Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

J. Budziszewski on capital punishment

By Thomas V. Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 10, 2015

There’s no doubt that the majority of Church leaders today favor the abolition of the death penalty. Indeed, there is much to be said against the death penalty as it is used in our own country, and in favor of reforms in the criminal justice system in general.

However, since the Catholic tradition has always affirmed the right of lawful authority to use capital punishment for capital crimes, we might keep in mind “Chesterton’s fence,” the principle that a thing ought not be abolished without first understanding why it existed in the first place.

I often hear arguments against the death penalty that demonstrate little understanding of justice: retribution is conflated with revenge, for example, or a false opposition is set up between personal forgiveness and just punishment.

Those who, even if they oppose the death penalty for good reasons, wish to go beyond such misleading and superficial criticisms, would do very well to read an essay written by philosopher J. Budziszewski in 2004 for First Things. J-Bud (as I like to call him) proceeds with the exceptional clarity we have come to expect from his books, laying out the traditional Scriptural and natural law arguments for capital punishment.

His explanation of the various reasons for punishment is especially helpful; he shows that the primary reason and justification for punishment is retribution, while rehabilitation, protection and deterrence are secondary and cannot in themselves justify punishment.

J-Bud also addresses many of the arguments against capital punishment in a fair-minded way. He accepts the judgment of St. John Paul II that cases in which the death penalty is necessary are today “very rare, if not practically nonexistent”; however, he argues that while “We should indeed prefer to err on the side of mercy, in individual cases,” to do so categorically by abolishing the death penalty altogether would be “to abdicate our duty.”

Thomas V. Mirus is Director of Podcasts for, hosts The Catholic Culture Podcast, and co-hosts Criteria: The Catholic Film Podcast. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Leopardi - May. 13, 2015 8:52 AM ET USA

    On a more pragmatic level, my reluctance to capital punishment is that we too often convict and sentence innocent people as it turns out by DNA evidence.

  • Posted by: Dlukenbill2151 - May. 10, 2015 1:23 PM ET USA

    Great article and a reminder that capital punishment is part of traditional Catholic teaching though too many leaders of the Church seem to forget that. Referring readers to the superb article by J. Budziszewski is very worthwhile and his work informed my book on the subject, Capital Punishment & Catholic Social Teaching: A Tradition of Support.