Pope Francis Says No to Centuries of Church Teaching

Pope Francis leads a mass at the Huanchaco beach in Trujillo, Peru, January 20, 2018. (Osservatore Romano/Handout via Reuters)
His announcement that the death penalty is now ‘inadmissible’ has no basis in Scripture or the Church Fathers.

In recent years, I have learned to wince when I hear the phrase “news from Rome,” since that news has developed a habit of being confusing and unpleasant. Therefore when one morning this week someone addressed me with a sentence that began “The pope said . . .,” I held my breath and hoped for the best.

Alas, that sentence concluded: “. . . that the death penalty is now inadmissible, and the Catechism’s being changed.” Immediately I betook myself to read the letter published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in which this earth-shattering announcement was made.

Quoth the Congregation:

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.


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. 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.

It is my lamentable duty to say that the Congregation’s letter is a blatant contradiction of Catholic doctrine, which puts Christifideles such as myself in an odious position. There are several questions that must be kept distinct, so let us deal with them in order.

The key part of the new formulation in the Catechism is this: “The death penalty is inadmissible because it attacks the inviolability and the dignity of the person.” It is quite a categorical statement. It can mean nothing but that the death penalty is wrong per se because it offends human dignity.

Against this obvious reading of plain words arise the hordes of forked-tongued recreants that will attempt to spin the sentence into something admitting orthodox interpretation. They’ll say things such as “No, it wasn’t necessarily wrong before; it’s just wrong now because we have great correctional facilities, so we don’t need to execute criminals in order to protect the innocent!”

The largely irrelevant obsession with prison security did not, unfortunately, begin this week. John Paul II likely caused it with his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, which was cited in the Congregation’s letter:

Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfils the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people’s safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behaviour and be rehabilitated.

It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.

We can see that there are three considerations involved in the death penalty: just punishment for the crime itself, encouragement of the criminal to repentance and rehabilitation, and prevention of further harm to innocent people.

Evangelium Vitae and the Congregation’s letter this week commit the error of insinuating that there is no crime for which death is per se a just punishment. In both of those documents, previous Catholic permission for the death penalty is characterized as the reluctant consent to a tragic practice employable, in the words of Evangelium Vitae, only “when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.” The clear implication is that no crime by itself merits death and that executing someone who is no longer an immediate threat to society is an offense against human dignity.

The result of this line of argumentation is that in order to maintain that the positions of John Paul II and Francis on the death penalty are in accord with previous Church teaching, we must say that previous Church teaching allowed the death penalty in historical circumstances in which all criminals executed were continuing threats to society because of poor prisons. Otherwise, the Church has in the past erred in a matter of morals by endorsing a practice offensive to human dignity, i.e., wrong.

Let us see whether this is true. For instance, among the errors condemned by Leo X in Exsurge Domine, his beautiful rebuke of Martin Luther, is this, no. 33: “That heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit.” Supporters of the Congregation’s letter have only two ways of dealing with this condemnation. The first is to say that the condemnation was not infallible, which is preposterous. (It meets all the criteria named by Vatican I: “By the authority of almighty God, the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and our own authority, we condemn, reprobate, and reject completely each of these theses or errors as either heretical, scandalous, false, offensive to pious ears or seductive of simple minds, and against Catholic truth. By listing them, we decree and declare that all the faithful of both sexes must regard them as condemned, reprobated, and rejected.”) The second is to claim that jails in 1520 were so porous that heretics could not be confined alive with satisfactory security.

Doctrine does indeed develop, as everyone from Saint Vincent to Cardinal Newman knew, but eodem sensu ac sententia — in the same sense and meaning. Only the most warped mind could maintain that endorsement of capital punishment per se could develop into a ban, as if an acorn could grow to become a cactus.

In addition to the popes, sacred Scripture (see Romans 13) and the unanimous teaching of the Church Fathers (see, for one example, The City of God, book 1) alike testify to the righteousness of the death penalty per se as a punishment for certain crimes, and nowhere does anyone discuss the wretched state of prison infrastructure. Also in concurrence is the magnificent Catechism of the Council of Trent, published by Pope Saint Pius V and edited by Saint Charles Borromeo. Saint Thomas Aquinas even taught that the death penalty has the benefit of remitting, for a penitent criminal, the temporal punishment, in purgatory, that he owes for his crime.

What we hear from Pope Francis, however, is rank Whig history. “But they didn’t understand back then, you see. Now we have ‘the new understanding of penal sanctions applied by the modern State.’ Now we know about ‘the possibility of judicial error.’”

And he has the audacity to cite Saint Vincent of Lérins in asserting that this reversal is merely a “development of doctrine.” Doctrine does indeed develop, as everyone from Saint Vincent to Cardinal Newman knew, but eodem sensu ac sententia — in the same sense and meaning. Only the most warped mind could maintain that endorsement of capital punishment per se could develop into a ban, as if an acorn could grow to become a cactus.

My indignation may seem to many readers to be a raging bloodlust, a grotesque love of capital punishment. Not so. I am breathing fire not primarily in favor of violence toward criminals but in protest of violence toward the Catholic faith. Regardless of what the Catechism says, that faith remains unchanged and unchangeable. This is not simply “how it is now” — this is not how it can ever be.

Saint Peter, pray for us.

Liam Warner — Liam Warner is an editorial intern at National Review.

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