Pope Francis and the death penalty: a change in doctrine or circumstances?

Washington D.C., Aug 3, 2018 / 01:30 pm (CNA).- Catholic theologians have weighed in on changes Pope Francis has made to the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s teaching on the death penalty, pointing to some unresolved questions about what, exactly, the changes mean.

On August 2, Pope Francis ordered a revision to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, updating it to describe the death penalty as “inadmissible” and an “attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

The change to no. 2267 of the Catechism was announced in a letter to all Catholic bishops signed by Cardinal Luis Ladaria, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Pope Francis’ change to the Catechism, which was formally approved on May 11 but only announced with Ladaria’s letter dated August 1, follow the pope’s previous strong interventions on the subject.

In October 2017, Francis called the death penalty “contrary to the Gospel” because “it is freely decided to suppress a human life that is always sacred in the eyes of the Creator, and of which, in the final analysis, God alone is the true judge and guarantor.”

The Catechism previously taught 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.”

The new wording of n. 2267 calls capital “inadmissible,” while explicitly recognizing that it had previously been “long considered an appropriate response” by the Church.

Some Catholics have asked whether the pope’s changes are, as Cardinal Ladaria stated in his letter to all bishops, “the development of doctrine” in continuity with past teaching, or if the Church has essentially changed its mind on the question of the death penalty.

Fr. Thomas Petri, O.P., a moral theologian and the Vice President and Academic Dean Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., talked to CNA about the change.

“This is actually the second time this particular paragraph has been revised in the Catechism,” Petri pointed out. “The first time was in 1997, when the second edition of the Catechism was revised, in line with the teaching of John Paul II in Evangelium vitae.”

Indeed, Pope Francis’s immediate predecessors condemned the practice of capital punishment in the West.

St. John Paul II called on Christians to be “unconditionally pro-life” and said that “the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.” He also spoke of his desire for a consensus to end the death penalty, which he called “cruel and unnecessary.”

Pope Benedict XVI exhorted world leaders to make “every effort to eliminate the death penalty” and told Catholics that ending capital punishment was an essential part of “conforming penal law both to the human dignity of prisoners and the effective maintenance of public order.”

While in the past, civil governments have deployed capital punishment with the clear support of the Church, in modern times this support has become much more muted. Discussion within the Church of its continued use has focused on identifying the legitimate ends the death penalty could serve, and articulating what circumstances condition the state’s right to execute criminals.

“St. John Paul II’s teaching introduced a prudential judgment into the Catechism, making it clear that the circumstances in which the death penalty is legitimate are rare, if not practically non-existent,” Petri told CNA.

“I think Pope Francis’ change further absolutizes the pastoral conclusion made by John Paul II.”

Key to understanding the Church’s teaching on the death penalty are the complementary ends of legitimate punishment; restorative or punitive justice towards the offender, and the protection of society from future offences. In the light of the change to Catechism, many have been left wondering how these two interrelate.

Some theologians have argued that the need to impose a “just punishment” on those who commit very serious crimes is reason enough for the death penalty, pointing out that, in the past, the Church would seem to have explicitly supported that idea.

Dr. Kevin Miller, Assistant Professor of Theology at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, told CNA the debate is not new.

“There has been a lively debate among some Catholic thinkers as to whether the teaching that the death penalty can be morally licit even in cases in which it isn’t needed to prevent, say, a convicted murderer from murdering again – is a definitive one. My reading of Scripture and subsequent Magisterial teaching is that it’s unlikely to be definitive.”

“Capital punishment can be just, in the sense that it fits the crime, but, in his encyclical letter Dives in misericordia,  St. John Paul II poses the question ‘Is justice enough?’ – and the answer is no.”

So does the Catechism represent a clear break with past teaching?

Dr. Edward Feser has written extensively on the death penalty in Christian thought. Responding to Pope Francis’ change to the Catechism, he wrote that the new wording suggests an absolute prohibition of capital punishment.

