What Catholics Are Missing in the Death Penalty Debate

WAIT. WAIT. WAIT.  Before skimming this article to see if you like my conclusion on the death penalty, please realize that this blog post is a work on systematic theology, not moral theology. Systematic theology is a consideration of the levels dogma in the Catholic Church. Indeed, the question of By What Authority must precede visceral reactions to difficult issues that divide Catholics today like the death penalty or gay “marriage.”   Against the better judgment of half-my-mind, I’m going to give you (here in the first paragraph) the dogmatic conclusion of this blog post that will be proved below: The Catechism of the Catholic Church is not infallible.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is not infallible. I imagine this sentence will delight many liberal Catholics (who like to put moral relativism above the Catechism under the auspices of “conscience.”)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is not infallible. I imagine this sentence will worry many neo-conservative Catholics (who treat the Catechism released under Pope John Paul II as their magic little book.)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is not infallible. I imagine that sentence will delight many traditional Catholics (until they read my proof below that the Bible, not the Council of Trent, is the summit and source of Divine Revelation for Catholics.)

The top left book in the above picture is called Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma by Dr. Ludwig Ott, a German systematic theologian who produced the book in the early 1950s. Like Denzinger, it is a conglomeration of all doctrines of the Catholic Church. Unlike Denzinger, it is a one volume book. Ott lists eight levels of theological certainty: De Fide Definita, Fides Ecclesiastica, Sententia Fidei Proxima, Sententia Ad Fidem Pertinens, Sententia Communis, Sententia Probabilis, Sententia Pia and Opinio Tolerata. As you can probably see, the first levels are infallible. Towards the end we see levels of certainty that even non-Latin scholars can see are “probable” (Sententia Probabilis) and at the very end a “tolerated opinion” (Opinio Tolerata) which is not bad, but, well, maybe just odd. But there are also about eight theological censures (levels of heresy) the gravest of which is a Propositio Haeretica (a heretical proposition) all the way down to the lightweight-but-still bad Propositio Scandalosa (obviously “a scandalous proposition” that can’t be proved to be heresy, but might lead less-discerning minds to heresy.)

Here, we are only going to consider the first two levels of theological certainty that are considered to be infallible: De Fide Definita has “the highest degree of certainty appertaining to the immediately revealed truths…contained in Revelation…If Truths are defined by a solemn judgment of faith (definition) of the Pope or of a General Council, they are de fide definita.” One level down is Fides Ecclesiastica which are “Catholic truths or Church doctrines, on which the infallible Teaching Authority of the Church has finally decided, and are to be accepted with a faith which is based on the sole authority of the Church (fides ecclesiastica.) These truths are as infallibly certain as dogmas proper.” Notice that these things come only from a “solemn judgment of faith by the Pope” or a “General Council.” Notice that in this list of infallible dogmas, we find neither personal opinions of Popes, nor do we even find the Catechism to be an infallible document. (We will henceforth refer to the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church released by Pope John Paul II as the CCC or the new CCC.)

There are several parts of the above infallible teachings: 1) Sacred Scripture. 2) General Dogmatic Councils. 3) A Creed. 4) Any time the Church Fathers agree on a dogma (proved four paragraphs below from a quote form the Council of Trent) and 5) Ex-Cathedra statements (like the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary or the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.) Notice that in this list, we do not include any Catechisms (before Vatican II or after Vatican II.)  There are probably catechisms without error, but be aware that no catechism is by the nature of having the simple term “catechism” infallible by its nature of being “a catechism.” That the new catechism is infallible is a new urban legend among neo-conservative Catholics. I invite any of them reading this blog post to challenge me on this on email.  You can probably see where I am going in regards to the modern panic on the doctrine of the death penalty being changed, but stay with me on the level of systematic theology for a little longer…

Whereas the above five items (Councils, Creed, etc.) bring doctrine into the infallible De Fide realms or at least infallible Fides Ecclesiastica realms, there is only one of those five that is absolutely and totally inspired by God. It is the Bible. I quote here one paragraph of Pope Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deus,  an 1893 encyclical on the Sacred Scriptures:

