Journal of Catholic Social Thought

Volume 20, Issue 1, Winter 2023

Honoring Johan Verstraeten

Andrew Skotnicki
Pages 167-192

The Devil Is in the Details: Catholic Teaching on Criminal Justice

In this article, the author argues that Catholic magisterial teaching in matters pertaining to criminal justice has been frozen since the Middle Ages in a legalist framework that has underwritten and continues to legitimate the violence of retributive justice by the state. The article will first provide the official Catholic position on criminal detention and punishment. This will be followed by a survey of the medieval, largely Thomist, account of the legitimacy of punishment as administered by the state, blessed by the Church, and dominant in Catholic teaching, to the demotion of the nonviolent, evangelical emphases that characterized the pre-Constantinian Church. Finally, the paper will urge the revoking of Catholic endorsement of inflicting willful suffering on criminal offenders found guilty in courts of law. In this way, the Catholic Church will maintain a consistent, life-affirming, and exemplary Christian ethic of criminal justice.