Contra Papam: Capital Punishment Is Just

At the Diet of Worms (April, 1518) Luther famously said, “Popes and councils do err.” Anyone who knows just a little about the history of the church must agree with Luther. Popes and councils have directly and repeatedly contradicted themselves and each other the centuries. Traditionalist Romanists, of course, are squirming over the latest diktat to emerge from the Vatican. Some of them are beginning to sound like Protestants in their criticisms of Pope Francis, by whose authority, on 11 May 2018 the Catechism of the [Roman] Catholic Church was revised. Until May, the authoritative teaching of the catechism affirmed capital punishment (the death sentence) for certain crimes. As of 11 May, however, §2267 of the Catechism now says:

2267. Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.

Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.

For the sake of comparison here is what was the magisterial (ruling, authoritative, bind) teaching of the Roman communion before the change:

2267 The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.
“If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
“Today, in fact, given the means at the State’s disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender ‘today … are very rare, if not practically non-existent.'[John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56.]

The catechism used to be correct on the history. Capital punishment is the traditional teaching of the church. Thomas [Aquinas] taught:

Therefore if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since “a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump” (1 Corinthians 5:6) [ST 2a 2ae 2 Sed contra].

As Thomas reminds us, Augustine endorsed capital punishment in The City of God when exercised in a public capacity—private persons do not have a right to take justice into their own hands apart from self-defense.

Remarkably, this is the text of the catechism as it still (as of August 11, 2018) appears on the Vatican website. Apparently, God has given to Roman priesthood the power to confer salvation ex opere (by the working of the sacraments) and the power to transubstantiate bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ but not to update the Vatican website.

One of the reasons some evangelicals and even some erstwhile Reformed folk have converted to Rome has been that their former communions had no clear, fixed moral teaching and that Rome has a clear, fixed ethical doctrine. As one papist writes in response to this recent change: “The role of the Magisterium is to tell the faithful of each generation what the unchanging truths of the Catholic Faith are.”1 Apparently the truths of the Roman communion are not as unchanging as they would have us (and each other) believe.

It may be clear but it is not fixed and it may be changed with the stroke of a papal pen. Presumably Francis ordered the Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly known as the Inquisition) to revise the catechism. The congregation (a committee) obeyed the Pontifex (Latin for “High Priest”) and reversed course 180 degrees on a matter of basic biblical and Christian ethics. This change is the definition of volte-face.

The first point to be observed is that all faithful Romanists are now bound to this reversal. Let us hear no more from them about the fixity and permanence of Romanist dogma. One day the blessed Virgin is not known by Romanist faithful to be have been assumed and a mediatrix between God and man and the next day she is. The Vatican does not describe this revision as a matter taught ex cathedra so, just as one American president reverses the previous president by executive order, this papal executive order is just as plastic. That might be fun to watch faithful Romanists defend capital punishment, then defend its abolition, and then defend its justice again. It will be like watching an ecclesiastical tennis match. We presume that all Romanist faithful are bound to this revision of the catechism on the basis of the papal bulla, Unam Sanctam:

For, according to the Blessed Dionysius, it is a law of the divinity that the lowest things reach the highest place by intermediaries. Then, according to the order of the universe, all things are not led back to order equally and immediately, but the lowest by the intermediary, and the inferior by the superior. Hence we must recognize the more clearly that spiritual power surpasses in dignity and in nobility any temporal power whatever, as spiritual things surpass the temporal. This we see very clearly also by the payment, benediction, and consecration of the tithes, but the acceptance of power itself and by the government even of things. For with truth as our witness, it belongs to spiritual power to establish the terrestrial power and to pass judgement if it has not been good. Thus is accomplished the prophecy of Jeremias concerning the Church and the ecclesiastical power: ‘Behold to-day I have placed you over nations, and over kingdoms‘ and the rest. Therefore, if the terrestrial power err, it will be judged by the spiritual power; but if a minor spiritual power err, it will be judged by a superior spiritual power; but if the highest power of all err, it can be judged only by God, and not by man, according to the testimony of the Apostle: ‘The spiritual man judgeth of all things and he himself is judged by no man‘ [1 Cor 2:15]. This authority, however, (though it has been given to man and is exercised by man), is not human but rather divine, granted to Peter by a divine word and reaffirmed to him (Peter) and his successors by the One Whom Peter confessed, the Lord saying to Peter himself, ‘Whatsoever you shall bind on earth, shall be bound also in Heaven‘ etc., [Mt 16:19]. Therefore whoever resists this power thus ordained by God, resists the ordinance of God [Rom 13:2], unless he invent like Manicheus two beginnings, which is false and judged by us heretical, since according to the testimony of Moses, it is not in the beginnings but in the beginning that God created heaven and earth [Gen 1:1]. Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.

