The Conservative Case Against the Death Penalty

On November 6, the citizens of California will vote on a controversial referendum abolishing the death penalty.  If passed, Proposition 34 would make California the sixth state to do away with capital punishment in the past five years, sparing the lives of 723 inmates now awaiting execution in San Quentin Prison’s death row, the largest in the United States.

What is unusual in this instance is that the Catholic Church in California is helping to spearhead the drive against the death penalty.

At parishes throughout California in September and October, speaker after speaker have been calling for parishioners to help end capital punishment in the state.

One speaker, Kirk Bloodsworth, spent 12 years in prison and two on death row before he became the first death row inmate to be exonerated due to DNA evidence.  Another speaker is former San Quentin prison warden Jeanne Woodford who tells parishioners that she now opposes capital punishment because of the negative effects she saw it had on the good men and women who had to carry it out.

I’ve always been opposed to capital punishment, and for the most conservative of reasons:  I don’t believe any government should have the authority to take human life, at least not in a society, such as ours, that has the resources to build prisons.

This is a fundamentally conservative position because it rests upon the assumption that government is, by definition, made up of fallible human beings who frequently make mistakes – often horribly tragic mistakes.

As Pope John Paul II taught and the Catholic Church now incorporates into its official catechism, the death penalty is morally permissible, as an act of societal self-defense, in those societies without the resources to lock up dangerous criminals; but in modern western societies, it is ethically and legally indefensible.

Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent (CCC 2267).”

It’s not surprising that many self-proclaimed “progressives” support capital punishment (although many also oppose it).  They believe in and trust government to do the right thing.  That’s why Barack Obama and Bill Clinton are both supporters of capital punishment:  Obama led an effort in Illinois to restore the death penalty when numerous exonerations persuaded the Republican governor, George Ryan, to halt all executions and commute the sentences of everyone awaiting execution, giving most of them life in prison.

But what does surprise me is that so many alleged American conservatives, such as Mitt Romney, also support capital punishment, although that is changing.

Ann Coulter, for example, who I often find hilarious and agree with at least 50 percent of the time, recently wrote a column defending the death penalty. “Fifty-nine percent of Americans now believe that an innocent man has been executed in the last five years,” Ann writes disapprovingly. “There is more credible evidence that space aliens have walked among us than that an innocent person has been executed in this country in the past 60 years, much less the past five years.”

While Coulter and other death penalty supporters are correct that most condemned men and women are almost certainly guilty of heinous crimes, she is dead wrong that wrongful executions are rare.

From Jesus Christ on down through the ages, literally thousands of innocent people have been wrongly executed by incompetent and sometimes malicious government authorities.   DNA evidence has exonerated and released at least 15 death row inmates in the U.S. since 1992 alone.  Another 93 people charged with murder were exonerated by DNA testing.

The formerly prolife and now pro-abortion organization Amnesty International estimates that since 1973 over 130 people have been released from death rows in the U.S. due to evidence of their wrongful convictions.

In Texas, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004 for allegedly murdering his three daughters by burning down his house.  Despite the fact that the Texas Forensic Science Commission found that the arson claims were doubtful and Willingham’s wife disputed the claim that Willingham had killed his daughters to cover up abuse allegations, Governor Rick Perry refused to grant a pardon to Willingham. To me, that fact alone was a reason not to support Perry for president and proof that he was still the big government Democrat he’s always been (when he supported Al Gore for president).

The only Republican candidate in 2012 to oppose the death penalty was Dr. Ron Paul who insists that the true conservative position is to oppose, not support, government executions:

“Over the years I’ve held pretty rigid to all my beliefs, but I’ve changed my opinion of the death penalty. For federal purposes I no longer believe in the death penalty. I believe it has been issued unjustly. If you’re rich, you get away with it; if you’re poor and you’re from the inner city you’re more likely to be prosecuted and convicted, and today, with the DNA evidence, there’ve been too many mistakes, and I am now opposed to the federal death penalty.”