For all the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical, are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Ghost; and so far is it from being possible that any error can co-exist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true. This is the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church, solemnly defined in the Councils of Florence and of Trent, and finally confirmed and more expressly formulated by the Council of the Vatican. These are the words of the last: ‘The Books of the Old and New Testament, whole and entire, with all their parts, as enumerated in the decree of the same Council (Trent) and in the ancient Latin Vulgate, are to be received as sacred and canonical. And the Church holds them as sacred and canonical, not because, having been composed by human industry, they were afterwards approved by her authority; nor only because they contain revelation without error; but because, having been written under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, they have God for their author.’”—Providentissimus Deus #20

In other words, notice that there is a difference between infallibility and inspiration. Only the Sacred Scriptures (the Bible) reach the level of both infallibility and inspiration. This might make some traditionalists squeamish that the Bible is the highest, but just go re-read the above quote by Pope Leo XIII to notice the singularity of the term “inspiration” above and beyond the five parts of doctrine that are “infallible.”  We can see this historically in the 16th century:  We all know that the Council of Trent in an infallible interpreter of the Sacred Scriptures. We know that the main “looking glass” if you will at the Council of Trent for looking at any passage of the Bible was St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, for the latter is not only a theology of the Church, but Aquinas is the theology of the Catholic Church. I certainly place him above all doctors of the Church.  But notice that even here that St. Thomas Aquinas’ final say on anything was never himself. It was always Sacred Scripture. If there was an unclear passage, Aquinas always looked to the Church Fathers for interpretation of the Bible.

Regarding the unanimous “call” of the Church Fathers on any interpretation of Sacred Scripture, the Council of Trent states that “in things of faith and morals, belonging to the building up of Christian doctrine, that is to be considered the true sense of Holy Scripture which has been held and is held by our Holy Mother the Church, whose place it is to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the Scriptures; and therefore that it is permitted to no one to interpret Holy Scripture against such sense or also against the unanimous agreement of the Fathers.”—Council of Trent, Session 3, Chapter 2, On Revelation. Notice that the unanimous agreement of the Church Fathers on any passage in Scripture is to be considered infallible to the point that “no one is to interpret Holy Scriptures” against them.

Do you notice any mention in the past four paragraphs of any catechisms? No. There is no mention of any new catechism or even ancient catechism in the above discussions of infallible dogma or inspired Scripture. In fact, there is very little in the above paragraphs even on the authority of the Pope when it comes down to De Fide topics. And here’s why: Divine Revelation was given from Jesus to the Apostles where no Pope is a creative artist of dogma, only the chief safe-guarder of dogma. Yes, these Popes and Church Fathers existed for a few hundred years before the Bible.  Thus, the Church was One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic even before the 4th century when the canon of the Bible was agreed upon. For this reason, I carefully use the word “written” when I say that the Bible is the written gold-standard of infallible Catholic dogma. Again, it is the only part of doctrine that we Catholics we use the word “inspired” for.  Don’t feel Protestant for that.  That is why I just proved this to you from an old-school Pope and the Council of Trent and the Church Fathers.

So, what does the Bible say about the death penalty?  Answer:  It is commanded by God in the Old Testament in too many places to list here. We will consider one passage from the New Testament (which, again, as proved below, is directly inspired by God the Holy Spirit):

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.—Romans 13:1-4

The phrase that the state “bears the sword” for wrong-doers has been interpreted by all Church Fathers as the necessity for the death penalty. They are too many Fathers, Popes and Doctors to list here, so I include a link here if you want to read how the Church Fathers taught that God infallibly inspired the necessity of the death penalty in the Bible.   I’m footnoting here the Magisterial and Patristic declarations on the death penalty from the above link: 1

Let me throw in a personal note here. In high school and early university, I was a liberal Catholic. I had tried braiding my hair into dreadlocks. I went to coffee shops and wrote letters against the death penalty on behalf of Amnesty International. (Then, AI was mildly pro-life; now they’re irresponsibly pro-abortion.)

Slightly later, I had my conversion and became a neo-conservative Catholic. I was taught by Dr. Peter Kreeft. I worked for FOCUS. I was on EWTN‘s Life on the Rock. I still owe a lot of my ability to talk to non-Catholics to their great power of evangelization. My go-to book for everything in those years was the CCC released under Pope John Paul II.

