That’s what Pope Benedict XVI
said to the president of the
Catholic supporters of the death penalty have said that these two words are the only two the new Pope has uttered with regard to the death penalty. But that’s not the case.
Pope Benedict promulgated The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a slim volume that delivers the essential teachings of the Catechism in a concise question-and-answer format.
The English edition of the Compendium carries two introductions.
The first is from Cardinal
Joseph Ratzinger, writing as head of the
Thus, the Compendium is doubly the work of Benedict.
In its summary of Catholic teaching on the death penalty, the Holy Father had the opportunity to emphasize the most essential aspects of the teaching.
In No. 469, the Compendium says: “Given the possibilities which the State now has for effectively preventing crime by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm, the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”
In this way, the teaching about the death penalty flows with unassailable logic from the whole teaching of the Church about the Fifth Commandment, “You Shall Not Kill.”
The Compendium explains that killing in self defense is a decision to defend, not a decision to kill. “In choosing to defend oneself,” it says in No. 467, “one is respecting the right to life (either one’s own right to life or that of another) and not choosing to kill.”
Those who worry that opposition to the death penalty is a break from Catholic tradition can see here the justification for the change. It’s not a break, but a further development of a longstanding moral precept in the Church: You must never kill if you don’t have to.
The Compendium of 2005 thus follows the Catechism of the year 1566, which said: “The end of the commandment is the preservation and security of human life. Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing outrage and violence.”
Why did the civil authority have the right to put criminals to death? Because it had to in order to secure human life. Why should it not do so now? Because it doesn’t have to anymore. The Compendium isn’t introducing a new argument; it’s consciously echoing the same argument that has sounded down the ages: You must not kill if you don’t have to. Only now, the Church rejoices to say, we no longer have to.
There has been an attempt to suggest that the words of the Pope and the Catechism are not binding Church doctrine.
It’s true that, when Pope John Paul II condemns abortion and euthanasia in his Gospel of Life encyclical, he uses very particular language:
“y the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his successors, in communion with the bishops,” the Pope declares abortion and euthanasia to be “grave” wrongs, on the basis of “natural law …, the written Word of God …, the Church’s Tradition and … the ordinary and universal magisterium.”
John Paul’s statements condemning the death penalty are certainly less formal.
But it can’t be denied that two Popes have now signaled in several important ways that the Church’s opposition to the death penalty is normative.
A Pope stated it clearly in an encyclical, and included it in the official Catechism of the Catholic Church. His successor promulgated it in a Compendium of that Catechism. And both have acted as if the teaching should be normative: Pope John Paul II by repeatedly calling for stays in executions, and now Benedict by his praise for a nation’s abolition of the death penalty.
“Well done” may on the surface seem to be very little.
But those two words are the tip of an iceberg of thought and doctrinal development that reach back to the words of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount: “But I tell you this …”