Could Pope Francis be Wrong on the Death Penalty?

Pope Francis recently ordered a change to the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the subject of the death penalty. Formerly, the text read as follows:

“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 the unjust aggressor.

“If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

“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.’ ” [68]

Footnote 68: “John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56.”

And the revision reads thusly:

The death penalty

“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”,[1] and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.

Footnote 1: FRANCIS, Address to Participants in the Meeting organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, 11 October 2017: L’Osservatore Romano, 13 October 2017, 5.
[Source]

The controversy over the change has led some faithful Catholics to ask whether this change to the CCC could possibly be in error, and if not, how can it be reconciled with past teachings?

Error Is Possible

The First and Second Vatican Councils taught that the Roman Pontiff is only infallible when his words meet certain conditions [First Vatican Council, Pastor Aeternus, chap. 4, n. 9; Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, n. 25].
Anything that falls short of the criteria for Papal Infallibility is considered non-infallible, and subject to a limited possibility of error and reform.

And when a teaching is possibly in error, faithful and licit dissent is possible. Licit theological dissent is discussed in a 1968 document of the U.S. Bishops, Human Life in Our Day [n. 49ff]. Then, too, a document of the CDF, written by then-Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), titled Donum Veritatis, discusses the fact that many teachings of the Church are “non-irreformable” and “non-infallible”, and that theologians may sometimes licitly disagree with such a teaching [n. 28-33].

Is the Catechism of the Catholic Church infallible? According to the USCCB, the Catechism contains some infallible teachings, but a teaching is not infallible merely because it is in the Catechism:

“Is the doctrinal authority of the Catechism equal to that of the dogmatic definitions of a pope or ecumenical council?
“Because the Catechism presents Catholic doctrine in a complete yet summary way, it naturally contains the infallible doctrinal definitions of the popes and ecumenical councils in the history of the Church. It also presents teaching which has not been communicated and defined in these most solemn forms.” [USCCB, Frequently Asked Questions about the Catechism of the Catholic Church]

Moreover, the new section of the Catechism on the death penalty does not cite or quote any infallible sources, such as Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, or a teaching of an Ecumenical Council. The only source cited is a prior Address by Pope Francis. However, this new text is not a decision on discipline, nor a private theological opinion, so it is an exercise of the Papal Magisterium. Therefore, the new section on the death penalty would fall under the non-infallible ordinary magisterium. This allows for a possibility of error, to a limited extent.

The Text of the Change

Let’s consider the wording of the teaching, sentence by sentence:

“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.”

That is a statement of fact, and it is true. Recourse to the death penalty has long been considered moral, though only in the more extreme cases, when crimes are very grave. This sentence is not in error.

“Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.”

People in society generally are perhaps more aware of this dignity, and in the Church, theologically, there has been more emphasis on the dignity of the person, largely based on the work of Pope Saint John Paul II, who emphasized the person in his moral writings. In Veritatis Splendor, he writes:

“Certainly people today have a particularly strong sense of freedom. As the Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom Dignitatis Humanae had already observed, ‘the dignity of the human person is a concern of which people of our time are becoming increasingly more aware’. [52]”

So the first part of the sentence is from John Paul II, and is apparently true, even though it is not per se a teaching. The second part of the sentence is the assertion that “the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.” Since the human person is made in the image of God, and does not cease to be so made with any sin or crime, this is true. The human nature remains good, even if the person sins gravely or commits a serious crime.

“In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state.”

Like the previous assertion about an increasing awareness, this sentence is arguably true, but not a teaching. It is not required that the faithful believe that a new understanding has emerged on this topic. Perhaps persons today, especially the faithful, are more aware of the many effects that the death penalty can have on persons and society. The political controversy over the death penalty, during the past several decades, has certainly included the many negative aspects of this penal sanction. But, if you disagree, you are not disagreeing with a teaching, not at this point in the text.

“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.”

This sentence is also not a teaching, but an assertion about the circumstances of law and incarceration today. It is certainly true that the developed nations have better forms of detention than several decades ago. And there is a greater emphasis on human and constitutional rights.

But in the developing nations, the situation is not the same. The prisons there, and often the entire justice system, is riddled with injustices and a lack of fundamental human rights. Prisons in some nations offer continual severe inhumane conditions, and a life-sentence or any lengthy sentence there is comparable to Hell.