Now, I don’t like the term “traditional Catholic.”  I am just a “Catholic” who has seen that the doctrine and liturgy of 20 centuries  has sustained a rupture in the 20th century.  Where I still rather like my JPII CCC more than most Traditional Latin Mass goers, I have found some errors in the new CCC.   (Neo-cons, don’t panic! I’m not saying Pope John Paul II was not a Pope or anything.) But I can prove just one such error:

“The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.”—CCC #841

The notion found in the new CCC that Muslims worship the same God as Christians is false, false, false. In fact, the more I study Islam, the more I am convinced that the “angel” that appeared to Mohammed in that cave was not Gabriel, but a fallen angel, possibly Satan himself. I am very convinced that Islam is the most satanic religion on the planet, for it promotes murder and child-rape on the global level of the most organized religion of tiny-pockets of fanaticism. I write without scruple that Muslims are serving Satan (probably most of them without knowing it) so to say that they worship they same God as Christians is blasphemy. Every Pope from 700AD to 1950AD would agree with me. Their quotes are too numerous to write here, but the point is that I’m going to take the preponderance of evidence of 200 Popes over the past few Popes on this topic.

So, when it comes to the death penalty, I will first look to the Bible, not the CCC.  God says “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?”—Ezekiel 18:23.  Yes, this seems to say God is against the death penalty.  But the Bible is written by the Holy Spirit—every book—so He can’t contradict Himself. This means that when we combine Ezekiel 18 with Romans 13, the answer is simple: We need to aim for a just society where evil people convert (Ez 18) but God prescribes the death penalty for a just society (Rom 13.) There is nothing contradictory about that. As the Roman Catechism of Trent writes: “This purpose is fulfilled when the legitimate authority of the State is exercised by taking the guilty lives of those who have taken innocent lives.”–Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent, 1566, Part III, 5, n. 4

Notice that I do not say that even the old-school Roman Catechism of Trent is infallible either. (Do I think it has errors like the new CCC? Probably not, but even if it did, it wouldn’t make me panic.)  A catechism is not infallible. Neither is the personal opinion of a Pope on the death penalty or contraception or kissing the Koran. But back to the death penalty:  A sure part of the deposit of the faith starting with the Old and New Testament is that the death penalty is licit and moral in the eyes of the Blessed Trinity, even if we may continue the debate as to its actual application in the 21st century.   So, when someone says to you “Why do you believe in the death penalty?” you should’t feel like a backwater Baptist to answer: “Because the Bible tells me to believe in the death penalty.” If they ask where, you can say “Romans 13.”  Post-production correction:  2

You see, if you take “certain people’s” bait on debating the death penalty on the grounds of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, then you will lose…and possibly lose your Faith in Christ and the Church. Do not meet your enemies on their ground. Bring them to the higher ground of the Bible and Dogmatic Councils like Trent. This is extremely serious:  If you don’t learn that the Bible is the written summit and source of our Divine Revelation (even according to the Doctors and Popes of the Church) then you will begin to believe a Pope or a Catechism could overturn the prohibition of gay “marriage” or contraception…after the changes to the death penalty. People panicking about changes to an already-erroneous CCC proves to me that many good Catholics do not know the basics of systematic theology. All Christians really need to learn the levels of infallibility outlined in the first half of this blog post.

Again, why am I for the death penalty?  Because the Bible is for it.  It’s that simple.  I don’t care if traditional Catholics call me a “Bible-based Protestant” or neo-conservatives call me “schismatic” or liberals call me a “fundamentalist.”  I’ve proved from Scripture and tradition in this blog post that such is timeless Divine Revelation.  I am going to put the Bible and Church Fathers and dogmatic Councils before any Catechism, especially a new one.  Why can I do this?  Because I’m above the Church?  No, precisely because I am below the Church, and under 250+ Popes who were for the death-penalty and 200+ Popes who believed Islam is evil.  Folks, if you don’t get this systematic theology straight, you’re going to panic over more fake changes to doctrine coming down the Vatican pipeline soon.

Truth Himself Speaks Truly.  I believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead (and I do believe, because He did.) Since Christ could raise Himself from the dead, then He could miraculously make one Church (full at times, of corrupt leaders) to maintain Divine Revelation on all matters that pertain to human life in a way that even the most simple peasant could understand, but the most advanced saintly theologian could plumb for his whole life. These articulated faith and morals are called “the Deposit of Faith” and I believe it as much as I believe in the Resurrection, for Christ can only have one spouse, the Catholic Church, promoting the One Faith found in all 20 centuries without change.