Elsewhere, Paul explains that his opposition to the death penalty does not override his understanding of federalism, and thus, as president, he would not attempt to force the abolition of the death penalty on the states.  That is why he says he opposes the federal death penalty; that is the only death penalty a president has authority over.  However, in an interview with the Concord Monitor in August 2011, Dr. Paul made clear his opposition on principle:

“I don’t think it’s very good sign for civilization to still be invoking the death penalty. . . .

If you believe in the death penalty, what I really object to is the doctors participating in torture, and doctors who are there to make it smooth and sweet.

“Oh, let’s put him to sleep.” If it’s a death penalty, do it on Times Square, see ‘em get their head chopped off and see how all the people, see how much they like it, make ‘em look at it. I think it’s uncivilized.”

Increasingly, Catholics are coming to the same conclusion. 

Given the incompetence of government bureaucrats, the proven fact that innocent people have been executed, and the negative effects that executions have on the people who must carry them out, the only reasonable choice today is to abolish the death penalty.

In California, the latest Field Poll shows Proposition 34 behind in the polls, with 42% in favor, 45% opposed and 13% undecided.  When it comes to capital punishment, “liberal” California is not so liberal after all.  The only argument that appears to be winning converts is the financial one:  Capital punishment has cost the bankrupt state an estimated $4 billion since 1978.

The exception appears to be Catholics who increasingly oppose the death penalty. “We appeal to Californians to end a failed system of justice and choose life,” the Catholic bishops of California said in a joint statement issued September 27.  “Violence does not end violence. Killing in the name of the state will not end killing. The death penalty will not give us justice worthy of a good society.”

Robert Hutchinson


Robert Hutchinson studied philosophy as an undergraduate, moved to Israel to study Hebrew and earned an M.A. degree in Biblical studies. He is the author, most recently, of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Bible. He blogs at

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  • Concerned Catholic

    “As Pope John Paul II taught and the Catholic Church now incorporates into its official catechism, the death penalty is morally permissible, as an act of societal self-defense, in those societies without the resources to lock up dangerous criminals; but in modern western societies, it is ethically and legally indefensible.” — You write this as if this is what the Catechism says, which it does not. What the Catechism actually states is “Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm—without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself—the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” It does not state that the death penalty is ethically and legally indefensible. I am not firmly pro-death penalty, I am leaning against it more and more, however I do not like how people try to portray the death penalty as being against the doctrine of the Catholic Church. I

  • John

    Well written. Covered the points against the death penalty thoroughly and from a Catholic perspective. Thank you.

  • Adam1

    In a nutshell, the Church does not teach that the death penalty is intrinsically evil, though many people believe that it does.

  • Robert Hutchinson

    I think that’s a distinction without a difference.

    Under the concrete conditions of modern society, the Church is insisting that capital punishment should, for all practical purposes, be abolished — even if you can make a theoretical case for it in primitive societies like the Wild West that lacked sufficient prisons.

    In my view, the Catechism says that fairly explicitly:

    “If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must 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.'”

    Note the word “must.”

  • Chris

    This is an issue
    that Catholics with a well-formed conscience can disagree.


    CCC 1783 Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A
    well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments
    according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of
    the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who
    are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own
    judgment and to reject authoritative teachings.

    CCC 1784 The education of the conscience is a lifelong task. From the
    earliest years, it awakens the child to the knowledge and practice of the
    interior law recognized by conscience. Prudent education teaches virtue; it
    prevents or cures fear, selfishness and pride, resentment arising from guilt,
    and feelings of complacency, born of human weakness and faults. The education
    of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart.

    CCC 1785 In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for
    our path, we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into
    practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord’s Cross. We are
    assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of
    others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church.

    I am concerned that we as a society don’t value life enough
    that when someone takes a life in a brutal and heinous way we decide to keep
    them alive thereby devaluing the life taken. Also, if the murderer is in prison
    for life then there isn’t anything that can be done to him or her if they
    commit another murder.

    I also think it is important to make the distinction of wrongly
    executed and wrongly convicted. Not the same thing.

    Human dignity is important, but when I put it into perspective
    against abortion, the 50 million plus innocent babies, against a handful,
    maybe, of persons that could possibly be executed wrongly, I find it not
    something that is a call to arms as is the abortion issue.

