As the Register has reported, Pope Francis’s recent request for a reformulation of the catechism’s language on the death penalty (as relayed in the official CDF letter, which can be read here) has met with both cheers and concern among faithful Catholics.  While theologians and philosophers debate the proposed change and its implications for understanding the Church’s development of doctrine, a certain amount of confusion has arisen among ordinary lay Catholics due to the language used in the letter.  The key paragraph (#2) gives three reasons for revising the Church’s standard language on the death penalty.

If, in fact, the political and social situation of the past made the death penalty an acceptable means for the protection of the common good, today [1] the increasing understanding that the dignity of a person is not lost even after committing the most serious crimes, [2] the deepened understanding of the significance of penal sanctions applied by the State, and [3] the development of more efficacious detention systems that guarantee the due protection of citizens have given rise to a new awareness that recognizes the inadmissibility of the death penalty and, therefore, calling for its abolition.

The third reason is one that applies to modern states (if not, perhaps, to some third world countries), and constitutes a simple reiteration of an argument made by many Catholics, including notably Pope John Paul II — namely, that modern prisons being more or less break-proof and humane, the common good is equally protected by the incarceration of criminals as by their execution.  This is a prudential judgment—a claim that the death penalty is not necessary, rather than that it is absolutely wrong—and as such is readily aligned with previous generations of Catholic teaching.

The first reason is more complicated.  The wording—“the dignity of a person is not lost even after committing the most serious crimes”—presumes (a) that the death penalty necessarily is more contrary to human dignity than life imprisonment and (b) that there is only one sense of human dignity.  It is largely on these two points that theologians and philosophers have their debates; and as I am only an amateur on this topic, I will not venture into that minefield.

The second reason, however, is a matter of history; and here I have something to suggest.  The CDF letter says that today we have gained a “deepened understanding of the significance of penal sanctions applied by the State.”  The words are vague.  One plausible reading is that we now realize (based on new psychological studies, etc.) that penalties such as life in prison are in fact appropriate and sufficient responses to crimes such as murder, while the penalty of execution is excessively cruel.  (Of course, what constitutes the appropriateness of a punishment is another question—one to which, again, the professional philosophers and theologians are welcome.)

There is, however, another sense in which the modern mind has gained a new notion of the state’s penal sanctions; and it has to do with our understanding of the nature of the state.

In those places and times which can roughly be denominated “Christendom,” there was a general theory of how the state came by its authority.  This theory, Thomistic in origin, held that all authority came ultimately from God, who placed power in the hands of government.  How that power moved from God to government was variously explained.  Either God directly gave power to some person or group (as in Divine Right theory); or God gave power to people in general, who in turn designated a ruler (giving him their powers), or invested a ruler with their powers (retaining certain rights and liberties).  (For the curious, Canning’s A History of Medieval Thought and Rommen’s The State in Catholic Thought give detailed accounts of this period of political history.)

However the state came by its power, in any case the power was understood as coming from God, and retaining in some sense and degree a divine license.  This is not to say that medieval people thought the state was identical to God (au contraire! that folly was reserved for the twentieth century socialists); and it is not to say that medieval people thought everything their rulers did was right (a cursory reading of medieval controversial texts shows a healthy amount of debate concerning what kings and popes were and were not allowed to do).  But it is true that medieval people thought that the state could justly do certain things that individuals could not.  One of those things was to meet out retributive justice: to punish people, not merely as a social deterrent or to protect the common good, but to in some sense meet the measure of the crimes committed.  (For a very basic primer on retributive justice, see here and follow the links.)

Now the medieval people may have been right and they may have been wrong about how the state’s authority was constituted.  They may have been right or wrong too in the conclusions that they drew from their political theory: it may be that, although political authority can come in some sense from God, that authority never entailed the power to operate retributively, or to administer capital punishment.  But right or wrong, the medieval position is not absurd or obviously abhorrent.

What has changed since the medieval era is that we no longer think of governmental authority as derived from God’s.  Whether they are libertarians or liberals, modern (western, American or European) people tend to take a dim view of governments claiming divine endorsement.  We are indeed in the position of those pagan governments, under which (as David Bentley Hart has noted in his controversy with Edward Feser) Christians tended to argue against capital punishment in practice, though not (usually) denying that it might under some circumstances be just in theory.  If in fact the government is pagan, or atheistic, or the result of a merely social contract, then it seems right to say that it has no power to mete out retribution for crimes committed; it is bound to a merely restorative or preventative role.  Thus it would be right to say that we have (compared to previous generations of Christians) a different “understanding of the significance of penal sanctions applied by the State,” because we understand the State itself differently.  I am not convinced that ours is a “deepened” understanding; of course we think it is, but the passage of time does not always signify the increase of progress.  Still, this much seems true: if, within a given nation, people in general do not believe in God, it is harder to justify the notion that their collective powers, bundled politically, could ever draw on God’s authority.  And thus it may be not so much the increased sensitivity of Christians that has led to the slow death of the death penalty’s respectability, as the increased secularization of western societies in general.