Death Penalty: A Genuine and Important Development of Catholic Teaching

COMMENTARY: The revised wording on capital punishment from the Vatican is an important reaffirmation of a central tenet of the Gospel.

Four cells on death row in the Old Idaho State Penitentiary in Boise, Idaho.
Four cells on death row in the Old Idaho State Penitentiary in Boise, Idaho. (photo: Nagel Photography /, 2013 photo)

Pope Francis has directed that the teaching of the universal Catholic Catechism be revised on capital punishment. Previously it indicated that capital punishment was not in principle morally wrong, yet unnecessary in the vast majority of cases.

Now the Catechism will teach that the death penalty is “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

One can predict the reactions: On the one hand, because of the Pope’s previous confused statements (which he has left unclarified), religiously conservative Catholics might tend to dismiss this as more confusion. On the other hand, progressive Catholics (and others) might tend to see in this a harbinger of other longed-for changes, such as on divorce and sexual morality. Neither will be right.

The teaching on capital punishment is true and important, but only reverses previous nondefinitive teachings, while the changes hoped for by some progressives on divorce and sexual morality would be to doctrines that have been definitively taught.

There are two kinds of Catholic teaching: First, what has been defined or taught definitively; second, what has not been universally or definitively taught. The first cannot change, and the second can.

The first is taught by the Church as a whole, the Body of Christ, and so cannot be mistaken; the second is taught by individuals within the Church, including leaders, but not by the Church as a whole. Examples of the first are that God is triune and the teaching on the Eucharist. Examples of the second are various teachings on bioethical issues, such as on in vitro fertilization and on neurological criteria for death.

The teachings of some popes have indeed changed, such as some teachings on religious liberty (Pius IX and Leo XIII had taught that it was proper for a Catholic state to prohibit spreading false beliefs; Vatican II reversed that) and on just war (20th-century popes restricted a just cause to defense, excluding retributive wars).

The change in teaching here draws out what is implicit in previous teaching. Pope St. John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) had already taught, “Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this” (9).

And this was in direct contradiction to the argument advanced by St. Thomas Aquinas. Thomas had argued that just as you can sacrifice a body part for the sake of the whole body (in amputation), so you can sacrifice a criminal for the sake of the community, since each person is a part of the whole community.

But, of course, persons are not mere parts of the state, but are good in themselves (unlike arms and legs). And so Thomas raises for himself the following objection: Killing what has human dignity is in itself bad, intrinsically evil, and therefore killing a criminal is morally wrong, for the end does not justify the means and the criminal still has human dignity.

In answer Thomas does not say that the end justifies the means — to the contrary. Rather, he argues that the criminal has lost his human dignity, for the root of dignity is reason and the criminal has departed from the order of reason and fallen even below the level of a beast. And so, he says, the state is not doing an evil for the sake of a good end.

Thus, although Thomas himself thinks capital punishment is morally permissible, his argument indicates the logical difficulties in this issue. To say that capital punishment is right, one must say either that the criminal has lost the inherent dignity of a person, or one must say that somehow it is morally okay intentionally to kill a being who has personal dignity.

But how could the criminal lose his dignity? We rightly insist on sending a criminal a priest or minister if he asks, and we also hold (or at least it is Catholic teaching) that it is wrong to torture the criminal. If he lacked personal dignity, neither of those would make sense.

Indeed, if it is okay to kill the criminal, why should it not be okay — at least in many cases — to torture him? Isn’t being tortured — at least in many cases — less of a harm to someone than being killed? And Vatican II explicitly lists torture as an intrinsically evil action.

But the idea that it can be morally right intentionally to kill a being with personal dignity is unappealing also. Catholic teaching is that the basic moral norm is that we should love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. But to love a person is to will the genuine good of that person, and fundamental to that is a person’s life. So to choose a person’s death is contrary to the Gospel moral prescription to love our neighbor as ourselves.

This point is also contained in St. John Paul II’s teaching in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth) on the respect owed to the fundamental goods of persons (48). So Pope Francis is merely making explicit the moral conclusion implicit in previous moral teaching.

This teaching on capital punishment is an important reaffirmation of the central tenet of the Gospel: that we are called to love even our enemies; that we are to do good to those who hate us; to imitate God, who causes the rain to fall both on the good and the evil — a teaching we very much need to hear in our comfortable affluent culture.

And yet those hoping that similar moves might be made regarding other doctrines — such as on sexual matters — will look in vain for premises in previous teaching to support such changes. In fact, previous teaching includes definitive teachings to the contrary.

 Patrick Lee is the John N. and Jamie D. McAleer Professor
of Bioethics at Franciscan University of Steubenville.

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