  1. Thanks to Steve Skojek at OnePeterFive for these magisterial pronouncements:

    “It must be remembered that power was granted by God [to the magistrates], and to avenge crime by the sword was permitted. He who carries out this vengeance is God’s minister (Rm 13:1-4). Why should we condemn a practice that all hold to be permitted by God? We uphold, therefore, what has been observed until now, in order not to alter the discipline and so that we may not appear to act contrary to God’s authority.” (Pope Innocent 1, Epist. 6, C. 3. 8, ad Exsuperium, Episcopum Tolosanum, 20 February 405, PL 20,495)
    Condemned as an error: “That heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit.” – Pope Leo X, Exsurge Domine (1520)

    “The power of life and death is permitted to certain civil magistrates because theirs is the responsibility under law to punish the guilty and protect the innocent. Far from being guilty of breaking this commandment [Thy shall not kill], such an execution of justice is precisely an act of obedience to it. For the purpose of the law is to protect and foster human life. This purpose is fulfilled when the legitimate authority of the State is exercised by taking the guilty lives of those who have taken innocent lives. In the Psalms we find a vindication of this right: “Morning by morning I will destroy all the wicked in the land, cutting off all evildoers from the city of the Lord” (Ps. 101:8). (Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent, 1566, Part III, 5, n. 4)
    “Even in the case of the death penalty the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. Rather public authority limits itself to depriving the offender of the good of life in expiation for his guilt, after he, through his crime, deprived himself of his own right to life.” (Pope Pius XII, Address to the First International Congress of Histopathology of the Nervous System, 14 September 1952, XIV, 328)

    And finally, some teachings from the doctors of the Church:

    “The same divine authority that forbids the killing of a human being establishes certain exceptions, as when God authorizes killing by a general law or when He gives an explicit commission to an individual for a limited time. The agent who executes the killing does not commit homicide; he is an instrument as is the sword with which he cuts. Therefore, it is in no way contrary to the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ to wage war at God’s bidding, or for the representatives of public authority to put criminals to death, according to the law, that is, the will of the most just reason.” – (St. Augustine, The City of God, Book 1, chapter 21)

    It is written: “Wizards thou shalt not suffer to live” (Ex. 22:18); and: “In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land” (Ps. 100:8). …Every part is directed to the whole, as imperfect to perfect, wherefore every part exists naturally for the sake of the whole. For this reason we see that if the health of the whole human body demands the excision of a member, because it became putrid or infectious to the other members, it would be both praiseworthy and healthful to have it cut away. Now every individual person is related to the entire society as a part to the whole. Therefore if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and healthful that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since “a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:6). – (St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae, II, II, q. 64, art. 2)

    In Iota Unum, Romano Amerio cites St. Thomas on the expiatory nature of accepting a death sentence:
    “Even death inflicted as a punishment for crimes takes away the whole punishment for those crimes in the next life, or at least part of that punishment, according to the quantities of guilt, resignation, and contrition; but a natural death does not.” (Cf. Romano Amerio Iota Unum, 435)

    AND FINALLY APROPOS TO OTHER CATHOLIC NEWS:

    In his apostolic constitution, Horrendum illud scelus, Pope St. Pius V even decreed that actively homosexual clerics were to be stripped of their office and handed over to the civil authorities, who at that time held sodomy as a capital offense. He wrote: “We determine that clerics guilty of this execrable crime are to be quite gravely punished, so that whoever does not abhor the ruination of the soul, the avenging secular sword of civil laws will certainly deter.”

  2. A reader on my blog corrected me and pointed out that Pope Clement XIII actually declared in his Encyclical In Dominico Agro that the Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent was free from error: “As our predecessors understood that that holy meeting of the universal Church was so prudent in judgment and so moderate that it abstained from condemning ideas which authorities among Church scholars supported, they wanted another work prepared with the agreement of that holy council which would cover the entire teaching which the faithful should know and which would be far removed from any error. They printed and distributed this book under the title of The Roman Catechism. There are aspects of their action worthy of special praise. In it they compiled the teaching which is common to the whole Church and which is far removed from every danger of error, and they proposed to transmit it openly to the faithful in very eloquent words according to the precept of Christ the Lord who told the apostles to proclaim in the light what He had said in the dark and to proclaim from the rooftops what they heard in secret.”