Pope Francis recently revised the wording of paragraph 2267 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is important to listen to the Holy Father and understand what he is teaching and to understand what the Church has always taught about capital punishment.
There are some teachings of the Catholic Church in the realm of morality that are cut and dry. For example, abortion is intrinsically evil. This means that abortion is evil by its very nature and therefore cannot be allowed to be practiced. Euthanasia is a similar example. There is no case where abortion and euthanasia would be morally acceptable. This is unchanging, un-developing, unflinching standing doctrines of the Church.
Other teachings of the Church have not fallen into this intrinsically evil category. One of those realms is capital punishment; however, the Church has always rightly restricted its use to very specific circumstances. As the culture has progressed, this doctrine has authentically developed. It is important to note that “development” does not mean “changed.” Sometimes the way our world changes around us necessitates that we revisit certain applications of Catholic principles without changing the underlying unchanging teaching.
The Church has maintained throughout history that capital punishment is the right of the state; however, this does not give the state unlimited power to exercise capital punishment. For capital punishment to be considered appropriate by the Church, there has to be proportion between the taking of the life of the criminal and the benefit to the common good. This means that there has to be no other recourse to protect the common good. It has to be literally the only feasible option.
The formulation, promulgated in 1992, of par. 2267 of the Catechism says, “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against an unjust aggressor.”
It is important to note the final line: “… if this is the only possible way…” The Church has never held to allowing the indiscriminate usage of the death penalty. Notice also that the intention to enforce the death penalty has nothing to do with vengeance. The intention has to be for protection of the common good.
Paragraph 2267 goes on to say, “If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority should limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.”
In other words, the criminal has dignity, as do all human persons, but the safety and defense of the people must be protected. If this can be accomplished without the death penalty, it should be.
The Catechism then finishes the paragraph by quoting St. John Paul II’s teaching from his work Evangelium Vitae: “Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”
This is the summary of the traditional teaching of the Church on the death penalty. So, what then did Pope Francis introduce? Did he change the doctrine of the Church or is this an authentic development of the application of principles?
This is the revision, in English, of paragraph 2267:
“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.”
Using prudence to make good judgements is a dance between faith and reason, in which the faithful are called to learn Catholic principles and apply them to the best of their ability. In the case of the death penalty, the Catholic principle of the right of the state to have recourse to capital punishment will always hold as a principle, as long as the circumstances absolutely necessitate it for the benefit of the common good. There can be no other option available for capital punishment to be justified.
As St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and, now, Pope Francis have pointed out, there are no circumstances today where execution is a necessity. Therefore, if there are no circumstances where execution is a necessity, then capital punishment should not be exercised.
Our modern society has the means to render harmless perpetrators of horrific crimes, while allowing them the chance for reform and repentance. Human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, and, therefore, have inherent dignity that cannot be lost.
This is a change in the official stance of the Catholic Church, as led by the Holy Father. However, it is not a change in the principle, as such. The principle of capital punishment still stands, as it has since the beginning of the Church. The world has changed around us. Our technology and advances in penal systems allow for better alternatives to the death penalty that preserve the dignity of all human persons and protect the common good. In every case today, we now have the means to secure the common good without ending the criminal’s life. Therefore, as the Holy Father has taught, the death penalty is not necessary and therefore its practice, in any case today, would violate the traditional Catholic teaching.
In our culture of death, where life is so quickly and easily thrown away, the witness of the Holy Father to the inviolability of all human life is an emphasis on God’s mercy. No matter how far we stray from the path of God, we are not beyond the reach of God’s mercy and our own redemption.
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