    We need to pick our battles and capital punishment is a hill
    that is secondary to the war effort.

    Lastly, I am not sure I would ever use statements made by Dr.
    Paul as support for my argument. There are others that make the same arguments
    as he and have oodles more credibility. Just sayin’!

  • Concerned Catholic

    You still misrepresented the Catechism by stating it “is ethically and legally indefensible.” And in your reference above, “must” does not mean it is never permissible. As Adam1 stated the Church does not teach that the death penalty is intrinsically evil as it does abortion. There is a distinction, instinsically evil means it is always wrong, no matter what the circumstances. According to the Church, abortion is always wrong. However, the Catechism states if “bloodless means are sufficient.” This means it is not intrinsically evil (always wrong). It leaves room for interpretation as Chris sates below.

  • Sarah

    Great article!!! Thank you for speaking the truth and bringing this matter to light again.

  • CDville

    I agree in theory, but then I think of Aubrey Hawkins, the Irving, Texas policeman killed by a group of convicts who had escaped from the prison in Huntsville. Prison escapes still happen. Nevertheless, the death penalty could be reserved for the most dangerous and apparently unrepentant offenders who are determined to be guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt.

  • Jeff T

    I am opposed to the death penalty, but I am also opposed to using false statements to support any argument. There are many who have been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death who are later released, but you write “the proven fact that innocent people have been executed.” Please name a single executed person in the US who was proven innocent. I’ve researched several claims but none withstand much scrutiny. The fact that we have released so many attests to the success of our death penalty system rather than its failure.
    And there is certainly a difference and distinction between intrinsic evils and anything else. The death penalty is not intrinsically evil and will never be declared so. Death is a just punishment for major crimes. We just know that we are better served to give Mercy.

  • dudleysharp

    Mr. Hutchison:

    Fact checking is crucial in this debate. I don’t think you did any.

    “The Innocent Executed: Deception & Death Penalty Opponents”–death-penalty-opponents–draft.aspx

    The 130 (now 140) death row “innocents” scam



    Of all endeavors that put innocents at risk, is there one with a better
    record of sparing innocent lives than the US death penalty? Unlikely.

    1) The Death Penalty: Saving More Innocent Lives

    2) Innocents More At Risk Without Death Penalty


    Of all endeavors that put innocents at risk, is there one with a better
    record of sparing innocent lives than the US death penalty? Unlikely.

    1) The Death Penalty: Saving More Innocent Lives

    2) Innocents More At Risk Without Death Penalty

  • dudleysharp

    Mr. Hutchison:
    You are dead wrong on Catholic teachings.
    The death penalty has never been declared morally wrong by the Church.
    It can’t be.
    Any good Catholic can support more executions, based upon their own thoughtful prudential judgements and remain a Catholic in good standing.

  • dudleysharp

    Catholicism & death
    penalty support: A Brief Review
    Dudley Sharp

    The New Testament death
    penalty support is overwhelming.

    There is a 2000 year record of
    Catholic Saints, Popes, Doctors of the Church, religious leaders, biblical
    scholars and theologians speaking in favor of the death penalty, a record of
    scholarship, in breadth and depth, which overwhelms any position to the

    The very recent changes (EV,1995 & CCC, final amendment
    2003) in the Catholic position are based upon a wrongly considered prudential
    judgement which finds that “defense of society”, a utilitarian/secular concern,
    not a moral or theological one, very rarely, if ever, requires

    This change in teaching is based upon the Church’s switch to
    utilitarianism – defense of society – when the teachings have been and must be
    based upon justice, biblical and theological teachings and tradition – all of
    which conflict with the newest teachings based upon utility — as utility and
    justice may, often, have conflicts.

    In addition, the evidence is
    overwhelming that execution offers greater defense of society than does a life
    sentence. Dead unjust aggressors are infinitely less likely to harm and murder,
    again than are living unjust aggressors.

    Living unjust aggressors murder
    and harm in prison, after escape and after improper release. The cases are well
    known and are daily occurrences.

    It is a mystery why the Church chose a
    utilitarian/secular prudential judgement over eternal teachings based upon
    justice and chose to spare more murderers at the cost of more innocent deaths,
    but that is, precisely what She has done.