The salvation of the papist is conditioned upon submission to the “Roman Pontiff.” This is Roman dogma. The Pope has spoken. The Romanist must submit. When the Pope changes his mind. The Romanist must submit to that too. The truth is that the current pope holds many of the same views as theological liberals (Protestant and Papist) everywhere.

The second thing to be observed is that Rome is materially wrong. The theological basis of her revision of her (allegedly unchanging) doctrine is that human dignity requires Rome to oppose capital punishment. We should conclude the opposite. The death penalty affirms rather than denies human dignity. It affirms the dignity of the victims of murder, rape, child molestation, and other capital crimes. This was assumed in the Old Testament death penalty legislation. In Reformed categories civil life is a covenant of works, the principle of which is: do this and live, transgress and die. This is what “eye for an eye” means. Justice requires that what has been taken must be restored to the victim. If a thief steals, he must restore. The loss of the sense of security and peace cannot be restored so there are criminal punishments and civil punishments. In the case of murder, for example, the criminal cannot restore what has been taken because he has committed the ultimate (civil) crime. He has denied the dignity of the victim, he has de-humanized her and taken what was not his to take. Since he cannot restore it, since he has violated the implicit social contract by which we live with one another, and since he has denied the basic human dignity of the victim, he must pay with his own life. Capital punishment affirms the dignity of the victim.

It also affirms the dignity and worth of the criminal. One of the great errors of the modern age is the therapeutic turn. Everyone is a now thought to be a victim. The criminal is a victim of his upbringing. He was raised in poverty or abused as a child therefore he cannot be held responsible for his free, uncoerced choice, e.g., to take unjustly the life of a legally innocent human being. The criminal, we are told, needs therapy not punishment. Nonsense. When someone, for whatever reason, unjustly takes the life of another human the highest way to affirm his humanity and dignity is to deprive him of his life after due process. Holding humans accountable affirms their dignity. This is a reality that we have forgotten. The more we turn to the therapeutic model, the more we may expect people to commit heinous crimes. The criminal is, in his own perverted way, asking to be held accountable for his actions. When we refuse to hold him accountable, to treat him as a human made in the image of God, he continues transgressing until we are forced to reckon with his humanity. When the state adopts a therapeutic model in place of justice, it denies the status of the criminal as image-bearer.

Third, Scripture, specifically the New Testament, clearly endorses capital punishment. The evidence that the Old Testament teaches capital punishment is overwhelming but, as I have been arguing, we need not rely on the specifically Mosaic legislation. The problem with relying on the specifically Mosaic legislation is that the Mosaic (old) covenant was intentionally temporary. The judicial laws given to Israel have expired (WCF 19.4). They were never intended to be permanent or universal. The original institution of the death penalty was in Genesis 2:17, “the day you eat thereof you shall surely die.” That was not, however, a civil capital penalty. It was a divine and spiritual penalty. Pelagians and semi-Pelagians should take note. “To die the death” (literally what the Hebrew says) does not mean an illness or a wound. It means death. See Ephesians 2:1–4. The first civil capital punishment was instituted in Genesis 9, as I previously explained (see link above). The intent of the post-diluvian legislation was universal, i.e., it was not instituted uniquely for national Israel. It was not temporary. In the narrative Genesis 9 functions as a renewed creation after the fall. The flood did not undo the effects of the fall but rhetorically and theologically it was, mutatis mutandis, a fresh start. The institution of capital punish preceded the Mosaic legislation. We are meant to think of capital punishment as basic to civil society. Like heterosexual marriage and a day of rest and worship, capital punishment is presented as a basic part of the fabric of created life.

