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Pope Francis on capital punishment: doctrine built on shifting sands?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Aug 03, 2018

How can a fixed moral principle be dependent on a contingent practical judgment? How can a doctrine be based on shifting circumstances?

The Pope can say—indeed Pope John Paul II did say—that it is always wrong, in every case, deliberately to take the life of an innocent human being. But if he values logical consistency, he cannot say that it is always wrong to take an innocent life under current political conditions. Because political conditions change.

Yet in the language that he has inserted into the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis appears to teach that the death penalty is always unjust—“inadmissible”—because of certain political and social developments. We’ll take a closer look at that argument below. (I have already made a few comments on the explanatory paragraph, in a column posted yesterday.)

Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, in a Twitter comment on the Pope’s announcement, offered his own version of the case for change:

The Church has come to understand that from a practical standpoint, governments now have the ability to protect society and punish criminals without executing violent offenders.

Expressed in those terms, the change in teaching prompts a number of questions:

  • If a doctrine is based on a “practical” judgment, who should make that judgment? If it is primarily a political judgment, should it not be made by political leaders?
  • Do all governments have the ability to protect innocent civilians effectively? If not, how can capital punishment be “inadmissible” in all cases?
  • Who should decide what constitutes adequate protection for civilians? Again, is that not clearly a political judgment?
  • What would happen if, “from a practical standpoint,” governments lost the ability to protect civilians? Would the Church teaching on capital punishment be changed again?

Archbishop Gomez, in a series of Twitter comments, observed that the Church “has always recognized that governments and civil authorities have the right to carry out executions in order to protect their citizens’ lives and punish those guilty of the gravest crimes against human life and the stability of the social order.” He appears to believe that Pope Francis has left that time-honored teaching intact; in fact the archbishop acknowledges that “many good people will continue to believe that our society needs the death penalty…” But is that an accurate reading of the new section in the Catechism?

Section 2266 of the Catechism, which was revised by Pope John Paul II in 1997, originally said that “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.” Can we conclude, then, that in some circumstances, despite the new language, capital punishment might be admissible?

The language of the amended 2267 seems to foreclose that possibility: “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…” Notice the use of the past tense: execution was considered justifiable. So has the traditional teaching been changed?

Recall that in 1997, St. John Paul II amended the Catechism to say that while capital punishment might in theory be justifiable, the circumstances that might allow for execution “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” That is the section of the Catechism that Pope Francis has now replaced.

Is it possible to accept the teaching of Pope John Paul II, to oppose the use of capital punishment in most current circumstances, and yet to believe that Pope Francis has taken the argument a dangerous step beyond the reach of appropriate Church teaching? I certainly hope that position is legitimate, because that is exactly the position I myself would take. Writing in First Things, Edward Feser defends that stand: “One does not need to support capital punishment to worry that Pope Francis may have gone too far.” Feser cites the late Cardinal Avery Dulles and Archbishop Charles Chaput as examples of Catholic leaders who oppose the use of the death penalty in current conditions, while recognizing that it could be justifiable under other circumstances.

If Pope Francis had intended only to encourage opposition to the death penalty, he had no need to alter the language of the Catechism. The language of Pope John Paul already provided ample support for that cause. But whereas Pope John Paul had left open the possibility that some circumstances—“very rare, if not practically nonexistent”—might justify execution, Pope Francis wanted to slam that door.

And why did the Pontiff make that change? Again, the language of section 2267 itself provides three explanations*:

  1. Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.
  2. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state.
  3. 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.

The first sentence seems to suggest that our society has gained a keener appreciation of human dignity than obtained in previous generations. The overwhelming preponderance of evidence—along with the teaching of several Popes, including Francis—weighs heavily in the opposite direction, showing that our society has become increasingly callous in its disregard for human dignity. In fact it is for that very reason that I would generally oppose the use of the death penalty, in the hope that by allowing a depraved criminal to live, society might bear witness against the growing tendency to eliminate inconvenient human life. In an excellent National Review article, Kevin Williamson explains:

Mercy does not consist of forbearing to impose the ultimate sanction on those who do not deserve it—that is simply the avoidance of active injustice—but rather in forbearing to impose the ultimate sanction on those who do deserve it.

The second sentence of the new Catechism text is, frankly, opaque. I have no idea what, if anything, it means. What is this new understanding? What is the (new?) significance of penal sanctions?

The third sentence, however, makes the critical judgment that “more effective systems of detention” allow for the elimination of the death penalty. In what countries are these wonderful new penal systems in force? In China, Iraq, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia? Obviously not. So the circumstances that explain the Pope’s change in Church teaching do not occur in the countries which account for at least 98% of all the world’s state-sponsored executions!


•—The numbering of these sentences is mine, not found in the official text.

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 5 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: [email protected] - Aug. 07, 2018 10:22 PM ET USA

    This is more of the Pope's political agenda. Will he sound off as strongly about catholic politicians who support abortion. Or does their dignity outweigh the life of a child? Sorry but I do not buy what he is selling. There are cases so heinous that they warrant the death penalty. Given our appeal system the criminal has years to amend. But that is not justice served.

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Aug. 07, 2018 7:47 PM ET USA

    When did Abp Gomez get his red hat?

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Aug. 07, 2018 7:34 PM ET USA

    "Inadmissible" is a legal term. It does not mean "prohibited" and certainly allows for situations in which an action, or evidence, is in fact admissible. It's very hard to take the Holy Father seriously any more.

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Aug. 04, 2018 1:43 PM ET USA

    More confusion from Pope Francis. What else is new? Is not confusion what characterizes the current papacy?

  • Posted by: Monserrat - Aug. 03, 2018 4:28 PM ET USA

    Fr. Gerald Murray tears to shreds the Pope's justification based on the dignity of the criminal offender, among other things, along with input from Robert Royal: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2R0HZ34jvS8. The first 20 minutes covers the capital punishment issue.