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Pope Francis and the death penalty: another dose of confusion

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Aug 02, 2018

Once again Pope Francis has given the world reason to believe that the teachings of the Catholic Church can and will change.

Was the Pope’s decision to revise the Catechism’s teaching on the death penalty a change in Church teaching, or a development of existing doctrine? Theologians may debate the point, but the vast majority of Catholics, receiving their information from the secular media, will hear about a change—a clear break from previous Church teaching.

Nor can we blame the secular media for distortion, because if the Holy Father has not actually contradicted the teaching upheld by the Church for centuries, he has all but contradicted it, certainly casting doubt upon it. Again.

Before delving further into the teachings (new and old) on the death penalty, let me say that I have little sympathy for any Catholics who are outraged by today’s announcement, but were not troubled by Amoris Laetitia. In that earlier document, Pope Francis cast into doubt the Church’s teachings on the permanence of marriage and on the nature of the Eucharist—questions that are far more central to the Catholic faith and to the sacramental life of the Church. Faithful Catholics can and do take differing stands on the appropriate use of capital punishment. But the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of our faith, and the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of Christian marriage can be traced directly to the words of Jesus Himself.

Even the new wording of the Catechism, as approved by Pope Francis, does not quite require Catholics to disapprove of the death penalty in all circumstances. The Pope’s new language does not contradict the time-honored Church teaching that the state has the authority to invoke the death penalty in appropriate circumstances. (That traditional teaching was clearly upheld, in the same section 2267 of the Catechism, even after Pope John Paul II called for a tighter restriction on executions.)

Nor does the revised Catechism teach that the use of capital punishment is intrinsically immoral. So when liberal Catholic activists argue, as they inevitably will, that politicians who support the death penalty should be judged as harshly as those who support abortion and euthanasia, they will be distorting the Church’s teaching. Again.

To explain the new teaching that the death penalty is now “inadmissible,” the revised section of the Catechism cites no authority other than Pope Francis himself, in a speech he delivered last year. It does, however, offer three justifications for the change:

First, the text asserts that “there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.” No evidence is introduced for this “increasing awareness,” and skeptics might argue that the 21st century shows very little respect for the dignity of the person. Indeed the skeptics might cite the speeches of Pope Francis, in his condemnations of the “throwaway society.”

Second, the text claims that “a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state.” Again the reality of this “new understanding” might be called into question. More to the point, the Catechism does not explain what this “new understanding” is, or how it leads to a tougher stand against capital punishment.

Third and most important, the revised text states that “more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens…” But what if it can be shown that modern jails do not provide adequate protection for innocent citizens? Then, it would seem, this argument would not apply, and the traditional justification for the death penalty would remain in force.

Thus the Pope’s argument rests on the assertion that modern penal systems are sufficient to safeguard society without recourse to execution. Is that true? It seems obvious, to me, that good Catholics could debate the question. More to the point, it seems obvious that this is a prudential judgment—a political judgment—which should be left to the appropriate civil authorities.

In short an advocate of capital punishment could—admittedly with a great deal of difficulty—make the case that even this revised passage of the Catechism leaves room for Catholics to support the use of the death penalty in some circumstances. Still no one could deny that the new text provides a sharp contrast with, say, the Catechism of the Council of Trent, which proclaimed unequivocally that authorities have a right and duty to execute criminals who endanger society, particularly murderers. The 1566 Catechism said about the death penalty:

The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder.

In announcing the change in the Catechism on August 2, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), said that the new text is “in continuity with the preceding Magisterium while bringing forth a coherent development of Catholic doctrine.” In putting forward that argument he sounded very much like his predecessor, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who had done his best to convince the public that Amoris Laetitia was in continuity with the Church’s previous teachings on the indissolubility of marriage. Apparently the job responsibilities of the Vatican’s top doctrinal official now include an occasional effort to persuade the world that the Pope isn’t really changing what the Church teaches.

But despite the cardinal’s best efforts, that is exactly what the world will believe: that Pope Francis, acting unilaterally, has changed the teachings of the Church. More specifically, he has changed the Catechism. And if the Catechism’s teaching on the death penalty can be changed today, why couldn’t some other controversial teaching—on the ordination of women, or the nature of marriage, or the intrinsic immorality of euthanasia—be changed tomorrow?

Learned theologians can answer those questions. But the world is not full of learned theologians. Today, the world is full of confusion—to which Pope Francis has contributed. Again.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 9 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Carole Foryst - Aug. 09, 2018 7:43 PM ET USA

    If only God can create a life, should the corollary be only God can take a life?

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Aug. 07, 2018 7:30 PM ET USA

    What, I have asked for years, do you do with a person sentenced to life in prison without parole who takes it into his/her mind to murder a fellow inmate or prison guard? I'm all for abolishing capital punishment and abortion together, but in general, the first action actually ends the life of a bad guy or gal, while the second targets the guiltless only.

  • Posted by: nix898049 - Aug. 03, 2018 6:16 PM ET USA

    Are we supposed to stop wearing crosses now? In PF's world it seems the sacrifice of Christ should have come about by some other means. Oh, the Scandal of the Cross. What is he afraid of?

  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - Aug. 03, 2018 3:29 PM ET USA

    What on earth does "inadmissible" mean in moral theological terms? The dignity argument fails since nothing done to another human decreases human dignity in the least, which is from God. I'd also assert there R still people 4 whom the death penalty constitutes a justifiable rememdy 4 society = jihadists who maim&kill given the chance. I also sense the pope doesn't know evil doesn't stop once a person is imprisoned (homosexual slaves, guard-inmate collusion, etc). Thank God he's not really Pope.

  • Posted by: DrJazz - Aug. 03, 2018 7:45 AM ET USA

    Sure enough. Among the mini-headlines at the top of our local paper this morning: "Change in the Church: Pope decrees that the death penalty is "inadmissible." Thanks, Frank.

  • Posted by: Dennis Olden - Aug. 03, 2018 7:26 AM ET USA

    Thank you.

  • Posted by: rjbennett1294 - Aug. 03, 2018 7:19 AM ET USA

    Today it's the death penalty, but this is only a preparation for what is to come. Tomorrow it will be the intrinsic evil of homosexual acts that will be declared no longer intrinsically evil.

  • Posted by: shrink - Aug. 03, 2018 6:48 AM ET USA

    Our current pontiff is very creative and much in sync with the times. He is a lesson to us all that simply wishing for something can make it true. He is our first trans-doctrinal pope.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Aug. 02, 2018 6:36 PM ET USA

    Romans 13:3-5 (Rheims NT): "For princes are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good: and thou shalt have praise from the same. For he is God's minister to thee, for good. But if thou do that which is evil, fear: for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is God's minister: an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil. Wherefore be subject of necessity, not only for wrath, but also for conscience' sake."