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Yesterday the Vatican announced that it would be changing the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding its stance on the death penalty. The Church’s position on capital punishment has been in doubt of late, as Pope Francis has made his opposition to the policy quite clear. Catholics have debated whether Francis’ statements have amounted to changes to official Church teaching, or are simply prudential judgments about enforcement in modern society. Last year Ed Feser and Joseph Bessette released their book By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017), which is a splendid defense of the death penalty—not only from a Catholic perspective, but also from a philosophical and public policy angle. I have read about two-thirds of the book, and I admit, I’ve found their arguments beyond convincing. In the book they address the historical position the Catholic Church has taken on capital punishment, specifically looking at Pope John Paul II’s statements, as well as Pope Francis’. They show incontrovertibly that the Church has always held that capital punishment is permissible in principle for certain severe cases.

I write on this issue not as a fellow Catholic who’s concerned about the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, Church dogma, or theological consistency, but mainly as an outsider who is deeply interested in the issue of capital punishment and whether it can be justified philosophically and theologically, and whether it should be implemented as policy. Catholics, unlike evangelicals (or Protestants in general), do a much better job of engaging with social ethics, so I’ve found their resources the most helpful.

Although I’m currently a proponent of capital punishment (as you might have already known from this statement), I’ve read deeply enough on this issue to know there are good arguments on both sides. Many who oppose the death penalty do so from a strong conviction that it is an immoral practice. I’m open to their arguments, and to having my mind changed.

Changes to the Catechism

The old catechism, drawing upon Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium vitae, said the follow on the death penalty (Number 2267):

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.”

The new text that replaces it now says,

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.

This wording comes from a speech that Pope Francis made last October on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It was here that the Pope said in no uncertain terms that

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…No one ought to be deprived not only of life, but also of the chance for a moral and existential redemption that in turn can benefit the community…Let us take responsibility for the past and recognize that the imposition of the death penalty was dictated by a mentality more legalistic than Christian. Concern for preserving power and material wealth led to an over-estimation of the value of the law and prevented a deeper understanding of the Gospel…It is necessary, therefore, to reaffirm that no matter how serious the crime that has been committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.

This ruffled the feathers of some of the Catholic faithful, who responded with cautious concern. The question is whether by changing the Catechism in this way Pope Francis has reversed scriptural teaching and the position held by his predecessors—something that he has no authority to do. On this, the real debate is what the word “inadmissible” means in the last paragraph above. Does this commit the Pope and the Catholic Church to a principled abolitionism (the death penalty is inherently immoral and for that reason should be abolished), or a procedural abolitionism (the death penalty is moral, but cannot be implemented justly, and so should be abolished)? I would guess Catholic apologists will try to find a way to massage Pope Francis words and this new teaching into the procedural or prudential category, since principled abolitionism would indeed indicate that the Pope has abandoned the biblical and historic teaching of the Roman Catholic Church (however, see the frank admission by Ed Feser that this is indeed what Pope Francis has done). Since I’m not a practicing Catholic, nor a Catholic scholar or apologist, I will leave this issue to the experts. I’m more concerned about the ideas motivating this change in church teaching than anything else.

Letter to the Bishops

Perhaps this ambiguity is resolved when we look at the Letter to the Bishops by Cardinal Luis Ladaria that accompanied the announcement. This letter makes it abundantly clear that the Church now considers the death penalty to be an inexcusable practice that should be abolished. Supposedly this is upon the grounds of it being immoral, although this must be inferred from the letter. Here are the highlights:

  • “Today the ever-growing awareness that the dignity of a person is not lost even after committing very serious crimes, a thorough understanding of the meaning of the penal sanctions applied by the State, and the mass at the point of more effective detention systems that ensure the proper defense of citizens, have given rise to a new awareness that recognizes its inadmissibility and therefore calls for its abolition.”
  • “In it [Evangelium vitae], the death penalty does not present itself as a punishment proportionate to the gravity of the crime, but justifies itself only if it was ‘the only viable way to effectively defend the life of human beings from the unjust aggressor’, even if in fact ‘the cases of absolute need to suppress the offender are now very rare, if not even non-existent’ (No. 2267).”
  • “John Paul II also intervened on other occasions against the death penalty, appealing both to respect for the dignity of the person and to the means that the society possesses in order to defend itself from the criminal.”
  • Pope John Paul II: “‘A sign of hope is the growing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be denied, even to those who have done wrong. Modern society has the tools to protect itself without definitively denying criminals the possibility of repenting. I renew the appeal launched at Christmas, so that it is decided to abolish the death penalty, which is cruel and useless’.”
  • “The death penalty, whatever the manner of execution, ‘implies a cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment’. It should also be refused ‘because of the defective selectivity of the penal system and the possibility of judicial error’.”
  • “It is in this light that Pope Francis asked for a revision of the formulation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the death penalty, so that it is affirmed that ‘however serious the crime may have been, the death penalty is inadmissible because attentive to the inviolability and dignity of the person’.”
  • “The new text, following in the footsteps of John Paul II’s teaching in Evangelium vitae, affirms that the suppression of the life of a criminal as punishment for a crime is inadmissible because it is attentive to the dignity of the person, dignity that is not lost even after having committed serious crimes. This conclusion is reached also taking into account the new understanding of the penal sanctions applied by the modern state, which must be oriented first of all to the rehabilitation and social reintegration of the criminal.”
  • “Awareness of the inadmissibility of the death penalty has grown ‘in the light of the Gospel’. The Gospel, in fact, helps to better understand the creatural order that the Son of God has assumed, purified and brought to fullness. He also invites us to the mercy and patience of the Lord who gives everyone time to convert.”

The Vatican’s Case Against Capital Punishment

From this we can draw out and summarize the main arguments the Vatican is making against capital punishment. They would include the following:

  1. Respect for human dignity rules out the death penalty, for executing criminals violates the dignity of the human person.
  2. The death penalty is not proportionate to the crime(s) committed.
  3. The death penalty is cruel, degrading, and inhumane.
  4. The U.S. penal system that administers the death penalty is corrupt and defective, often making unacceptable errors (e.g., executing the innocent).
  5. Modern society has at its disposal other non-lethal punishments that serve as equally effective deterrents to protect society and the common good (e.g., incarceration).
  6. Modern penal systems should be oriented toward rehabilitating and socially reintegrating criminals.
  7. The death penalty removes the possibility of repentance.
  8. The gospel of Jesus as revealed in the New Testament is opposed to the death penalty.

This forms the core of Pope Francis’ and the Vatican’s case against capital punishment. It involves philosophical, moral, societal, and theological concerns. In future articles I will analyze each of these in brief to see if they actually constitute a coherent and compelling argument for abolishing the death penalty.