Capital Punishment and Roman Catholic Moral Tradition

E. Christian Brugger

What is the Catholic Church’s position on the death penalty? How and why has it changed through the ages? In his engrossing and meticulously researched book, Capital Punishment and Roman Catholic Moral Tradition, E. Christian Brugger traces the history of this thorny moral issue.

Part 1 of the book offers a detailed exegesis of the Church’s account of the morality of the death penalty as formulated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Brugger argues that while the Catechism does not explicitly state that the death penalty is wrong, it lays down premises that logically imply this conclusion. Brugger argues that the fundamental moral reasoning found in the papal encyclicals Evangelium Vitae and Veritatis Splendor favor this same conclusion.

Part 2 provides an in-depth exploration of the treatment of the death penalty in the doctrine, traditional teachings, and texts of the Catholic Church. From the Old Testament and patristic writers to medieval and modern Catholic thinkers, Brugger mines this rich moral and theological tradition for arguments pertaining to capital punishment. He extracts from these teachings a “cumulative consensus” that capital punishment is morally legitimate and juxtaposes this traditional view with current church teaching.

Brugger’s historical and systematic analysis of contemporary and traditional Catholic teachings on the morality of the death penalty leads him to conclude that a philosophically consistent, doctrinally sound framework and vocabulary can and should be developed for rejecting the death penalty in principle.

E. CHRISTIAN BRUGGER is assistant professor of ethics in the department of religious studies at Loyola University in New Orleans, Louisiana.


“Destined to become a primary resource on the complex moral question of capital punishment, this book is the culmination of many years of extensive scholarship by Brugger (ethics, Loyola Univ.). The material is historically and theologically sound. Impressive, scholarly, and authoritative. . . .” — Library Journal

”. . . A superior example of disciplined scholarly reflection. . . . ” — America

”. . . A valuable contribution to the discussion of an unsettled and unsettling question.” — First Things

”. . . Highly recommended for sophisticated undergraduates, graduates, and especially Catholics who seek strong moral and theological arguments against capital punishment in principle.” — Religious Studies Review

“. . . Tightly argued historical examination of Catholic teaching on capital punishment. . . .” — Theological Studies

“Brugger’s book is a veritable gold mine of information, tracing the history of doctrinal and moral thinking about the death penalty. . . . [A] valuable resource for anyone interested in the history of and possible changes in the Roman Catholic teaching on the death penalty. [T]he conversations his book will spark are timely and critical.” — _(

“Brugger’s understanding of the dynamics of church teaching shows depth and sophistication.” — Commonweal

“[Brugger] very skillfully describes the intellectual and sociological changes which have assembled to alter the course of the Church’s approach to capital punishment.” — American Catholic Studies

“. . . This book ranks as one of the clearest and most elegant statements of Catholic moral teaching on the death penalty. This volume should be included in every Catholic college library or seminary, and will be a valuable addition to all graduate libraries.” — Choice

”. . . Stimulating study of current Roman Catholic teaching on the subject as well as its setting in historical context.” — Calvin Theological Journal

“. . . A meticulously researched and engagingly written book. . . it is hard to [imagine] a better book being written on the Catholic Church and capital punishment.” — Contact: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Pastoral Studies

“Brugger presents a tightly argued case for reconsidering the traditional Catholic teaching on capital punishment, which has, with varying degrees of hesitation or enthusiasm, consistently recognised it as legitimate. In particular, he argues that the magisterial documents from the papacy of John Paul II, specifically Evangelium Vitae and Catechism of the Catholic Church, move firmly in the direction of an abolitionist position. . . .” — The Heythrop Journal

Capital Punishment and Roman Catholic Moral Tradition combines in-depth history of the Catholic tradition with a careful exegesis of recent church teaching that bend dramatically from the past. . . . Such an account soundly preserves traditional Christian principles of punishment and also recognizes that when the state loses — rather than forswears — its moral prerogative to execute, it may become harder to ensure that mercy and clemency receive their due.” — Journal of Religion