In an Aug. 3 essay published in First Things, Feser wrote: “Pope Francis wants the Catechism to teach that capital punishment ought never to be used (rather than ‘very rarely’ used), and he justifies this change not on prudential grounds, but ‘so as to better reflect the development of the doctrine on this point.’ The implication is that Pope Francis thinks that considerations of doctrine or principle rule out the use of capital punishment in an absolute way.”

The extent to which doctrine can develop to absolutely prohibit what was once permitted, or even encouraged, is a critical question, theologians told CNA. Fr. Petri said this question has caused confusion in the current situation:

“The introduction of the development of doctrine concept blurs things a bit, because it’s not quite clear which doctrine has developed. Is it the doctrine on just punishment and the fact that the primary purpose of punishment is redressing wrong for the sake of the common good? This is still emphasized in the previous paragraph of the catechism, no. 2266. Or is the doctrine of the state’s authority to protect the common good and its citizens what has developed?”

Petri suggested that rather changing one particular church teaching changing, Pope Francis is a reordering of several complimentary teachings.

“I would say that what’s happened here is a different balance in the relationship of doctrines rather than the development of a doctrine: the doctrine of state authority, the doctrine of punishment, the doctrine of the dignity of man and the doctrine of mercy.”

“In that relationship, Pope Francis places mercy and patience as the guiding principle.”

Miller agreed, noting that Pope Francis does not always express his teachings with the perfect clarity of an academic theologian. “At a minimum, this can create situations open to misinterpretation, which we are already seeing here.”

“This confusion is unnecessary, and harmful to people of good will,” he added.

Miller and Petri both argued that the new text does not call capital punishment absolutely wrong, without qualifications.

“Compared to his previous, more spontaneous statements on the subject last year, the current language from Pope Francis is much more geared towards a prudential judgment that the death penalty is no longer necessary and therefore ‘inadmissible,’ though more certainly could be done to underscore that Catholics must still exercise this judgment in the light of circumstances,” Miller said.

Petri agreed: “Nothing in the new wording of paragraph 2267 suggests the death penalty is intrinsically evil. Indeed, nothing could suggest that because it would contradict the firm teaching of the Church.”

Both theologians said that the new wording of the Catechism on capital punishment differs substantially from clear, absolute prohibitions on the taking of life in other circumstances, like abortion.

Edward Feser disagreed. “To say, as the pope does, that the death penalty conflicts with ‘the inviolability and dignity of the person’ insinuates that the practice is intrinsically contrary to natural law. And to say, as the pope does, that ‘the light of the Gospel’ rules out capital punishment insinuates that it is intrinsically contrary to Christian morality,” he wrote.

Fr. Petri pointed out that to CNA that social circumstances impact judgments on the death penalty. He said that while it might be true in most places that the death penalty is not necessary to protect society, it is not yet universally true.

“There undoubtedly exist places where imprisonment may not be enough to keep the citizenry safe. It seems to me that even under this changed wording, we would have to prudentially judge that recourse to the death penalty may be necessary yet.”

Cardinal Larardia’s explanatory letter also concedes that the elimination of the death penalty depends on changes in social circumstances.

“The new formulation of number 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church desires to give energy to a movement towards a decisive commitment to favor a mentality that recognizes the dignity of every human life and, in respectful dialogue with civil authorities, to encourage the creation of conditions that allow for the elimination of the death penalty where it is still in effect,” he wrote.

Miller said that this shows the continuing need for a prudential judgment by Catholics and state authorities, even if there is a clear direction the Church wishes them to pursue.

To Petri, Ladaria’s letter shows a clear “awareness that the conditions necessary to abolish the death penalty are not yet present everywhere.”

So what should Catholics make of the changes?

While the pope seems to be sending a clear message to Catholics that, in the modern age, state reliance on the death penalty should be a thing of the past, there is still room for individual conscience to play a part, Petri said.

“His teaching authority demands a certain submission of intellect and will from the faithful. At the very least, this means that Catholic faithful must give the Holy Father’s pastoral teaching significant weight in the formation of their conscience on this matter.”

