Capital Punishment and the Catechism: A CWR Symposium

Six Catholic scholars and commentators reflect on the Holy Father’s recent and controversial revision to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

(Photo of Pope Francis: CNS photo/Paul Haring)

At the start of this month, as many Catholics were beginning to process the deeply disturbing news about former Cardinal McCarrick, the Vatican announced that paragraph 2267 of the Catechism was being revised at the request and with the approval of Pope Francis:

The Supreme Pontiff Francis, in the audience granted on 11 May 2018 to the undersigned Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has approved the following new draft of no. 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, arranging for it to be translated into various languages and inserted in all the editions of the aforementioned Catechism.

The death penalty

2267. 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”,[1] and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.

There has already been much discussion and debate about this change, which is not simply about capital punishment and justice, but also touches directly on questions about the deposit of faith, the Magisterium, Scripture and Tradition, and papal authority.

CWR asked several scholars and commentators for their thoughts and observations on both the decision and some of the subsequent commentary. The six resulting pieces are as follows:

“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.”

“Development, not deviation: Evaluating Francis’ modification on the death penalty” by Thomas J. Nash, who writes, “We can reaffirm that state executions are not intrinsically evil, even while we join Pope Francis in working toward the abolition of their social application.”

“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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About Carl E. Olson 1227 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. Lol…will none of them notice that prisons in the two largest Catholic countries…Brazil and Mexico are often such horror houses that 80 inmates were killed by other inmates in a Brazilian riot for more water in January of 2017 ….a recurring theme in Brazil. And Mexico had a case of armed inmates leaving a prison ( Durango state ) in trucks, slaughtering rival cartel members in a town at a wedding and returning to the prison which effectively was a fort for that cartel…

    Neither the old nor the new ccc 2267 is truthful even about prison safety in the two largest Catholic populations. Our scholars are book addicted and apparently can’t read news accounts of non Euro prison safety….but take the word of Popes who did not read about non Euro prisons.

  2. Is God supreme or is the will of man the final consideration? If we follow God nothing is mislaid. We act in accordance with His will.

    Genesis 9:6 “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.

    Exodus 21:12 “Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death.

    Leviticus 24:17-22 “Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death. Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life. If anyone injures his neighbour, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him. Whoever kills an animal shall make it good, and whoever kills a person shall be put to death. …

    John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

    Ecclesiastes 12:7 And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

    God is the God who brings down to death and raises to life. All matters of life and death are in His hands.


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