Date of Award

Spring 2011

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Religious Studies

First Advisor

Johnson, Mark F.

Second Advisor

Dobbs, Darrell

Third Advisor

Hughson, Thomas


Pope John Paul II's 1995 Evangelium Vitae teaches that capital punishment ought not be used "except ... when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society." Several interpretations of this teaching have been proposed. Through a close reading of the encyclical in itself, in light of John Paul's other writings on the human person and morality, especially the 1980 Dives in Misericordia, and also in the context of such important influences upon him as Thomas Aquinas and Henri de Lubac, I dispute, on the one hand, the interpretation according to which John Paul is pointing toward possible acceptance of the view that capital punishment is, as intentional killing, intrinsically evil. This interpretation rests upon a reading of Aquinas that fails to see the valid logic of his limited defense of capital punishment, and on a reading of John Paul that exaggerates his departure from Aquinas. I also reject, on the other hand, the interpretation of John Paul's teaching as a purely prudential judgment about what is best only in the circumstance of an unhealthy moral culture. This interpretation is incompatible with the logic of Evangelium Vitae, which concerns what is necessary both to build and then also to maintain a healthy culture, and is further disproved by demonstrating at length that John Paul's teaching appeals to mercy as a moral principle always essential for full respect for human dignity insofar as this includes the capacity for conversion, and for the realization of true justice by human persons by nature "restless" apart from a supernatural relationship with God. This appeal is grounded primarily in Christian revelation, but the beginning of an appreciation of the value of mercy is also accessible through natural-law reasoning, based especially on our recognition of creation as already pure gift, requiring us to give ourselves to others in love beyond justice.

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