Catholic Leaders Misinterpret Holy Scriptures on Capital Punishment in Breathtaking Ways

What does the Bible actually say about it?

By Jules Gomes Published on June 10, 2024

“Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ,” St. Jerome famously declared. I wonder what the great Doctor of the Church would say to Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

The prelate displayed his cavernous ignorance of the Holy Bible in a recent pronouncement on the death penalty.

In a Vatican News interview published on May 30 in Italian and Spanish (but not in English), Paglia claimed that the Scriptures have prohibited the death penalty since the time of Cain.

It is worth quoting the prelate’s entire statement, which is both rhetorically convoluted and theologically vacuous:

Yes, it seems to me that the Magisterium of the Church is now clearly expressed in this perspective, and this obviously gives hope: the agreement and the strength to emphasize the Church’s opposition to this incredible cruelty [capital punishment], which Scripture has already forbidden since the time of Cain.

The biblical illiteracy showcased in Paglia’s interview is breathtaking beyond belief. The archbishop uses the Italian word interdetto, which can be translated as “banned, forbidden, or prohibited,” but carries the juridical sense of an interdict — to forbid by legal decree.

Has Paglia even read the Pentateuch — the first five books of Moses? Or is he being deliberately disingenuous and bluffing his audience, assuming most of his Catholic readers hardly ever read the Bible, let alone possess any familiarity with the Torah?

Pontiff Debunks Defense of “Prudential Judgment”

Of course, Paglia is correct in stating that the Roman magisterium under Pope Francis has engraved its rejection of the death penalty in stone.

“Popesplainers” kept defending Pope Francis when he turned the death penalty on its head in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, declaring it to be “inadmissible.” They argued that its inclusion in the Catechism was nothing more than the pontiff’s “prudential judgment.”

Then, in a fatal blow to his internet spin doctors, Francis categorically reiterated the death of the death penalty in his magisterial “Declaration ‘Dignitas Infinita’ on Human Dignity” (April 2024).

Popesplainers who specialize in counting the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin will continue to debate the “level of magisterium” on which Dignitas Infinita is placed, but this is a game of a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat who is not there.

Development of Doctrine?

Paglia is also right in sketching the slippery slope that led to Francis’s abolition of the death penalty: It was, after all, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI who were also opposed to capital punishment!Not for Featured Image

Surely this is another arrow in the quiver of popesplainers seeking to explain Francis’s move as the “development of doctrine”? But as the Catholic philosopher Ed Feser astutely points out: “Slapping the label ‘development’ onto a contradiction doesn’t transform it into a non-contradiction.”

Feser explains how the reversal of the death penalty could be the Humpty Dumpty of the Catholic Church’s claim to magisterial continuity:

If capital punishment is wrong in principle, then the Church has for two millennia consistently taught grave moral error and badly misinterpreted scripture. And if the Church has been so wrong for so long about something so serious, then there is no teaching that might not be reversed, with the reversal justified by the stipulation that it be called a “development” rather than a contradiction. A reversal on capital punishment is the thin end of a wedge that, if pushed through, could sunder Catholic doctrine from its past — and thus give the lie to the claim that the Church has preserved the Deposit of Faith whole and undefiled.

Death Penalty Is Intrinsic to the Pentateuch

As a biblical scholar specializing in the Hebrew Bible, I feel gaslighted by Paglia’s assertion that “Scripture has already forbidden [capital punishment] since the time of Cain.” Has he discovered a new manuscript with a variant reading that is textually more reliable?

The principle of the death penalty is so intrinsic to the sanctity of life that capital punishment for premeditated murder is the only law repeated in all five books of Moses (Genesis 9:6, Exodus 21:12, Leviticus 24:17, Numbers 35:16ff, Deuteronomy 19:11–13).

The Law, given directly by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, also ordains execution for offenses like striking or cursing a parent, kidnapping, adultery, incest, bestiality, sodomy, rape of a betrothed virgin, witchcraft, incorrigible delinquency, breaking the Sabbath, blasphemy, sacrificing to false gods, and oppressing the weak.

Perhaps Paglia has a point in mentioning Cain? Is he using the Cain narrative to defend the abolition of the death penalty because God does not impose capital punishment on Cain after he has killed Abel and instead commutes it with a curse and a witness protection program?