The New Testament provides more than enough evidence for the justice of capital punishment. See the earlier essay (linked above) for more but Romans 13 is quite clear:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer (Rom 13:1–4).

When the Apostle Paul used the metaphor of the sword to explain the function of the magistrate in the fallen world that was no mere figure of speech. The Roman authorities literally decapitated citizens who were convicted of capital crimes and they did so by use of the sword. Every government practiced capital punishment. It was unthinkable that there should not be capital punishment. Certainly the apostle Paul expected governments to exercise capital punishment on the basis of natural revelation. Caesar (in this case Nero) knew enough from nature to be able to exercise civil authority and to make life and death decisions. Paul himself, according to ancient church testimony, was unjustly put to death by Roman authorities outside the city on the Appian Way.

The abuse of the authority and power of capital punishment in the case of Jesus and the early Christian martyrs (e.g., Paul, Peter, Stephen, and James) did not invalidate the use of the penalty anymore than the abuse of any principle or law invalidates the principle or law.

The reversal by Papal fiat of centuries of Romanist doctrine on capital punishment is a revolt against the natural law, against the divine moral law, against the Word of God, and against human history. It is also clear, prima facie evidence that Luther was right. Popes and councils do err. The haze of the liturgical incense has cleared. The Bishop of Rome and the councils are making up the alleged “unwritten apostolic tradition” as they go along. Protestants who convert to Rome looking for stability have placed their implicit faith (fides implicita in a chimera.

The confessional Reformed, by contrast, place their implicit faith in the unchanging, inerrant, infallible Word of God. We admit that we have erred in the past. We were wrong about geocentrism. We were wrong to institute a state-church. We erred but God did not. Scripture does not err. Rome rejects the distinction between law and gospel, between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. Civil life is a covenant of works. The church administers the covenant of grace. Theologically, Rome turn the grace into works and she still, even in modernity, wants to turn the state into the church.

The incoherence of the Rome’s social-justice-warrior Pope on the death penalty illustrates for us how little he understands about justice or grace.

Those papists who squirm under the authority of the current pope should be consistent. Submit to the Bishop of Rome or join us in protest against the corruption of the law, gospel, worship, and discipline by the Roman communion but they cannot have it both ways.


1. HT Darryl Hart at Oldlife for this reference.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Quoth Paul:

    11 “For if I am an offender, or have committed anything deserving of death, I do not object to dying…” (Acts 25:11 )

  2. What are the implications for Catholics serving in the US military? If you took this to its logical conclusion it would seem Rome would seek to bind the conscience of military memebers committed to serving in the military and admonish them to leave the military. Wouldn’t an RC chaplain simply be a cheerleader for unjust killing? Just some questions arising in my mind…

    • James,

      I can’t answer for the Romanists but I suspect some of them, anyway, would want to distinguish between capital punishment and a just war. There are pacifists in Rome but I think they still (for now) officially support the just war theory.

  3. This is very helpful: “Rome rejects the distinction between law and
    gospel, the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. Civil life is a covenant of works. The church administers a covenant of grace. Theologically, Rome turns the grace into works and she still, even in modernity, wants to turn the state into the church.” It shows how failure to separate the two kingdoms connects with failure to separate law and gospel. This distinction is basic to the truths recovered in the Reformation, the Sola’s. What it involves, is a binding the conscience to laws devised by the church\state of which the Pope wants to be Lord, rather than God, as He reveals Himself only in His Word. It is to preach God, as He reveals Himself in His Word, that is the mandate of the church, to address the spiritual problem of sin and separation from God. Jesus said, “my kingdom is not of this world.”

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