Official Catholic teaching now holds that the death penalty is “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”
The Church also has committed itself to work “with determination” for the worldwide abolition of capital punishment, according to the revised section in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that Pope Francis approved during a May 11 meeting with the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The Vatican’s press office announced that landmark change Aug. 2 and released a letter from Cardinal Luis Ladaria, the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to the bishops in which the Spanish cardinal said the pope had asked for the teaching on the death penalty to “better reflect the development of the doctrine on this point.”
‘In light of the Gospel’
Moral theologians told Our Sunday Visitor that the changes to Paragraph 2267 in the Catechism continues the Church’s deepening understanding of the death penalty that took a significant turn when Pope St. John Paul II in the 1990s reframed capital punishment in self-defense terms.
“The revision presupposes the conditions of most nations today, where we have prisons where we can house dangerous persons in a way that protects society well,” said Tobias Winright, a moral theologian at St. Louis University.
Winright, who once worked as a corrections officer in a maximum-security prison, told Our Sunday Visitor that Thursday’s changes represent “a major step” and makes Church teaching much clearer on capital punishment.
The death penalty’s “application given world circumstances is the part that has developed, as well as our understanding of the spirit of the Gospel and what its implications are,” Winright said. “That is what has developed. The Gospel itself hasn’t developed.”
The edited paragraph in the Catechism strips away the old formulation, approved by Pope St. John Paul II in 1992, that said the Church did “not exclude recourse to the death penalty” if an individual’s guilt was certain and if killing them was the only possible way to protect society and human lives from an unjust aggressor.
But “in light of the Gospel” and given new understandings of human dignity and the significance of penal sanctions imposed by states, the Catechism now says capital punishment, where it was once considered an appropriate punishment for certain crimes and an extreme method to protect the common good, is no longer admissible.
David Franks, a moral theologian who serves as board chairman for Massachusetts Citizens for Life, told OSV that Pope Francis is presenting the development of the Church’s doctrine on capital punishment on a much different terrain than what it was previously taught.
“That is to say he is not head-on confronting the natural law claims on the licitness of the death penalty,” Franks said. “What he’s doing here is saying that the Gospel requires us to do something more than what the natural law puts to us.”
Developments over time
For centuries, the Church understood capital punishment to be a legitimate tool of the secular state to punish criminals convicted of heinous offenses. Writing in the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas compared the state’s execution of criminals to a surgeon amputating a diseased limb to protect the rest of the body, or community.
But St. John Paul II moved away from that retributive aspect and focused on the self-defense component. Even then, he raised serious doubts about the death penalty. In his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”), the pope said that the necessity of executing criminals in modern times was “very rare, if not practically, non-existent.” In 1997, the Catechism was edited to reflect that encyclical.
Pope Benedict XVI continued his predecessor’s commitment to speaking out against the death penalty. In his letter, Cardinal Ladaria said that Pope Benedict recalled “the attention of society’s leaders to the need to make every effort to eliminate the death penalty.”
Over the past three decades, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also has issued several critical statements on the death penalty. In the United States in particular, Church leaders and anti-capital punishment activists long have pointed out several systemic problems in the way the death penalty has been administered.
Cara Drinan, a law professor at The Catholic University of America, who is an expert in the criminal justice system, said 162 people since 1973 in the United States have been exonerated and released from death row after DNA evidence proved their innocence or problematic eyewitness identifications were exposed.
Drinan also told OSV that the death penalty, like much of the nation’s criminal justice system, has disproportionately impacted criminal defendants who are poor and who are from ethnic and racial minority groups.
“To be using the most extreme form of punishment when we know our system is so flawed and prone to error, I think, is deeply problematic,” Drinan said.
Speaking last October to mark the 25th anniversary of the promulgation of the Catechism, Pope Francis said capital punishment “heavily wounds human dignity” and is an “inhuman measure.” Cardinal Ladaria’s letter to the bishops cited the pontiff’s remarks from his Oct. 11, 2017 discourse.
“It is, in itself, contrary to the Gospel, because a decision is voluntarily made to suppress a human life, which is always sacred in the eyes of the Creator,” said Pope Francis, who added that in the final analysis, “only God can be the true judge and guarantor.”
Brian Fraga is an Our Sunday Visitor contributing editor.