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  1. This is a good and balanced article. I especially appreciate the comments of Father Petri and Dr. Miller. I think the revision of CCC 2267 brings into focus two proper Catholic desires: 1) the desire to be faithful to Catholic tradition; and 2) the desire to manifest religious assent to teachings of the Roman Pontiff and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. I agree with Dr. Miller that it’s not clear there ever was a definitive teaching on capital punishment in the Catholic tradition. But even if the death penalty is not intrinsically evil, there are many Christian principles and prudential considerations that make it inadmissible today. These principles and prudential considerations converge to support the conclusion present in the new wording of CCC 2267. I think faitful Catholics should manifest “religious submission of intellect and will” to this new formulation (cf. Lumen gentium, 25).

    • To paraphrase Chesterton, it’s as if you might as well say that a certain teaching is admissible on Mondays, but is inadmissible on Tuesdays.

    • But where was the Church in not knowing this truth for all the centuries but has now discovered the inviolable dignity of the person and it is ‘inadmissible’ but dare not say “intrinsically evil”…

      Supporters cannot give an answer to a life and death question and Fastiggi’s comment doesn’t help.

  2. “Miller agreed, noting that Pope Francis does not always express his teachings with the perfect clarity of an academic theologian.”

    Someone needs to give Professor Miller a trophy for the understatement of the year.

  3. If even informed Catholics are confused by the degree of papal authority that goes with this pronouncement, what about other Catholics who are less knowledgeable about faith and morals, as well as non-Catholics?
    Please pardon me, but I can’t help but respectfully wonder if this pope is an egomaniac to drop this bombshell without carefully clarifying the question of continuity with the past, as well as the degree of obedience required.
    I hate to say that, but I am shaken by this whole matter. What are my responsibilities as a sincere Catholic in relation to the pope concerning this matter, and other teachings?
    I’m actually angry at the pope for unsettling me like this, and I would guess causing all sorts of confusion around the world. (May God bless him.) It seems the dissenters are going to run wild with this “development” of doctrine — or whatever it is — claiming that other controversial teachings are about to change, too.
    As important as is the consideration of the death penalty, the understanding of proper obedience to the pope seems even more crucial. If true Catholics genuinely don’t know what to believe about Jesus, then how can we help to save others from the dangers of this world?
    I ask, even plead, for Catholic World Report to help us understand what is going on, how to make sense of this most perplexing of papal pronouncements.
    Although this seems a trial to me, I am hopeful that somehow we can make good of it by growing in our understanding of the papacy and the Catholic Church in a beneficial way.
    Jesus, I trust in you, but please help my lack of trust.

    • You’re right to be concerned. If Francis is indeed a true Pope, he has just done something Popes are not able to do and so our religion has been falsified. The only logical understanding of this is that Francis is not a true Pope, for Popes cannot be heretics and change Church teaching. I encourage you to frequent Novus Ordo Watch and learn the true Faith more deeply there. My prayers for you.

  4. The apparent change to a dogma is actually here an attempt by the Pontiff to inject a policy that contradicts previous dogma stating the death penalty is a serious “violation of human dignity”. An argument no previous pontiff has held. It must be understood as a contradiction and nothing less. Therefore I disagree with Fr Petri OP that “his teaching authority [here] deserves a certain submission of will and intellect”. Theologians must be clear. What is a “certain” submission? It doesn’t comply with LG 25. Pope Francis’ statement doesn’t meet the standard of a solemn pronouncement or a definitively held position [sententia definitive intenda] since it mentions no obligation to observe or penalty as does Paul VI on contraception in Humane Vitae. But if Pope Francis wished to offer a different “viewpoint” he would have stated it as such rather than clearly contradict what preceded. Consequently if the faithful were to offer “a certain submission of intellect” they must assume Pope Francis’ contradiction of previous doctrine is correct rather than simply “another viewpoint”. The danger in this form of intellectual manipulation is use of similar rationale and method to offer further “different viewpoints” on more essential Catholic doctrine.