Cain Gets a Pass on Execution

So why does Cain escape the death penalty? One approach a biblical scholar might take is to use source criticism and recognize that while the Cain narrative is penned by the Yahwist, the first promulgation of the death penalty after the flood (Genesis 9:5) is the work of the Priestly writer, composed much later than the Yahwist.

The context of Genesis 4 suggests that the murder of Abel is a “crime of passion,” also called “voluntary manslaughter” in legal parlance. It is a crime involving some sort of provocation that leads the offender to take fatal action.

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A man shooting his adulterous wife and/or her partner after he catches her in bed with someone else or a driver killing someone while driving recklessly with road rage after another driver does something dangerous are examples of voluntary manslaughter.

Eugene Peterson’s The Message succinctly captures Cain’s emotions that lead to this crime of passion:

God liked Abel and his offering, but Cain and his offering didn’t get his approval. Cain lost his temper and went into a sulk. God spoke to Cain: “Why this tantrum? Why the sulking? If you do well, won’t you be accepted? And if you don’t do well, sin is lying in wait for you, ready to pounce; it’s out to get you, you’ve got to master it.” (Genesis 4:5–7)

Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, in his book The Genesis of Justice, shows how the rabbis wrestled with this issue and how different midrashim attempted to resolve the riddle. In fiction, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden has one of the most fascinating treatments of the theme, exploring how Cain — who is invited, encouraged, and challenged by God to conquer his rage — has failed.

Does the Death Penalty Violate Human Dignity?

Paglia is parroting Pope Francis’s justification for cancelling capital punishment: Francis contends that the death penalty should be abolished because it “violates the inalienable dignity of every person, regardless of the circumstances.”

In his encyclical Fratelli tutti, the pontiff argues how “the firm rejection of the death penalty shows to what extent it is possible to recognize the inalienable dignity of every human being and to accept that he or she has a place in this universe.”

“If I do not deny that dignity to the worst of criminals, I will not deny it to anyone. I will give everyone the possibility of sharing this planet with me, despite all our differences,” Francis pontificates.

But this is precisely the opposite of what Genesis is teaching! After the flood, God commands Noah to implement capital punishment for murder: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Genesis 9:6).

In one verse, God inextricably links the death penalty to human dignity.

Redemption Is Offered Even to the Criminal

It is precisely because humans have dignity that Noah is charged with implementing the death penalty for a murderer who takes the life of another human being. Our dignity as humans comes from our being created in the image and likeness of God. This dignity is marred by sin, but it can never be permanently erased, even if a person were to commit a heinous crime. Thus, the guilty offender is also never deprived of the “possibility of redemption.”

In the context of premeditated murder, the death penalty is the only means for preserving human dignity. The death penalty thus becomes the strongest statement the state and society can put forth on the sanctity of life. Life is so sacred and imbued with such dignity that if you dare to take the life of another you will forfeit your own.

Jesus’s exchange with the two criminals crucified on either side of him at Calvary reflects this possibility of redemption. The one who acknowledges his guilt is welcomed into Paradise. The other rejects the possibility of redemption, but nevertheless still retains his human “dignity.” Was Jesus stripped of His dignity because He suffered the death penalty?

Pope Francis might also argue that it is only for God and not the State to take a person’s life. Paul’s letter to the Romans debunks both the idea that the New Testament abrogates Old Testament law and the argument that the State is not authorized to execute a murderer.

The State bears “the sword” as “the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer,” writes Paul (Romans 13:4), a clear reference to capital punishment. Jesus, the Torah-observant Jew, makes it clear that He comes to fulfill and not cancel the Mosaic Law.

“The man who does not know Scripture does not know the power and wisdom of God,” wrote St. Jerome. I wonder what one of the greatest biblical scholars of all time would say to Pope Francis.



Dr. Jules Gomes, (BA, BD, MTh, PhD), has a doctorate in biblical studies from the University of Cambridge. Currently a Vatican-accredited journalist based in Rome, he is the author of five books and several academic articles. Gomes lectured at Catholic and Protestant seminaries and universities and was canon theologian and artistic director at Liverpool Cathedral.

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