US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was recently barred from receiving communion in her diocese by her bishop over her obdurate viewpoint with regard to abortion, in response she said:

I wonder about the death penalty, which I am opposed to. So is the Church. But they take no action against people who may not share their view,” she said during MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show.


Does she have a point or is there an incredibly obvious reason why a pro-abortion stance is held as more morally abhorrent than a pro-death penalty stance?

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    Seems like a false premise: the Catholic Church doesn't generally act against people who disagree with it on either issue.
    – Nat
    May 26, 2022 at 2:36
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    Without regard to this particular individual, I give you Luke 13:29. Trying to guess who is in and who is out from public appearances only is warned against, in that we should expect it to not work well.
    – Joshua
    May 26, 2022 at 4:38
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    The death penalty is given to those who have deserved it, such as for murder. But the unborn are innocent of their deaths.
    – Steve
    May 27, 2022 at 20:49
  • If you're looking for clarity, could you first clarify what you're really Asking? Could give a simple synopsis of Pelosi's argument, then first Ask whether the Catholic Church agrees with that? Either way, does Catholic Church, to you, mean Roman Catholic or are there other options? May 29, 2022 at 18:08
  • Whether a double standard has been demonstrated is not a matter of fact. In another comment, that demonstration would require "(a) a Catholic politician who (b) supports the death penalty while touting his Catholic faith and (c) lives in Archbishop Cordileone's jurisdiction (Pelosi's archdiocese) who is not denied communion?" Even under another bishop, I'm skeptical this has occurred.
    – user3961
    Jun 30, 2022 at 18:23

2 Answers 2


Cardinal Ratzinger, Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles:

  1. Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.
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    I can see from the comments why it's rather fruitless to try to stick your neck out and offer any sort of commentary on the document. So I guess it's best to just accept this and move on. It might be worth noting that the a certain disgraced cardinal intentionally subverted this letter and allowed the Bishops to read into it however they wanted (this is according to a Church Militant report on May 24th, 2022).
    – Peter Turner
    May 26, 2022 at 1:37

The Catholic Church's stance on the death penalty, as on many other issues, is not static. Cardinal Ratzinger, known as a conservative scholar (which earned him applause from conservatives and criticism from progressives), issued his understanding of doctrine in the text quoted by SupportiveDante almost 20 years ago. It is noteworthy that he does not make much of an argument — he is making a dogmatic statement: "Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia." Period. No reason given; the text continues with examples.

Ratzinger's statement is not a full embrace of the death penalty and tries to keep all options open: "There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about [...] applying the death penalty." Or there may not be! He is not saying that there is legitimate diversity, or that the diversity is legitimate. He is certainly not saying that a good Catholic couldn't be against the death penalty.

Times are changing, and the changing times brought a less conservative man to the top of the Church, Pope Francis.

He laid out a very different guidance regarding the death penalty in an address to the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization. Francis starts with quoting a key section from the Catechism:

The whole concern of doctrine and its teaching must be directed to the love that never ends. Whether something is proposed for belief, for hope or for action, the love of our Lord must always be made accessible, so that anyone can see that all the works of perfect Christian virtue spring from love and have no other objective than to arrive at love.

This is a clear emphasis on what is at the center of Christian teachings, including the Catholic: Love. It is "along these same lines" that Francis turns to the death penalty.

We must take into account, he says, "the change in the awareness of the Christian people which rejects an attitude of complacency before a punishment deeply injurious of human dignity." He continues:

It must be clearly stated that the death penalty is an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity. It is per se contrary to the Gospel, because it entails the willful suppression of a human life that never ceases to be sacred in the eyes of its Creator and of which – ultimately – only God is the true judge and guarantor.

That is a pretty apodictic statement: "It is per se contrary to the Gospel." But Francis, in contrast to his predecessor, does not simply issue a dogmatic statement — he gives us the reasons: By willfully killing a human we are usurping God's role, ending a sacred life.

With respect to different earlier teachings, Francis says:

Let us take responsibility for the past and recognize that the imposition of the death penalty was dictated by a mentality more legalistic than Christian. [...] Here we are not in any way contradicting past teaching, for the defence of the dignity of human life from the first moment of conception to natural death has been taught by the Church consistently and authoritatively.

The discourse ends thusly:

It is necessary, therefore, to reaffirm that no matter how serious the crime that has been committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.

Under his guidance, the Catholic catechism, which before saw the death penalty as a legitimate means of last resort, was amended in 2018 to include this quote in paragraph 2267.

Concluding, and coming back to your answer: Pope Francis, an authoritative source for opinions of the Catholic Church, clearly laid out the arguments against such a double standard. Those who did or do uphold it, like Cardinal Ratzinger, did not or do not have good arguments.

  • How does this answer the question about the perceived difference between the Church withholding communion from those who strongly and publicly support abortion (At least in some cases) and those who support capital punishment? It only seems to argue supporting capital punishment is contrary to Church teaching, but on questionable theological grounds.
    – eques
    May 27, 2022 at 14:34
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    @eques The theological grounds could not be any clearer.-- This answers the question insofar as there does not appear to be a fundamental difference between taking one life or another to the Catholic Church. As far as the Church goes, there is no fundamental reason why somebody who does not want to forbid abortion cannot get communion while somebody who does not want to forbid the death penalty can. As I pointed out, that used to be different (there was some wiggle room for the death penalty). May 27, 2022 at 15:10
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    This answer correctly indicates that the Church regards both abortion and the death penalty as always evil, but it falls far short of proving that there is a double standard regarding denial of communion. Is there (a) a Catholic politician who (b) supports the death penalty while touting his Catholic faith and (c) lives in Archbishop Cordileone's jurisdiction (Pelosi's archdiocese) who is not denied communion? How about other dioceses? And what about other differences between abortion and the death penalty -- e.g. the far higher number of abortions vs. executions?
    – Null
    May 27, 2022 at 16:03
  • @Peter-ReinstateMonica on the contrary, the theology is flawed because "Pope Francis, an authoritative source for opinions of the Catholic Church" is not exactly a doctrine of the Church. An opinion (to use your term) bears little weight and Catholics are not in general obligated to hold to the opinions of Popes, bishops et al, but only to what has been taught. And it has been taught for centuries that capital punishment is morally permissible. See for example Dr. Feser's By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed
    – eques
    May 27, 2022 at 21:22
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    @Null on the contrary, it doesn't show that nor can it because that is not the case. Pope Francis only said "inadmissible" which is a heretofore unused description when it comes to morality. Furthermore, to attempt to argue that his statement puts it in the same category of evil as abortion would run to grave theological issues around the indefectibility of the Church
    – eques
    May 27, 2022 at 21:24

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