    • Thank you, Father Peter, for your welcome reply, which seems very well explained, and is very welcome to me (although these distinctions are still difficult for me to understand).
      The mischief of the pope’s apparent recklessness is further illustrated in the misguided comment by Patrick, who appears to be a good person.
      What a mess this is likely to be as far as further driving away traditional Catholics who go a little too far in their orthodoxy by rejecting Vatican II and our recent popes; while at the same time dissenters are likely to run amok waving this pronouncement in our parishes and on the news telling vulnerable laity that an acceptance of contraception and abortion and gay marriage by the Church is just around the corner.
      Finally, it would have been appreciated if Catholic World Report (CWR) would have responded to my attempt at reaching out for help. CWR is a good resource, but to me it often seems remote. It doesn’t even seem to encourage discussion between readers.
      Perhaps CWR has subconsciously fallen into the trap of dismissing a pastoral approach to informing us in its efforts to be doctrinally sound instead of wishy-washy (It seems to me that Catholic Answers has had this same problem of lack of empathy with ordinary Catholics in the pews.)
      I see no contradiction between pastoral compassion and solid doctrine. A spoonful of sugar does help the medicine go down. There’s no need to dilute the medicine — but it’s good to remember that the medicine is often difficult to take for even those who are well-meaning and willing. It sure helps when our teachers reach out a friendly hand of camaraderie and encouragement to those of us struggling to understand and practice our common faith.
      Please pardon me if I’m off base or out of line, but I have sincerely tried to offer this perception in a spirit of Christian love.

      • Steve CWR does address issues honestly with the intent of being an honest journalistic broker for open discussion. Although the editor do on occasion identify with Tradition. In that vein I can understand avoiding the perception that their purpose is to repudiate the Vatican. There are some sites that do precisely that and all you get is constant attack and little room for discussion. There are some excellent contributors like Fr Stravinskas who would be better disposed to offer pastoral advice. As for my own approach if anyone asks my first premise is remain within the Apostolic Tradition which is the only doctrine pronounced Magisterially. Nothing the Pontiff has said that appears opposed is actually binding doctrine.

  5. Hello Steve! You certainly express yourself very well. I was quite upset to read of your situation. I am not a scholar and, cannot give you a scholars response. However! With the present situation of the Church in mind, there is a prayer I say, taken from one of the Psalms.
    “God of hosts, turn again, we implore, look down from heaven and see.
    Visit this vine and protect it, the vine your right hand has planted”.
    We use the Jerusalem Bible translation in Australian liturgical texts. It’s taken from their. I think the Psalms are a treasure trove. There’s something for every situation, to draw us closer to God. If you haven’t already; search and see. Jesus Our Lord knows His sheep. They are brothers and sisters, who suffer with and for each other. Sometimes it’s hard to see but, you’re truly not alone.
    Stephen in Australia.

    • Thank you so very much, Stephen, for your good words, including a reminder that God will take good care of the Catholic Church which is his creation.
      I’m also glad to be reminded of the great reach of this Church throughout time and across the earth, and the great solidarity given to us by the Holy Spirit, so that a spiritual brother of mine from Australia (with the same name) would reach out in kindness to bring me comfort and good cheer.
      May Jesus bless you, Stephen, and all of your countrymen. Thanks again.

  6. Thank you Father Peter, me too as an ordinary catholic was looking for an answer without having to jump hoops to justify this change or know what to do. “The danger in this form of intellectual manipulation is use of similar rationale and method to offer further “different viewpoints” on more essential Catholic doctrine.” … this is important to know since we have seen a pattern of this in Pope Francis administration i.e. communion for the divorced, so Theologians MUST be clear to state that it must be understood as a contradiction and nothing less. In the past, the Church would seem to have explicitly supported the idea of “just punishment”… this change of doctrine regardless the pet name “development of doctrine” must be done by the Magisterium, does it not?

    • Precisely. Since it isn’t it’s not binding. Therefore we’re obliged to follow Magisterial pronouncements, doctrine contained in the Apostolic Tradition which both predecessors of Francis follow. Pope Francis avoids this for his own reasons perhaps knowing God would not permit it. Nonetheless he’s managed to influence the Church in change of practice that contradicts established doctrine.

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