Matt C. Abbott
Wannabe a state executioner?
By Matt C. Abbott
August 20, 2010

With regard to capital punishment, does an executioner sin when he or she "flips the switch," so to speak?

That's the question I posed to Father John Trigilio, and he graciously provided me with a thorough response.

"Regarding the morality of being the state executioner who delivers the death sentence to someone found guilty of a capital crime, I would say that, normally speaking, he is guiltless of any sin," says Father Trigilio.

"Unlike abortion, which is intrinsically evil in every situation, capital punishment is a natural right of the state. Like war, however, the death penalty is not an absolute right. Both have significant restrictions and criteria in order for them to be done morally. Otherwise, both can be as immoral as murder or abortion if no attention is given to following the moral parameters established by the natural law and the Magisterium."

And what are the moral parameters for capital punishment?

"An executioner would be morally obliged to refuse to work if a particular case occurred where no jury or judge found the accused guilty of a capital crime, but was merely the whim of a law enforcement official or political leader or a case of obvious and gross miscarriage of justice (as in the case of a racially-motivated death sentence or political prisoners); or a case where the accused was not legally an adult; or a case where the condemned was seriously mentally disabled. In cases where it's ambiguous or where it's been clearly established that the legal process was properly and fairly enacted, doing your job would be OK.

"If the executioner lives and works in a totalitarian country where the death penalty is immorally used to restrain political dissent, he is a material cooperator in evil and must quit or resign — or just never apply for the job. Being the hangman in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia, e.g., would never have been a moral occupation to deliberately seek employment. Just as doctors and nurses must refuse to participate in any abortion or euthanasia, so, too, those in the criminal justice system must refuse to be cooperators in evil vis-à-vis the immoral use of capital punishment."

Father does acknowledge that there is some grey area in applying the death penalty.

"When dealing with terrorists, for example — those directly involved in any act that killed numerous innocent victims — one can make a good case for capital punishment since they most likely will return to a life of murder and terror."

Father concludes:

"As a career choice, due to the inequitable fashion in which the death penalty is enacted in the U.S., I would prudently dissuade anyone and everyone from applying for the job as state executioner. The job itself is not per se immoral, but just as the death penalty can be abused, so can the office of him who enacts it."

Regarding capital punishment, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

    Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

    If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

    Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm — without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself — the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity 'are very rare, if not practically non-existent.' (no. 2267)

Related links:

"Catholicism and Capital Punishment" (Cardinal Avery Dulles)

The Catholic Encyclopedia's entry on capital punishment

© Matt C. Abbott


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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media, and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He also has an Associate in Applied Science degree in business management from Triton College. Abbott has been interviewed on HLN, MSNBC, Bill Martinez Live, WOSU Radio in Ohio, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's 2019 ‘Unsolved’ podcast about the unsolved murder of Father Alfred Kunz, Alex Shuman's 'Smoke Screen: Fake Priest' podcast, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) and WISC-TV (CBS) in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s been quoted in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and other media outlets. He’s mentioned in the 2020 Report on the Holy See's Institutional Knowledge and Decision-Making Related to Former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick (1930 to 2017), which can be found on the Vatican's website. He can be reached at

(Note: I welcome and appreciate thoughtful feedback. Insults will be ignored. Only in very select cases will I honor a request to have a telephone conversation about a topic in my column. Email is much preferred. God bless you and please keep me in your prayers!)


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