Editor’s Note: A version of this essay was previously published by the Archdiocese of New York.
Last week, the Holy See announced that Pope Francis had approved a revision to the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding the death penalty. This has provoked considerable controversy, and I believe that is because many people haven’t fully understood exactly what has happened. The controversy has been over whether this new language contradicts prior Church teaching and thus casts into doubt the teaching authority of the Church. I am certain that it does not, and I will explain why.
First, let’s look at the actual language itself to see what has changed. Here is what the former version of the Catechism said on the subject:
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.’ [quoting Evangelium Vitae 56]
That language narrowed the use of the death penalty to very few circumstances. Here is what the new section of the Catechism will say:
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.
Note very carefully the language that was chosen. It is absolutely key that the new language does not use the words “intrinsically evil,” a theological term meaning that an action can never be done in a moral way, regardless of the circumstances. By not using that term, the Catechism does not condemn capital punishment as being always immoral. Rather, it implicitly affirms that capital punishment may still be permitted (i.e., it may be “admissible”) under some circumstances, but that those circumstances do not exist at the present time.
Critics charge that the new language is a contradiction of prior definitive Church teaching that the death penalty could be a legitimate act by the state in defense of the common good. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which issued a letter to the bishops explaining this new language, anticipated that argument and made it clear that its judgment is not contradictory to prior teaching, but rather represents a recognition of changed circumstances:
The new revision of number 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, approved by Pope Francis, situates itself in continuity with the preceding Magisterium while bringing forth a coherent development of Catholic doctrine. The new text, following the footsteps of the teaching of John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae, affirms that ending the life of a criminal as punishment for a crime is inadmissible because it attacks the dignity of the person, a dignity that is not lost even after having committed the most serious crimes.
This conclusion is reached taking into account the new understanding of penal sanctions applied by the modern State, which should be oriented above all to the rehabilitation and social reintegration of the criminal. Finally, given that modern society possesses more efficient detention systems, the death penalty becomes unnecessary as protection for the life of innocent people. Certainly, it remains the duty of public authorities to defend the life of citizens, as has always been taught by the Magisterium and is confirmed by the Catechism of the Catholic Church in numbers 2265 and 2266. . . . All of this shows that 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.
This statement, and the Holy Father’s obvious acceptance of its reasoning, is entitled to tremendous weight, especially given that bishops around the world have been all but unanimous in calling for the abolition of the death penalty on the same grounds. Moreover, it is logical for the CDF to argue that there is no contradiction of the Church’s prior teachings that the death penalty can be morally legitimate. Here’s why. If the Church teaches in an authoritative way that something is always forbidden (i.e., intrinsically evil), it can never later teach that it is sometimes permissible. That would be a contradiction, because something that is always evil can never be made good by a change in circumstances or the person’s intentions. On the other hand, if the Church teaches in an authoritative way that something is permissible under some circumstances, it can later teach that it is now impermissible because the circumstances have changed and because the Church has come to a fuller appreciation of the demands of the Gospel under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit. That is development, not contradiction, because the new teaching adapts the same essential principles of the faith to new situations.
We have to remember that the moral analysis of the death penalty begins with the universal moral prohibition on intentionally killing a human being and the very strong admonition by Our Lord Himself that we show mercy to people, even when they appear not to deserve it. There are very limited circumstances under which the Church would recognize an exception to that rule. That is why the death penalty is dealt with in the section of the Catechism about the Fifth Commandment, and specifically in the chapter about “Respect for Human Life” and “Legitimate Defense.”
The Church previously taught that the death penalty could be an exception to the general moral principle that it is impermissible to deliberately, intentionally kill a human being because circumstances existed where doing so was reasonably necessary for the defense of society and it did not degrade respect for human life (which is a dubious proposition, given the common barbaric methods of execution, but there it is). The Church now says that it is no longer reasonably necessary and that it contributes to the degradation of human life. The circumstances have changed, and thus the Church has concluded that there are currently no circumstances in which the exception would be justifiable.
What’s more, even if the new language had used the term “intrinsically evil,” that would not trouble me at all. We’ve already seen the same kind of doctrinal development, where the Church came to a deeper understanding of the morality of something that had previously been accepted as a legitimate tool of criminal investigation and prosecution — torture. In the Middle Ages, the Church accepted the legitimacy of torture, largely as a result of the rediscovery and adoption of Roman law, which required that certain testimony be given under torture if it was to be admitted in court. The most prominent approval was given by Pope Innocent IV, in his decree Ad Extirpanda (1252), which specifically authorized torture to be used against suspected heretics. Perhaps the most famous use of torture by the Church was in the trial of Joan of Arc, where she was threatened with torture by her ecclesiastical prosecutors (but, thankfully, it was never carried out).
Fortunately, the Church recognized that this teaching was not infallibly proclaimed and thus could be reformed, and torture was finally declared to be intrinsically evil by the Second Vatican Council in Gaudium et Spes (27). Section 2297 of the Catechism embodies that teaching, and section 2298 essentially apologizes for the Church’s earlier approval of torture. I can’t imagine anyone arguing that section 2297 contradicts earlier teaching and thus is not a valid doctrinal development by the teaching authority of the Church.
I understand the natural instinct for justice and retribution, particularly when offenses are heinous. In my former life as a prosecutor, I encountered some of the worst people imaginable — child rapists, major drug dealers, high-ranking members of the Mafia, and multiple murderers, all of them guilty of horrendous crimes. It is very difficult to keep in mind that even evil people are made in the image and likeness of God and that they don’t lose their inherent dignity because they have turned away from God and His law. It’s important to bear in mind, too, that the Holy Father’s new teaching doesn’t mean that the state shouldn’t impose necessary prison sentences on major offenders in order to protect the common good.
By changing this section of the Catechism, the Holy Father is teaching us a hard lesson in mercy. But it’s the same lesson that Jesus taught those present at the Sermon on the Mount.