A Statement from
The North Dakota Catholic Conference
Concerning the Death Penalty

January 1995

I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live . . . (Deuteronomy 30:19)


The North Dakota Catholic Conference opposes carrying out the death penalty as a means of dealing with crime in North Dakota. The fundamental purpose of all punishment is to preserve and enhance the common good. We must never lose sight of this purpose by disregarding the effects of resorting to violent death as a means of dealing with crime. A society that chooses violent death as a solution to a social problem gives official sanction to a climate of violence.

Each of us, as members of the community, participates in the punishment of offenders. We must not, therefore, approach such a matter lightly or leave it to the winds of public opinion. It demands great scrutiny and a rightly formed conscience. Above all, we must root our approach to punishment, especially punishment by death, in the respect for sanctity of human life and the dignity of all persons, and the preservation and enhancement of the common good.(1)

Addressing Crime and The Role of Punishment

Preserving Public Order

Proper punishment serves three objectives -- redressing the disorder caused by the offense, preserving public order and safety, and as far as possible contributing to the correction of the offender.(2) “If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.”3 Thus, although the traditional teaching of the church accepts that the state may have a right to punish by means of the death penalty in cases of extreme gravity, the state does not have the duty to do so, and it should reject use of the death penalty if bloodless means are available to achieve the objectives of punishment.

Correction of the Offender

Bloodless means are available in North Dakota. The availability of facilities and means for lifetime incarceration provides sufficient protection of the public order and safety of persons in North Dakota. Incarceration, rather than death, also provides the most desirable means of contributing to the correction of the offender. Although the prospect of imminent death may motivate the offender to undergo a conversion or change of heart, other means can accomplish the same end. In addition, since the death penalty deprives the criminal of life, it cannot lead to the type of sustained rehabilitation that can allow the offender, even if incarcerated, to participate in the community of persons.

Redressing the Disorder

Concerning the need to restore the order of justice, it is important to distinguish between retributive justice -- the redressing of the disorder caused by the offense -- and the spirit of vindictiveness. All persons, even those most affected by the crime, ought to accompany acts of punishment with an attitude of forgiveness. Moreover, it is erroneous to believe that unless the death penalty is carried out, proper retribution cannot take place. In Catholic tradition, the state has the right, but not the duty, to exercise the death penalty. There is no obligation to use the death penalty; other means can restore the order of justice.

Effect on the Common Good

In addition, there exist several problems with the death penalty that we must consider because of their effect upon the common good.

Use of the death penalty always involves the risk of executing an innocent person. This is a risk our society need not take to accomplish the purposes of punishment.

History demonstrates discriminatory application of the death penalty with respect to the disadvantaged, the indigent, the socially impoverished and those who suffer discrimination because of race. We must be wary of resorting to a discriminatory process with fatal consequences.

It is sadly true that demands for the death penalty are often accompanied by a vindictive spirit. The state should, however, as far as possible, guide the citizenry away from the spirit of vindictiveness. Satisfaction of such desires is not and cannot be an objective of a humane and Christian approach to punishment.(4)

Sanctity of Human Life

Finally, we live in a climate of death and violence. We must resist violence and take every opportunity to recognize the sanctity of life and to affirm the possibility of conversion and renewal.

As the people of faith, we believe that we are made in the image of God (Gn.1:27) and that we reflect God’s presence among us. Accordingly, every person possesses a dignity that comes from God and not from any human quality or accomplishment, not from race or gender, age or economic status. The test of every public policy, therefore, is whether it enhances or threatens human life and dignity.

Prevention of Crime

We must also remember that punishment is not the only method of dealing with crime. There exists a pressing need to address those spiritual, economic and social conditions that contribute to criminal behavior. We affirm the need for education to promote virtuous living and respect for the human dignity of all persons.(5) When we root our approach to crime in legitimate uses of punishment and elimination of causes of crime, we can feel confident that we, as a society, have followed God’s command to “choose life” (Dt. 30:19).

Concern for Victims and Families

We recognize the concerns of victims and their families. We acknowledge the shattering pain that comes with violent crime. We mourn as a community all who have lost loved ones to acts of violence. It is the particular responsibility of the faith community to provide support to the victims and foster healing. We also urge all people to participate in and support acts of reconciliation between victims of tragic crimes and criminal offenders so that we may share in the incomparable experience of forgiveness and underscore the meaning of “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 22:39).


We urge all to join us in this plea for mercy. Christ called upon us to be reconciled with those who have injured us and to “forgive those who have sinned against us” (Mt. 6:12). It is in this spirit of mercy that we witness to the redemptive love of God that can change hearts, convert people and make all things new. In this day and age when mercy seems a forgotten virtue, we are to be the light that shines amid the darkness of evil and injustice, the gentle hand that brings hope to the hopeless and healing to the afflicted. We stress the value of all human life, even when some may find it worthless. Finally, we give praise to the God of all mercy whose powerful Spirit of love can renew our broken world.

1United States Catholic Conference, “Economic Justice for All” (#32); and “The Challenge of Peace,” (#15).
2Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2266.
3Ibid., No. 2267.
4United States Catholic Conference, “Statement on Capital Punishment,” 1980.

January 1995