I would mildly disagree, then, with the above sentence. It does not seem to be factually true, for all regions of the world, but only true for some nations and regions. In many places, there is no due protection of citizen’s in their rights before and during trial, nor in their rights in prison. They have a nominal “possibility of redemption” by repentance while in prison, but the inhumane nature of the prison systems there make such a change very difficult. It could be argued that a short time awaiting the death penalty, would be more likely to prompt the prisoner to repent than a long sentence under inhumane prison conditions.

The death penalty, in a sense, deprives the guilty person of a chance at redemption, because one cannot repent after death. But this is true for all human persons in this life. We all die at some point in time. Many persons die in the commission of a grave crime, with no subsequent chance to repent. And the wait time from a guilty verdict to the execution of the person is often more than a year. That is sufficient time for a person to take stock of his or her life and repent thoroughly in their mind, heart, and soul.

Therefore, the death penalty does not absolutely deprive the prisoner of a chance at 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’,[1] and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

The inner quote is from Pope Francis’ Address, in 2017, to a Meeting organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization. For the purposes of evaluating this teaching, we can ignore the quote marks. However, the whole sentence is asserted by Pope Francis, as an act of the Magisterium, for he states “the Church teaches”.

The reference to the Gospel lacks any scriptural references. The Gospel certainly teaches the love of neighbor, the dignity of the human person, and mercy as well as justice. But we also have the parable in which Christ compares himself to a king, who exercises his authority in the death penalty:

{19:12} Therefore, he said: “A certain man of nobility traveled to a far away region, to receive for himself a kingdom, and to return.

{19:14} But his citizens hated him. And so they sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this one to reign over us.’

{19:27} ‘Yet truly, as for those enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here, and put them to death before me.’ ”

The parable tells two stories. In one, the servants of the man who was to be king are given talents to invest in his absence. In the other, the man travels far away, is made king, and then he orders his enemies, who did not want him to be king over them, to be put to death. If the death penalty were inherently immoral, it seems that Christ would not portray himself as the king who exercises that penalty.

And though Christ did away with the Mosaic death penalty, when he spared the woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:1-11), the Church has never considered that he was, by that decision, taking away the death penalty in all cases. Elsewhere in the New Testament, Saint Paul does not object to being given the death penalty, if he were guilty: “For if I have harmed them, or if I have done anything deserving of death, I do not object to dying.” (Act 25:11).

Of greater concern are the Old Testament laws, given by God to the Israelites and written into Sacred Scripture, which command the people to exercise the death penalty. If the death penalty were always wrong, then God could not command it, as He would be acting contrary to His own Nature.

In addition, the Magisterium has long held that the death penalty is a moral option. The previous text of this section of the Catechism (CCC 2267) states this clearly: “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 the unjust aggressor.”

Consequently, we cannot hold that the death penalty is intrinsically evil. It is not the type of act that is always wrong, regardless of intention or circumstances.

Now Pope Francis does not state that the death penalty is intrinsically evil. He uses the phrasing “inadmissible”, and he bases this assertion partly on an evaluation of the current circumstances, especially that “more effective systems of detention have been developed”. Circumstances vary.

What if a particular nation has no such effective system of detention? What if a particular individual, such as a deposed dictator, cannot be effectively detained? His supporters would do much violence to many innocents, continually, to try to bring him back to power. What if a crime boss cannot be prevented from ordering the commission of further crimes from behind bars? And lastly, what if the circumstances in developed nations change?

Therefore, I am forced by faith and reason to conclude that the holy Pontiff erred, to a limited extent, in presenting the death penalty as if it were inadmissible, regardless of the circumstances. Is it possible for a member of the faithful to disagree with the Pope on the death penalty? Then-Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) stated that it is possible.

Cardinal Ratzinger: “3. Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.” [Worthiness to Receive holy Communion]

Should the Church work for the abolition of the death penalty worldwide? Yes, I believe She should do so. For in most cases, the death penalty is imprudent, as the justice system, even in developed nations, has many inequities and failures. Often, a person convicted of a serious crime is later found innocent. And if a person has a change of heart, a prison sentence even for a very serious crime, need not be lifelong. There should almost always be a chance at release and a life of freedom before death. For there are very few cases that do necessitate the death penalty today. I disagree with Pope Francis that there are no such cases. But certainly these cases are few.

