It is the law of an eye for an eye—in the case of murder—and it is laid down by God to Noah:
“Genesis (9:6) Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.” Retrieved October 6, 2017 from http://jmom.honlam.org/rsvce/ (Catholic Bible: Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition)
This verse from Genesis is part of the Covenant with Noah (Genesis 9:1-17); and as the Catechism states:
“58 The covenant with Noah remains in force during the times of the Gentiles, until the universal proclamation of the Gospel.”
Retrieved October 13, 2017 from http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__PG.HTM
In other words, this cannot be changed; Catholic tradition, from scripture, and the Catechisms, sets it in stone.
This excellent article from Remnant Newspaper examines the route of change that has occurred within the Catholic Church over the past few decades from certainty to ambiguity regarding this law.
Two decades before the current Pope caused open consternation among the faithful by disregarding previous teaching, one of his most beloved predecessors successfully did the same thing with barely any outcry.
Concerning capital punishment for murder, Pope John Paul II arbitrarily reversed centuries of teaching from both Scripture and Tradition in favor of an abolitionist approach the Church now embraces. However, that approach changed the fundamental moral criterion the Church applies to the issue, leads to contradiction and confusion, creates a moral equivalence between perpetrators and victims – and, ultimately, threatens the Church’s theological and moral credibility.
The Old Testament provides the deepest layer of soil for the traditional teaching’s roots. In Genesis 9:5-6, God orders Noah and his descendants to execute murderers:
“I will demand an accounting for human life… Anyone who sheds the blood of a human being, by a human being shall that one’s blood be shed. For in the image of God have human beings been made. (New American Bible).”
That command came after a flood that destroyed a morally chaotic world – and is repeated in every book of the Torah, the first five books that form the Bible’s foundation.
The command implies three theological principles. First, if God is the author of life, then God retains the prerogative to define the circumstances under which life can be taken. Second, God demands that humanity create just societies to protect the innocent. Third, murder is such a heinous violation of the divine image in humanity that execution is the only appropriate punishment.
Exodus 20-23 elaborates on these principles in the lex talonis, which advocates punishment proportional to the offense – the original meaning of “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.” Instead of encouraging vengeance, as the modern hierarchy maintains, the lex talonis discourages ad hoc vigilantism – the ultimate form of vindictiveness – in favor of due process.
In the New Testament, St. Paul reinforces the idea in his letter to the Romans. In Chapter 12, he discourages his readers from avenging themselves by quoting Deuteronomy 32:35 (“Vengeance is mine, says the Lord. I will repay!”). In the next chapter, St. Paul encourages them to rely on due process through legitimate authorities “because they do not bear the sword in vain (verse 4).”
Centuries of Catholic thought reinforced those principles. In The City of God, St. Augustine wrote:
“The same divine law which forbids the killing of a human being allows certain exceptions. Since the agent of authority is but a sword in the hand, and is not responsible for the killing, it is in no way contrary to the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ for the representative of the State’s authority to put criminals to death, according to the Law or the rule of rational justice.”
St. Thomas Aquinas, in his masterpiece Summa Theologica, argued against the idea that incarceration alone is enough to protect the community:
“If a man is a danger to the community, threatening it with disintegration by some wrongdoing of his, then his execution for the healing and preservation of the common good is to be commended. Only the public authority, not private persons, may licitly execute malefactors by public judgment. Men shall be sentenced to death for crimes of irreparable harm or which are particularly perverted.”
In Summa Contra Gentiles, Aquinas even argued that an impending execution can stimulate repentance:
“The fact that the evil, as long as they live, can be corrected from their errors does not prohibit the fact that they may be justly executed, for the danger which threatens from their way of life is greater and more certain than the good which may be expected from their improvement. They also have at that critical point of death the opportunity to be converted to God through repentance. And if they are so stubborn that even at the point of death their heart does not draw back from evil, it is possible to make a highly probable judgment that they would never come away from evil to the right use of their powers.”
Not even Sister Helen Prejean, one of the most popular opponents of capital punishment, contended that abolitionism has biblical roots, as she admitted in her book, Dead Man Walking:
“It is abundantly clear that the Bible depicts murder as a capital crime for which death is considered the appropriate punishment, and one is hard pressed to find a biblical ‘proof text’ in either the Hebrew Testament or the New Testament which unequivocally refutes this. Even Jesus’ admonition ‘Let him without sin cast the first stone,’ when He was asked the appropriate punishment for an adulteress (John 8:7) – the Mosaic Law prescribed death – should be read in its proper context.
“This passage is an ‘entrapment’ story, which sought to show Jesus’ wisdom in besting His adversaries. It is not an ethical pronouncement about capital punishment.” (emphasis added)
John Paul’s revisionism finds its roots in his 1995 encyclical “Evangelium Vitae.” While condemning abortion, contraception and euthanasia, John Paul declared capital punishment to be fundamentally unnecessary:
“Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime…In this way authority also fulfills the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people’s safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behavior and be rehabilitated.
“It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment … ought not to go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today, however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” (emphasis added)
The head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith during John Paul’s tenure – Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI – changed the catechism to reflect the late pope’s view.
“If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority must limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.” (emphases added)