    It is also a mystery why the
    Church didn’t review the available evidence, that execution offers a greater
    defense of society. There is no evidence that She did.

    Thankfully, as
    the recent Church’s teaching is a prudential judgement, such means that any
    Catholic can support more executions and remain a Catholic in good standing.

    Catholics should inquire, why is removal of the death penalty option

    How does it become “preferred” when

    1) 2000 years
    of Church teachings are in conflict with a secular/utilitarian “defense of
    society” foundation. Why aren’t the prior 2000 years of teachings “preferred”
    and/or Why aren’t those 2000 years of teachings “preferred” over a secular
    prudential judgment?

    2) “Defense of society” is, at best of tertiary
    importance, even within the recent CCC ? Why aren’t the primary or secondary
    reasons for sanction, individually and/or collectively, “preferred”?

    3) The facts support that the death penalty must be a greater
    defender of both society and innocent individuals, than is incarceration? Why is
    a lesser defense of society, which allows more innocents to be victimized, more
    “preferred’? This is in the context of death penalty eligible crimes, in
    proportionality and within Church teachings.

  • dudleysharp

    Let’s see what some others say:

    God/Jesus: ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and ‘Whoever curses father or
    mother must certainly be put to death.’ Matthew 15:4 NAB. This is a frequent
    passage which God used in the OT, which, as was Jesus’ custom, He brought into
    the NT for emphasis of continuity and importance.
    full context

    Pope Pius XII: “When it is a question of the execution of a man condemned to death it
    is then reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned of the benefit of
    life, in expiation of his fault, when already, by his fault, he has dispossessed
    himself of the right to live.” 9/14/52.

    Pope (and Saint) Pius V, “The just use of (executions), far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this (Fifth) Commandment which prohibits murder.” “The Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent” (1566).

    “Moral/ethical Death Penalty Support: Christian and secular Scholars”

    Christianity and the death penalty

    Catholic and other Christian References: Support for the Death Penalty,

  • dudleysharp

    Except it is, often, not the truth, as reviewed.

  • Ender

    There are two aspects of this argument that really ought to be separate: is capital punishment morally just and can it be appropriately applied? Stating that it ought not be employed is a practical argument based on any number of criteria about which we (Catholics included) may properly disagree.

    Regarding the moral argument I think there is a significant misunderstanding about the teaching contained in the new catechism. It does not, as some have claimed, find that capital punishment is unjust. This is unsurprising inasmuch as the Church has always recognized the right of states to employ it and has always accepted it as a just punishment for (at least) the crime of murder.

    I agree with Cardinal Dulles that: “The Pope and the bishops, using their prudential judgment, have concluded that in contemporary society, at least in countries like our own, the death penalty ought not be be invoked, because, on balance, it does more harm than good.” That is, he accepts that there may be practical objections to its use … but there are no moral ones.

  • JD

    With respect Mr. Hutchinson, I found your article to be incomplete. Your argument against the death penalty, in essence, is that it is currently abused and overused and therefore should be made illegal rather than just used prudently and sparingly. I argue that it is imprudent to abolish the death penalty because, simply, we cannot predict the future. If in 50 years society has crumbled and we have reverted to a kind of Wild West, we will have ham-stringed our legal and moral means to protect the law-abiding citizenry from the criminals.

    I too think the death penalty is overused today and am confused that the criteria for its application is the heinousness of the crime rather than the government’s ability to ensure that the offender can be imprisoned without him doing further harm. I think a legitimate use of the death penalty (that isn’t discussed today) should be for criminals who continue to murder inside prison – because government also has an obligation to ensure the safety of those they imprison.

    When you make a statement like “the Church is insisting that capital punishment should, for all practical purposes, be abolished” objectivity should compel you to qualify it as “some” or “many in the Church insist….” Until the Magesterium officially changes its teaching, this is an issue that Catholics of good will can disagree on. I think we should be advocating the death penalty’s extremely discriminate use, not it’s abolishment. I think our understanding of the death penalty should be like just war, it should be used only as a last resort. But we shouldn’t take the option away entirely as there may be a time when justice compels it.