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Pope revises Catechism’s teaching on death penalty

August 02, 2018

The death penalty is “inadmissible” in the light of the Gospel, and the Church “works with determination for its abolition worldwide,” according to a revised formulation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s teaching on the death penalty.

In an address delivered last October on the 25th anniversary of the Catechism’s first edition, Pope Francis called for a “more adequate and coherent treatment” of the death penalty in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

“This issue cannot be reduced to a mere résumé of traditional teaching without taking into account not only the doctrine as it has developed in the teaching of recent Popes, but also the change in the awareness of the Christian people which rejects an attitude of complacency before a punishment deeply injurious of human dignity,” Pope Francis said at the time. “It must be clearly stated that the death penalty is an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity.”

In a May 11 audience with Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, the prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Pope Francis approved the revised text of the Catechism’s number 2267, though the revision was not made public until August 2. Citing the Pope’s October 2017 address, the new version states:

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.

The Catechism’s n. 2267 has already undergone revision: the 1997 Latin typical edition of the Catechism incorporated the teaching of St. John Paul’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae. The 1997 edition of the Catechism states:

The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor. If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect 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. Today, in fact, given the means at the State’s disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender ‘today ... are very rare, if not practically non-existent.’

In a letter to the world’s bishops explaining the revision, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith quoted statements by St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis.

“The new formulation of number 2267 of the Catechism expresses an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium,” the Congregation stated in its letter. “These teachings, in fact, can be explained in the light of the primary responsibility of the public authority to protect the common good in a social context in which the penal sanctions were understood differently, and had developed in an environment in which it was more difficult to guarantee that the criminal could not repeat his crime.”


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  • Posted by: Jim Hanink - Aug. 16, 2018 6:50 PM ET USA

    While I count friends among these scholars, I am by no means persuaded by their statement. Germain Grisez, to my mind, has long ago made the case that a consistent, coherent ethics of life calls for an end to judicial execution. Insofar as genuine defense of the common good comes into play, self-defense is, of course, legitimate.

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Aug. 07, 2018 3:10 PM ET USA

    The term "inadmissible" is, for whatever reason, a term of law. To give a parallel example, evidence given by a suspect prior to his/her being "Mirandized" can be held "inadmissible" in a court of law. That means he/she may have been telling the truth, but the jury may not hear it. If the pope/Catechism had said "absolutely never permitted" that would be out of line with Tradition. If it's not possible, then what do you do with a lifer who murders an inmate or guard?

  • Posted by: [email protected] - Aug. 04, 2018 12:36 AM ET USA

    This is not doctrine but political agenda that has a huge impact on the other Catechism statements and beliefs. Sorry Pope but there such heinous crimes that do warrant the death penalty. Given our appeals process this can go on for years and generally does given the criminal ample time to change. Their change doesn't change the nature of the crime. Sorry don't accept his teaching change or method used. Consequences will be many.

  • Posted by: Bveritas2322 - Aug. 03, 2018 1:46 PM ET USA

    Once again "Francis the Merciful" proves to be merciless to the victims of evil. The only thing that matters is that no one be bothered by God given guilt feelings, except of course those rigid monsters who agree with God that there are moral absolutes. After all, "Francis the Merciful" doesn't allow for a God that knows better than theologians who have kept up with the times. God is still in the process of learning how to be God according to Francis the Merciful.

  • Posted by: FredC - Aug. 03, 2018 11:26 AM ET USA

    Now Catholics will never need to serve jury duty in a murder trial.

  • Posted by: rpp - Aug. 03, 2018 8:49 AM ET USA

    Heresy. The Church's teaching on the death penalty is part of the Deposit of Faith and is a Revealed Truth. It cannot be changed. No Catholic can be bound by a heretical teaching. A Catholic can serve on a jury in a death penalty case and recommend a sentence of death in good conscience if the crime committed calls for it.

  • Posted by: Dennis Olden - Aug. 02, 2018 7:47 PM ET USA

    What degree of authority does this new teaching have?

  • Posted by: JimKcda - Aug. 02, 2018 7:27 PM ET USA

    I agree with this change for the USA, but by revising this teaching to exclude ALL executions everywhere, he is applying a teaching which is (probably) applicable in most developed countries but (perhaps) not in undeveloped third world countries. Therefore, this is not a teaching for the Universal Church and should not be changed in the Catechism. The former "exception" should have been retained. "If... bloodless means are sufficient...etc"

  • Posted by: Frodo1945 - Aug. 02, 2018 4:05 PM ET USA

    Several years ago there was a lock down and search at our state maximum security prison. Three hundred cell phones were found. Now, I ask you, what were the inmates doing with 300 cellphones? Ordering pizza? The idea that "given the means at the State’s disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it" is a big fat fallacy. If your assumption is wrong, then your conclusion doesn't hold.

  • Posted by: rghatt6599 - Aug. 02, 2018 12:36 PM ET USA

    Amid the chaos and scandal of this most wayward papacy faithful Catholics now have concerns on another front. The Catechism has been changed. This is wearying. Is there anything in the Catechism that I can trust as true and stable? The Catechism promulgated by Pope John Paul II is not even one generation old, yet we are witnessing how rapidly the “development of theology” is bringing to birth what Pope Francis and his allies consider to be a more merciful church that with increasing boldness is challenging Traditional faith and praxis. I am worried by what this change means and what is yet to unfold.

  • Posted by: feedback - Aug. 02, 2018 9:06 AM ET USA

    Since average persons are not involved directly in decisions about the death penalty, this teaching of the Catechism applies only to lawmakers and to their voters. There must be a parallel definitive and rigid teaching about abortion and the involvement in it of the lawmakers, their voters, and the executioners.