How to Understand the Death Penalty and Development of Doctrine

COMMENTARY: One must respect the right of Rome to seek to abolish the death penalty, but one may also disagree as to whether this is a homogenous development of doctrine or merely a debate about circumstantial application of that doctrine.

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Recent developments in Rome on the subject of capital punishment have led to many anguished discussions on whether a change authorized by Pope Francis in the moral stance of the Church on the death penalty is a development of Church teaching which binds people in conscience to obedience.

On Aug. 8, 2018, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), stated that Pope Francis had approved a change in No. 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “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.’”

Cardinal Ladaria maintained that since the Church has always upheld the right of the state to punish with the death penalty, this was a development of doctrine. Was he right?

It must be stated at the outset that whether something is a development of doctrine is a theological opinion not revealed truth. Before any judgment can be made about whether a specific teaching is a true development of doctrine, it would be good to clarify what the term “development” or “evolution” of dogma means according to the mind of the Church.


True Growth

The Catechism of the Catholic Church topically treats the idea of doctrinal development as part of the growth of the Catholic Church in its understanding of the faith. After proclaiming that faith is a response to the supernatural knowledge communicated to the Church through Revelation, the Catechism rightly states that the two sources of this revelation are the word of God as spoken (Tradition) and the word of God as written (Scripture). The agency that Christ himself chose to interpret and faithfully hand on Revelation is the magisterium of the pope and the bishops.

The Catechism then states:

“in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, sacred Scripture and the magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way, under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls” (94-95).


Traditional Development

The clearest Patristic source for the idea of development of doctrine is Vincent of Lerins. In his Instructions (Chapter 23: PL 50, 667-668), Vincent explains that there is a “development in religion.” Development, Vincent says, means “that each thing expands to be itself while alteration means that a thing is changed from one thing into another.” Though the Church understands and applies the teaching of Christ, Vincent says, never are such applications an alteration but an expansion “only along its own line of development, that is, with the same doctrine, the same meaning and the same import.” Souls develop in the same way as bodies, which may grow but “remain what they were.”

He clearly states: “The doctrine of the Christian religion should properly follow these laws of development, that is, by becoming firmer over the years, more ample in the course of time, more exalted as it advances in age.”

This sort of growth in the Church is known as homogeneous and not heterogeneous development. A future understanding of the faith cannot contradict but only expand on a former one. If this teaching expands our understanding, it is homogenous; if it contradicts it, it is heterogeneous.



Catholicism has never supported the idea of progressive revelation, which can change from age to age or country to country and is culturally conditioned. Christ is the prime revealer and prime revelation, and the Church’s magisterium is his servant — not culture’s servant. While the pope (or any of the faithful) may have insights into the teachings of the Church, the formal revelation that Christ came to make on earth concluded with the death of the Twelve Apostles. Whatever progressive understanding of the faith may occur through the centuries in councils or papal teachings cannot add one iota to the faith of the apostles nor contradict it. There cannot be seven sacraments taught in one age or culture, two in another — and both teachings willed by Christ. As Vincent of Lerins concludes:

“It would be very wrong and unfitting if we, their descendants [of the ancients in the Church], were to reap, not the genuine wheat of truth, but the intrusive growth of error.”


Moral Truths

If this is true of dogmatic truth, it is also true of moral truth. After Vatican II, there was a new, modernistic criterion established that was based on the denial of a common objective nature in man as the source for moral truth and the embracing of a new theory that moral teaching has changed according to the culture over the centuries.


Church and Culture

As for the idea that culture is a part of the method of teaching moral theology, one can admit this as a part of reason which examines human nature. Some of the norms of the natural law, for example, things which have to do with property rights in families, can be culturally conditioned. But to maintain this of every moral norm is certainly contrary to the traditional teaching on the natural law and to common sense. Why would the Holy Spirit reveal commandments to which every human choice is a possible exception? In the context of Catholic doctrine, to say culture is necessary to analyze moral norms, especially about things which are intrinsically evil, would fly in the face of the teaching of John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor: “Consequently, respect for [moral] norms which prohibit such [intrinsically evil] acts and oblige semper et pro semper, that is, without any exception, not only does not inhibit a good intention, but actually represents its basic expression” (Veritatis Splendor, 82). Circumstances of a given age may broaden our understanding of moral truth, but they cannot make what was always an intrinsically good or evil moral act its opposite.


Status Quo?

So today, members of the CDF maintain that the change wrought in the Catechism concerning capital punishment is a genuine development of doctrine caused by a better grasp of the dignity of the human person in modern society. If the Pope and the CDF wish to pursue the abolition of the death penalty on circumstantial grounds, that is fine. However, one may legitimately disagree with them as to the prudential nature of this pursuit. Cardinal Ratzinger expressed this fact when he was head of the CDF in a letter to the U.S. bishops’ conference:

“Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on a decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war,” Cardinal Ratzinger continues, “and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia” (Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, “Letter to Theodore Cardinal McCarrick and Bishop Wilton Gregory,” June 2004. Reprinted in L’Espresso, July 2004).

One must respect the right of Rome to seek to abolish the death penalty, but one may also disagree as to whether this is a homogenous development of doctrine or merely a debate about circumstantial application of that doctrine. If it is the latter, then to absolutize this new teaching and say that something which was a right and duty of the state (albeit one which must be used very prudentially) is an intrinsic evil would be a heterogeneous development.

Dominican Father Brian Mullady is a mission preacher and adjunct

professor at Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.