Pope Francis and the death penalty: a change in doctrine or circumstances?

Catholic theologians have weighed in on changes Pope Francis has made to the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s teaching on the death penalty, pointing to some unresolved questions about what, exactly, the changes mean.

On August 2, Pope Francis ordered a revision to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, updating it to describe the death penalty as “inadmissible” and an “attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

The change to no. 2267 of the Catechism was announced in a letter to all Catholic bishops signed by Cardinal Luis Ladaria, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Pope Francis’ change to the Catechism, which was formally approved on May 11 but only announced with Ladaria’s letter dated August 1, follow the pope’s previous strong interventions on the subject.

In October 2017, Francis called the death penalty “contrary to the Gospel” because “it is freely decided to suppress a human life that is always sacred in the eyes of the Creator, and of which, in the final analysis, God alone is the true judge and guarantor.”

The Catechism previously taught 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.”

The new wording of n. 2267 calls capital “inadmissible,” while explicitly recognizing that it had previously been “long considered an appropriate response” by the Church.

Some Catholics have asked whether the pope’s changes are, as Cardinal Ladaria stated in his letter to all bishops, “the development of doctrine” in continuity with past teaching, or if the Church has essentially changed its mind on the question of the death penalty.

Fr. Thomas Petri, O.P., a moral theologian and the Vice President and Academic Dean Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., talked to CNA about the change.

“This is actually the second time this particular paragraph has been revised in the Catechism,” Petri pointed out. “The first time was in 1997, when the second edition of the Catechism was revised, in line with the teaching of John Paul II in Evangelium vitae.”

Indeed, Pope Francis’s immediate predecessors condemned the practice of capital punishment in the West.

St. John Paul II called on Christians to be “unconditionally pro-life” and said that “the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.” He also spoke of his desire for a consensus to end the death penalty, which he called “cruel and unnecessary.”

Pope Benedict XVI exhorted world leaders to make “every effort to eliminate the death penalty” and told Catholics that ending capital punishment was an essential part of “conforming penal law both to the human dignity of prisoners and the effective maintenance of public order.”

While in the past, civil governments have deployed capital punishment with the clear support of the Church, in modern times this support has become much more muted. Discussion within the Church of its continued use has focused on identifying the legitimate ends the death penalty could serve, and articulating what circumstances condition the state’s right to execute criminals.

“St. John Paul II’s teaching introduced a prudential judgment into the Catechism, making it clear that the circumstances in which the death penalty is legitimate are rare, if not practically non-existent,” Petri told CNA.

“I think Pope Francis’ change further absolutizes the pastoral conclusion made by John Paul II.”

Key to understanding the Church’s teaching on the death penalty are the complementary ends of legitimate punishment; restorative or punitive justice towards the offender, and the protection of society from future offences. In the light of the change to Catechism, many have been left wondering how these two interrelate.

Some theologians have argued that the need to impose a “just punishment” on those who commit very serious crimes is reason enough for the death penalty, pointing out that, in the past, the Church would seem to have explicitly supported that idea.

Dr. Kevin Miller, Assistant Professor of Theology at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, told CNA the debate is not new.

“There has been a lively debate among some Catholic thinkers as to whether the teaching that the death penalty can be morally licit even in cases in which it isn’t needed to prevent, say, a convicted murderer from murdering again – is a definitive one. My reading of Scripture and subsequent Magisterial teaching is that it’s unlikely to be definitive.”

“Capital punishment can be just, in the sense that it fits the crime, but, in his encyclical letter Dives in misericordia, St. John Paul II poses the question ‘Is justice enough?’ – and the answer is no.”

So does the Catechism represent a clear break with past teaching?

Dr. Edward Feser has written extensively on the death penalty in Christian thought. Responding to Pope Francis’ change to the Catechism, he wrote that the new wording suggests an absolute prohibition of capital punishment.

In an Aug. 3 essay published in First Things, Feser wrote: “Pope Francis wants the Catechism to teach that capital punishment ought never to be used (rather than ‘very rarely’ used), and he justifies this change not on prudential grounds, but ‘so as to better reflect the development of the doctrine on this point.’ The implication is that Pope Francis thinks that considerations of doctrine or principle rule out the use of capital punishment in an absolute way.”

The extent to which doctrine can develop to absolutely prohibit what was once permitted, or even encouraged, is a critical question, theologians told CNA. Fr. Petri said this question has caused confusion in the current situation:

“The introduction of the development of doctrine concept blurs things a bit, because it’s not quite clear which doctrine has developed. Is it the doctrine on just punishment and the fact that the primary purpose of punishment is redressing wrong for the sake of the common good? This is still emphasized in the previous paragraph of the catechism, no. 2266. Or is the doctrine of the state’s authority to protect the common good and its citizens what has developed?”

Petri suggested that rather changing one particular church teaching changing, Pope Francis is a reordering of several complimentary teachings.

“I would say that what’s happened here is a different balance in the relationship of doctrines rather than the development of a doctrine: the doctrine of state authority, the doctrine of punishment, the doctrine of the dignity of man and the doctrine of mercy.”

“In that relationship, Pope Francis places mercy and patience as the guiding principle.”

Miller agreed, noting that Pope Francis does not always express his teachings with the perfect clarity of an academic theologian. “At a minimum, this can create situations open to misinterpretation, which we are already seeing here.”

“This confusion is unnecessary, and harmful to people of good will,” he added.

Miller and Petri both argued that the new text does not call capital punishment absolutely wrong, without qualifications.

“Compared to his previous, more spontaneous statements on the subject last year, the current language from Pope Francis is much more geared towards a prudential judgment that the death penalty is no longer necessary and therefore ‘inadmissible,’ though more certainly could be done to underscore that Catholics must still exercise this judgment in the light of circumstances,” Miller said.

Petri agreed: “Nothing in the new wording of paragraph 2267 suggests the death penalty is intrinsically evil. Indeed, nothing could suggest that because it would contradict the firm teaching of the Church.”

Both theologians said that the new wording of the Catechism on capital punishment differs substantially from clear, absolute prohibitions on the taking of life in other circumstances, like abortion.