In Pope Francis’ modification of Church teaching on the death penalty, as expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) makes clear that this new expression should be read in conformity with sacred Tradition, not as a repudiation thereof:
The new revision . . . situates itself in continuity with the preceding Magisterium while bringing forth a coherent development of Catholic doctrine.
In that light, it’s important to observe that words like “intrinsic moral evil” are avoided in reference to the death penalty in the amendment of CCC 2267, because you couldn’t assert such and be in continuity with sacred Tradition, which in this case provides that the death penalty is, in principle, morally licit, and thus not a violation of the Fifth Commandment in and of itself, even though its actual social application or practice can be in various instances.
Indeed, authentic development of doctrine always presupposes fidelity to or continuity with sacred Tradition, not a contradiction. So there can be no speaking of a definitive teaching or solemn definition that repudiates sacred Tradition here. Such could never take place, given the Holy Spirit’s divine protection of the Church (Mt. 16:18; 1 Tim. 3:15; see also, re: the death penalty, Gen. 9:6; Rom. 13:4). As then Cardinal Ratzinger affirmed as head of the CDF in 2004,
There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.
In addition, popes possess the charism of infallibility, not dicasteries of the Holy See. So a pope’s approval of a CDF document does not thereby make assertions within that document infallible, although the CDF serves to clarify questions raised about doctrine, such as reaffirming the Church’s definitive teaching on women’s ordination.
Consequently, if a pope wants to make an infallible statement, he issues his own document, not one through the CDF as Francis has done re: CCC 2267, and he uses special, unequivocal language that he’s speaking infallibly, as Pius XII did regarding the Blessed Mother’s Assumption in Munificentissimus Deus 44. And if he wants to definitively confirm or reaffirm sacred Tradition, he does so clearly, as St. John Paul II did regarding the Church’s opposition to abortion in Evangelium Vitae 62.
Understanding the amendment of CCC 2267 in continuity with sacred Tradition
This all needs to be kept in mind as various parties are arguing that Pope Francis has either repudiated sacred Tradition and thus has erred, or that infallible teaching has never existed on the death penalty and that this change is welcome, given that the developed teaching now expressed in CCC 2267 says that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”
A key word here is “inadmissible,” which means “impermissible” or not “capable of being allowed or conceded.” In modifying CCC 2267, Pope Francis and the CDF recognize that the Church has taught for centuries the moral permissibility of socially implementing the death penalty:
Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.
Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.
Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide (emphases added; footnote omitted).
In part, the Church has long affirmed the death penalty’s moral permissibility—or social application or implementation—because it could serve as a spiritual sobriety checkpoint for someone facing imminent death, providing a convicted murderer the opportunity to reflect and repent. In the process, the social application of the death penalty has served to affirm the dignity of the convicted criminal in particular and humanity in general, reminding all concerned that our time on earth is fleeting and so we need to ready to meet the Good Lord at our particular judgment, whenever it may come (CCC 1021-22). The convicted murder in particular has been reminded that, as a human person made in God’s image and likeness (Gen. 1:26-27), he had the God-given free will to recognize his grave wrongdoing and thus convert in anticipation of his imminent execution.
Consequently, the death penalty can be—and, arguably, often is—an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the human person, but not necessarily. That is, not in each and every instance, in contrast to the intrinsic moral evils of abortion and euthanasia which Pope St. John Paul condemned in definitively reaffirming sacred Tradition in Evangelium Vitae, an encyclical Pope Francis has cited and the CDF cites in its letter on the CCC change.
In addition, in speaking of an “increasing awareness” that a person has not lost his dignity, “even after the commission of very serious crimes,” the new version of CCC 2267 illustrates that the Church has always recognized the personal dignity of convicted criminals facing the death penalty. That’s why the Church has always striven to make available Catholic priests for those facing execution, so that the convicted criminals could be reconciled with God and thus not be “definitively deprived…of the possibility of redemption.”
A doctrinal development regarding social application
And yet the CDF makes clear that “penal sanctions applied by the modern State…should be oriented above all to the rehabilitation and social reintegration.” Convicted murderers who are subject to state execution are not likely to be “socially integrated” outside of prison, given the life sentences typically associated with their convictions. However, foregoing the death penalty undoubtedly provides increased opportunities to rehabilitate even the worst of criminals and thus further cultivate their dignity as human persons.
In that light, and in fidelity to Pope Francis with regard to this development of Church teaching, Catholics should oppose state executions and work for their abolition, while striving otherwise to ensure the protection of the common good, as the CDF provides:
Certainly, it remains the duty of public authorities to defend the life of citizens, as has always been taught by the Magisterium and is confirmed by the Catechism of the Catholic Church in numbers 2265 and 2266.
At the same time, the CDF makes clear that this doctrinal development is in harmony with sacred Tradition:
Finally, given that modern society possesses more efficient detention systems, the death penalty becomes unnecessary as protection for the life of innocent people (emphasis added).1
Note well the words “the death penalty becomes unnecessary.” Intrinsic moral evils like abortion, euthanasia, etc., don’t become unnecessary. They are never morally licit. They are never socially tolerable. They necessarily must be opposed because they are always and everywhere morally wrong.
Such is not the case with the death penalty, and that’s why the Church has historically supported its social application. Given a variety of changing circumstances in modern times, the Church now opposes its social application. And so the doctrinal modification relates to a change in the death penalty’s social application or implementation, not a contradictory assertion that state executions are intrinsically evil and therefore a repudiation of sacred Tradition. Consequently, we have an authentic development of doctrine in CCC 2267, building on what St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict advanced with regard to the death penalty’s social application.
What about God’s application of the death penalty?
Finally, for those who now argue that the death penalty is an intrinsic moral evil—they thereby put God on the moral hook, because one who is all-good cannot formally choose that which is morally evil. And yet we have a number of biblical cases in which God inflicts capital punishment on grave wrongdoers.
While some religions argue that God can be morally arbitrary because of his divine sovereignty, the Church, guided by God’s Word Scripture (2 Tim. 2:13), affirms that God cannot deny himself, which he means he cannot contradict his divine nature. Which means he necessarily cannot sin. Given that God has justly imposed the death penalty at various points in salvation history, including on Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19), Onan (Gen. 38), and Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5), we can calmly reaffirm that state executions are not an intrinsic moral evil, even while we now join Pope Francis in working toward the abolition of their social application.
1 One might argue that that Third World countries do not have adequate detentions systems, and so developed countries should assist them in achieving such.
Other Essays in the Symposium:
• “Catechism changes demand the impossible” by Christopher R. Altieri, who says the new text on capital punishment seems to require Catholics to substitute this Pope’s judgment on this subject for their own.
• “Some questions for defenders of capital punishment” by Robert G. Kennedy, who argues that the historical record is less consistent than many suppose and it does not, in fact, support the claim that the Church has committed itself irreformably to the right of the state to kill.”
• “The death penalty debate and the Church’s magisterium” by Edward N. Peters, who writes: “I regard the liceity of the death penalty as having been established with infallible certitude by the Church’s ordinary magisterium.”
• “On human dignity and the death penalty” by Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. who observes: “Whether human dignity is upheld if we allow no executions remains an open question. As Plato intimated, a case for the execution of certain criminals can be made precisely in the name of their human dignity.”
• “Capital punishment: Intrinsically evil or morally permissible?” by Joseph G. Trabbic, who argues that what we appear to have on our hands is a case of interpretive undecidability.
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