The Death Penalty is now inadmissible under all conditions: Pope Francis Revises the Catholic Catechism
You may have heard that Pope Francis has revised the Church’s teaching and position on Capital Punishment (that is, the Death Penalty). This revision is an example of how the teachings of the Church do not change, but they do evolve. How has the Church’s teaching about the Death Penalty evolved? It makes sense to begin with what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has taught about the Death Penalty up until now. The paragraphs of the Catechism are numbered for easy reference, and it is paragraph 2267 that contains the important text.
2267 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.' [John Paul II, Evangelium vitae .]
This last sentence of 2267 was an update/development by Saint John Paul II that increased the Church’s skepticism that the Death Penalty would ever be necessary. So, while not changing the teaching of the Church, John Paul did express an evolution of that teaching. Pope Francis now extends this teaching to remove any doubt about the admissibility of the Death Penalty.
As Cindy Wooden of the Catholic News Service reports (Pope revises catechism to say death penalty is 'inadmissible', Catholic Courier website, Diocese of Rochester, August 2, 2018):
The catechism now will read: "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," the new section continues.
Pope Francis' change to the text concludes: "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."
Pope Francis asked that the Catechism reflect the greater awareness of the sacredness of every human being, a sacredness that even a murderer does not forfeit. Modern society has the means to render criminals harmless without decisively removing their opportunity for redemption.
Not only does the Church now teach that the Death Penalty is inadmissible, the Pope committed the Church to working towards its abolishment throughout the world and working to establish the conditions which would allow its elimination where it is still in effect.
Next week I will write about another development of the Church’s teaching. One that began in 1891, continues to evolve, and remains just as relevant today.