 
University of Texas at Austin

Peter Koritansky 
Associate Professor of Philosophy 
University of Prince Edward Island

Peter Kwasniewski 
Independent Scholar
Wausau, Wisconsin

John Lamont 
Divine Faith

Roberto de Mattei 
The Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story

Robert T. Miller 
Professor of Law 
University of Iowa

Gerald Murray 
Archdiocese of New York

Lukas Novak 
Lecturer in Philosophy 
University of South Bohemia

Thomas Osborne 
Professor of Philosophy 
University of St. Thomas

Michael Pakaluk 
Professor of Ethics 
Catholic University of America

Claudio Pierantoni 
Professor of Medieval Philosophy 
University of Chile

Thomas Pink 
Professor of Philosophy 
King’s College London

Andrew Pinsent 
Research Director of the Ian Ramsey Centre 
University of Oxford

Alyssa Pitstick
Independent Scholar
Spokane, Washington

Donald S. Prudlo 
Professor of Ancient and Medieval History 
Jacksonville State University

Anselm Ramelow 
Chair of the Department of Philosophy 
Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology

George W. Rutler 
Archdiocese of New York

Matthew Schmitz
Senior Editor 
First Things

Josef Seifert
Founding Rector
International Academy of Philosophy

Joseph Shaw 
Fellow of St Benet’s Hall 
University of Oxford

Anna Silvas 
Adjunct Senior Research Fellow 
University of New England

Michael Sirilla 
Professor of Dogmatic and Systematic Theology 
Franciscan University of Steubenville

Joseph G. Trabbic 
Associate Professor of Philosophy 
Ave Maria University

Giovanni Turco 
Associate Professor of Philosophy 
University of Udine

Michael Uhlmann 
Professor of Government 
Claremont Graduate University

John Zuhlsdorf 
Diocese of Velletri-Segni

This letter first appeared in First Things.


Have a news tip? Submit news to our tip line.

We rely on you to support our news reporting. Please donate today.
By commenting on you acknowledge you have read and agreed to our comment posting guidelines