Pope Francis on the death penalty

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 20, 2015

When Pope Francis addressed the International Committee against the Death Penalty on March 20th, he emphasized: “Nowadays the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed.” This raises the question of whether the Pope is prepared to further develop the Church’s teaching on capital punishment, even beyond the development of doctrine solidified by Pope John Paul II.

Francis’ remarks are not, of course, a magisterial statement. Still, his strong emphasis could lead some to suppose that the Pope is somehow contradicting the past teaching of the Church on this subject. But that is not the case. To understand this, it is necessary to grasp the legitimate development of the Church’s teaching under John Paul II, in the encyclical Evangelium Vitae (see no. 56, and the surrounding discussion).

John Paul II’s Development

In this encyclical, Pope John Paul II taught:

It is clear that…the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. [56; emphasis added]

The Pope thus magisterially endorsed a paragraph which had already been incorporated in the text of the initial and non-definitive French edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which he also quotes in the encyclical as a guiding principle:

If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must 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. [Catechism #2267]

Pope John Paul also rendered a prudential judgment in Evangelium Vitae (in the very next sentence following the words italicized in the first offset quote above): “Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” This judgment was taken from the encyclical and added to the Catechism in its definitive Latin edition.

The addition of a prudential judgment to the Catechism—a judgment about “improvements in the organization of the penal system”—always troubled me, because I did not see what sorts of improvements in a penal system suddenly made it possible to imprison someone for an extended period of time.

Apart from this prudential quibble, I always wondered about something else in Pope John Paul II’s statement. He taught that the death penalty for grave crimes was just (which had always been taught) “when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society” (a legitimate development of the traditional doctrine). I wondered if we were to take “defend society” only in the strict sense of defending people against the particular criminal who had been apprehended, or whether we could take “defend society” in a broader sense that included the supposed deterrent effect of executing those guilty of grave evils.

On to Pope Francis

As it turns out, however, the appropriateness of including the Pope’s prudential judgment in the Catechism just might depend on how we interpret the Pope’s meaning in the phrase “defend society”. What is interesting about Pope Francis’ remarks is that he clearly takes John Paul’s teaching in the strictest sense. In fact, his position depends on understanding the need to “defend society” as the need to defend it against further injury from the same criminal, rather than from crime more generally.

If that is correct, John Paul II’s judgment about the quality of modern penal systems is far less of an issue. What we are dealing with instead is the question of whether or not there is any kind of basic penal system at all. We would define the absence of a basic penal system as either no system at all or one that is not widely available or cannot be effectively used. If no basic penal system exists—that is, if a society really has not developed the capacity to secure serious criminals for long periods of time—then execution would meet the test for moral rectitude. Otherwise, a bloodless solution would be available, rendering execution immoral.

Understanding Pope John Paul II’s teaching in this way makes it easy to see why Pope Francis argues not, as John Paul II did, that the moral need to execute a criminal in our time is “very rare, if not practically non-existent”, but rather that “nowadays the death penalty is inadmissible.” In all ordinary modern circumstances, it would be very difficult to reach a contrary conclusion if the moral imperative of defending society is to be understood in the strictest possible sense. Thus, Pope Francis argued that in our time it is always morally wrong to execute a criminal who has already been apprehended and rendered harmless.

Since John Paul II clarified Catholic teaching on this matter, it has also occurred to me to wonder how we are to morally evaluate our penal systems if government is unwilling to use them to imprison serious and likely repeat offenders for life. That’s an intriguing problem which is again raised by Pope Francis’ remarks: At one and the same time he denies any modern role for capital punishment and argues strongly against life imprisonment. There are many things to consider here, and it would seem the prudential questions cannot be eliminated entirely.

Would a society’s refusal to incarcerate for life make the death penalty moral, as it becomes the only way to “defend society” even in the strictest sense? But that must be a discussion for another day.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Mar. 24, 2015 10:44 AM ET USA

    Man's law is the only physical thing that protects us from criminals. But our law is compromised by the rich and the powerful. Wealthy criminals hold our society captive by the laws that are intended to protect us from criminals. We should stop pretending that we are protected when one criminal is executed because 1000s of wealthy criminals are still at large. The question should be how do we construct a law system that is truly unbiased and just. Then the death penalty can be discussed.

  • Posted by: kcc - Mar. 22, 2015 9:46 PM ET USA

    I can think of one very narrow circumstance that has come about "nowadays" in which the death penalty should be considered because "it would not be possible otherwise to defend society": someone whose very incarceration would incite mass violence that would be persist so long as that person remained in captivity. Our modern media age makes this possible, and we have certainly seen other events that have triggered widespread violence.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Mar. 22, 2015 9:46 PM ET USA

    I too take issue with the concept of "improvements in the penal system." Nearly immediately after publication of Evangelium Vitae I questioned my archbishop about its scope in reference to the hardened killer. I asked at what point would the penal system be morally permitted to administer capital punishment: after the prisoner murdered another prisoner, after he murdered a guard, after he killed a guard while in solitary confinement? The answer was in essence--never. Not a satisfactory answer.

  • Posted by: Dlukenbill2151 - Mar. 22, 2015 12:26 PM ET USA

    Excellent article about capital punishment, and to add to it; there are no secure enough prison facilities to stop murderers from continuing to murder, as this series on Super Max prisons-which are the facilities most think of when thinking about secure enough- done by NPR in 2006 reveals.

  • Posted by: Canonigo Regular - Mar. 22, 2015 1:12 AM ET USA

    I am not an expert. I have only seen documentary videos about modern maximum security prisons. They show the rage and schemes of hardcore criminals whose every waking moment is spent trying to kill their guards. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they only maim. Sometimes they escape and kill other innocents. The impression is that no one is safe. It takes a terrible psychic toll, huge budgets, and endless vigilance. Why should these murderers be allowed to hold society hostage to their anger?

  • Posted by: 1Jn416 - Mar. 21, 2015 1:08 PM ET USA

    As Cdl. Dulles (RIP) pointed out in his excellent analysis (http://bit.ly/1GDvijU), punishment has four ends: rehabilitation, defense against the criminal, deterrence, and retribution. I view JP2's teachings as extremely incomplete because he addresses only defense against the criminal, and besides discussing the dignity of the person gives no other reasons for his teaching. I would love to see a thorough document on this matter from the CDF to clear things up.

  • Posted by: Brad - Mar. 21, 2015 7:45 AM ET USA

    There is another problem to be resolved in this strain of thought and conclusions implied. How is society to be protected against one who may kill for the first time or again without being caught? The prospect of some jail time in many cases may not be a sufficient deterrent. Then how is society protected?