“One has to strongly affirm that condemnation to the death penalty is an inhuman measure that humiliates personal dignity, in whatever form it is carried out.”
On August 2, Pope Francis altered the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) regarding the morality and application of the death penalty. The above quote is simply one of many statements the Holy Father has made condemning capital punishment as far back as October 2014.
We must first examine the actual change, with close attention to the very choice of words in which condemnation of the death penalty is articulated. A close examination is required because very much may be at stake in terms of Catholic teaching, Catholic doctrinal tradition, the practice of the moral law, and the affects this change might have on the future of the pro-life movement.
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Here are the three versions of the Catechism regarding the death penalty. The first 1992 edition taught:
2266: Preserving the common good of society requires rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm. For this reason the traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty. For analogous reasons those holding authority have the right to repel by armed force aggressors against the community in their charge.
The primary effect of punishment is to redress the disorder caused by the offense. When the punishment is voluntarily accepted by the offender, it takes on the value of expiation. Moreover, punishment has the effect of preserving public order and the safety of persons. Finally, punishment has a medicinal value; as far as possible it should contribute to the correction of the offender.
2267: If non-lethal means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
The 1997 2nd edition, Art. 2267, reaffirmed: “the traditional teaching of 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…,” but added: “assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined.” Consistent with the 1992 version it stated: “If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.”
Then the following paragraph was added:
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm—without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself—the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”68
This paragraph was added to reflect the teaching of John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae (EV) to which footnote 68 refers as the Church has progressively come to disfavor capital punishment. The moral licitness and even practice of the death penalty is upheld by the Church, while at the same time the 1997 Catechism encourages “non-lethal means” as such punishments are “more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.” The premise for the growing disfavoring of the application of capital punishment is well articulated in EV, Art 9: “Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this.” Simply put, the Church seeks to build a culture of life that includes respect even for those who commit the worst atrocities. Even so, John Paul II’s desire to advance respect for the lives of those who commit murder may have opened the door to the present pontiff’s change to the Catechism.
The Bergoglio Text
Here is the change Pope Francis has made to the CCC, Art. 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,” and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.
Footnote 1 refers to Francis’s October 2017 address at a meeting organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization.
Both versions of the CCC have been scrapped and replaced with the above text. Most troubling is the complete absence of any recognition that the “traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty.” One may argue that the previous versions merely paid lip service to that tradition. However, that’s just the point! When it comes to doctrinal proclamations words are everything! At least the first two versions of the CCC did not ignore the fact that the application of the death penalty finds support in the Judeo/Christian religion as revealed by God.
The New Inadmissible Practice
The most important change comes in the sentence: “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.” The statement is doctrinally emphatic. It is the very Church that teaches that the death penalty is “inadmissible.” Previously the CCC merely advocated the non-application of the death penalty. Now the Church teaches that the practice is of itself “inadmissible.” This is a huge departure from previous teaching on the subject.
The term “inadmissible” is new and presents considerable confusion. The word means something “not permitted,” “not allowed.” It is most often used in the context of something rejected on a technicality. An application is “inadmissible” because it was not properly signed. Or the testimony of a witness is “inadmissible” because it was given under duress. The word is not part of Catholic doctrinal-theological tradition. Catholic moral theology treats actions as right or wrong, licit or illicit, moral or immoral, good or evil, holy or sinful, etc. No one would expect the Church to declare, for instance, that “adultery is inadmissible.”
It is essential to take a look at why the death penalty is inadmissible. It “is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” This can only mean capital punishment is inherently immoral. If the life of a murderer is “inviolable” then certainly the death penalty is intrinsically evil—not simply “inadmissible”! If this is true, then we are confronted with a reversal, i.e., a contradiction of the Church’s doctrinal tradition. Legitimate reasons exist to oppose the death penalty—Christian mercy towards transgressors being among them—but it cannot be opposed and deemed “inadmissible” because its application is of itself inherently immoral.
Why should the pope use a term that tends toward ambiguity—a word that does not quite condemn capital punishment directly? No doubt it is because the Holy Father knows he cannot say the death penalty is inherently immoral without being accused of contradicting the Faith.
The pope is sensitive to that accusation and anticipated it. In the October 2017 speech he defended his teaching by arguing that the Church’s practice of the death penalty was historically conditioned: “in past centuries, when faced with a poverty of instruments of defense and social maturity had not yet reached a positive development, recourse to the death penalty appeared as the logical consequence of the application of justice which had to be adhered to” and was “dictated more by a legalistic than a Christian mentality.”
The Holy Father appears to accuse the Church of endorsing and engaging in an immoral practice, as the necessity of the times caused her to compromise the Gospel.
The New Pastoral Effects
The pope has created a situation with far-reaching pastoral implications. If the death penalty “attacks” the “inviolability of the person,” then it is a sin. Yet in 2004 Joseph Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, clarified: “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” and should a Catholic support the death penalty “he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion.”
However, if according to Bergoglio’s Art. 2267, the execution of criminals “attacks the inviolability of the person,” then it must be sin, when before it was not sin. What then becomes of the clarification of Ratzinger in light of the new teaching? Should, for instance, Gov. Pete Ricketts of Nebraska go to confession as he supports and will oversee the August 14th execution of convicted murderer Carey Dean Moore? These are the nearly unprecedented questions now facing the Church.
Whose Lives Are Inviolable?
Also unprecedented is the use of the term “inviolable” in reference to the lives of those who have committed grave crimes. It is true that all human life is sacred—even the lives of those who commit murder—sacred in the sense that such persons continue to possess their inherent worth made as they are in the image of God. In the doctrinal tradition of the Church that specific term “inviolable” is used to characterize the status of the innocent. For instance John Paul II taught in EV, Art. 57:
If such great care must be taken to respect every life, even that of criminals and unjust aggressors, the commandment “You shall not kill” has absolute value when it refers to the innocent person… In effect, the absolute inviolability of innocent human life is a moral truth … constantly upheld in the Church’s Tradition and consistently proposed by her Magisterium.
The saint then declared as infallible teaching that any direct assault on innocent persons is gravely immoral.
In order for Pope Francis to declare the death penalty “inadmissible” he applied the term “inviolable” to the lives of those guilty of heinous crimes. The Church has not traditionally used this term to designate the moral status of such criminals. Their crimes cause them to forfeit this “inviolability” as is the case with unjust aggressors, thus rendering capital punishment not inherently evil as the new Art. 2267 suggests it is.
The crusade against the death penalty is consistent with the Christian call for mercy and this theologian supports this opposition. It may indeed be “of the Gospel” in a way that execution of criminals is not. However, its practice is not obligatory. Even God spared Cain and Jesus defended the woman caught in adultery. It would be more legitimate to argue that opposition to it is a development of the Church’s pastoral practice, rather than a genuine “development of doctrine.” The Church’s doctrinal tradition that affirms capital punishment is not inherently immoral and the Church has a duty to say so when she proclaims her doctrine on so serious a subject.
The Church has never taught that the lives of those who commit heinous crimes are “inviolable” or that the death penalty is “not permitted.” This is all new. The culture of life may be advanced by the Bergoglio innovation, as well as the practice of the Gospel—but a junk theology has been foisted on the People of God in order to get us there.
(Photo credit: Daniel Ibanez / CNA)