More Reading:
Msgr. Charles Pope on the death penalty

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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9 Responses to Could Pope Francis be Wrong on the Death Penalty?

  1. Doesn’t the OT require the Death Penalty for disobeying or disrespecting you parents?

  2. Joe Waked says:

    Thank you for such a thorough analysis Ron. What disturbs me as much, well… actually more than, the recent change is what the Pope said at the October 2017 Address at the Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, which is the footnote cited in paragraph 2267:

    “It must be clearly stated that the death penalty is an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity. IT IS PER SE CONTRARY TO THE GOSPEL, because it entails the willful suppression of a human life that never ceases to be sacred in the eyes of its Creator and of which – ultimately – only God is the true judge and guarantor.”

    Likewise NOT an infallible exercise of the papal magisterium, but the portion in CAPS appears to be a formally heretical statement because it deems the DP to be intrinsically immoral. Am I wrong?

    • Ron Conte says:

      He does not say it is intrinsically immoral. The loss of a human life, whether by natural death, accident, a violent crime, or a moral use of the death penalty, is a an ontic evil; it is a negative thing, since it contradicts the life given to the person by God. So the Pope is not wrong that the death penalty is, in that sense, contrary to the Gospel. However, it still can be moral.

  3. turnrod says:

    My concern is that there may be those around Pope Francis that would like to present the death penalty as an ‘instrinsic evil’ without explicitly stating it as such for political purposes. The wording in the catechism would leave such an interpretation open to exploitation.

  4. Dora says:

    Thanks, this helps. I was thinking about changing circumstances, and Francis’ change becoming irrelevant once the Tribulation begins in full force.

    • Ron Conte says:

      That could be true. The tribulation will disrupt society. There will be many acts of civil violence and terrorism. And then there will be terrible war crimes.

  5. Marco says:

    “The death penalty, in a sense, deprives the guilty person of a chance at redemption, because one cannot repent after death. But this is true for all human persons in this life. We all die at some point in time. Many persons die in the commission of a grave crime, with no subsequent chance to repent.”

    I quote the Catechism 2283

    “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.”

    Of course whether they will accept it or not is up to them, but i don’t believe that anyone “happens” to go to Hell. For sure, nobody can repent after death, and the soul, which is the form of the body, doesn’t linger on a death body, but maybe the process of death itself isn’t as clear cut as we may believe.

    Otherwise we should assume that Rudolf Hoss found God’s Mercy https://aleteia.org/2016/03/04/how-the-commandant-of-auschwitz-found-gods-mercy/ while at the same time criminals much less evil than him would go to Hell because they just died untimely.

    I don’t believe this.

    Let me quote two catholic saints

    “I often attend upon the dying and through entreaties obtain for them trust in God’s mercy, and I implore God for an abundance of divine grace, which is always victorious. God’s mercy sometimes touches the sinner at the last moment in a wondrous and mysterious way. OUTWARDLY, IT SEEMS AS IF EVERUTHING WERE LOST, BUT IT IS NOT SO. The soul, illumined by a ray of God’s powerful final grace, turns to God in the last moment with such a power of love that, in an instant, it receives from God forgiveness of sin and punishment, while outwardly it shows no sign either of repentance or of contrition, because souls [at that stage] no longer react to external things.
    Oh, how beyond comprehension is God’s mercy! Although a person is at the point of death, the merciful God gives the soul that interior vivid moment, so that if the soul is willing, it has the possibility of returning to God.”( Diary of Saint Faustina, 1698)

    “I believe that not a great number of souls go to hell. God loves us so much. He formed us at his image. God loves us beyond understanding. And it is my belief that when we have passed from the consciousness of the world, WHEN WE APPEAR TO BE DEAD, God, before He judges us, will give us a chance to see and understand what sin really is. And if we understand it properly, how could we fail to repent?” (Padre Pio)

    I really don’t know why you are so staunchly convinced that death is immediate and doesn’t leave room for God’s Grace to act. This is not a guarantee of salvation, for we know that there are human souls in Hell, but believing that someone far less evil than Hoss can go to Hell just because he happens to die in the wrong moment while Hoss was saved because God gave him time, turns God into a respecter of persons.

    As for the rest, i agree.

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