What Does the Magisterium Say About Capital Punishment?

COMMENTARY: History provides context for change, but questions on Paragraph 2267 seem to abound, and not unjustly.

(photo: Shutterstock)

Pope Francis’ recent rescript that changed the text of the Catechism of the Catholic Church with respect to capital punishment has provoked considerable response among the faithful, some of it thoughtful, some of it enthusiastic, and some of it dismissive.

Questions on Paragraph 2267 seem to abound, and not unjustly.

This is an issue only the magisterium can resolve. The exact authority, meaning and implications of this or previous Church teaching belongs to the magisterium. I hope to provide some considerations that help Catholics as the discussion continues and, hopefully, further explanations come forth from the Holy See. In that regard, a brief summary of the history of the teaching, and the application of it, is in order.

The Roman imperial system, under which the Church of the early centuries existed, institutionalized the use of violence, especially execution, as its ultimate act of coercive power. In these circumstances, the attitude of Christians was to imitate the evangelical spirit manifested by Our Lord in his teaching and in his own example.

This meant to turn the other cheek in personal matters; to accept persecution without offering violence in self-defense; if conscripted into military service, to defend oneself against the mortal threat of the enemy, while still refusing offices in the legions or government that required judging and executing capital punishment.

Yet there was no sense in the early Church that the Old Testament, in which God authorizes the use of capital punishment for certain crimes, erred; nor likewise the view of the philosophers, a view the Church would ultimately adopt, that of the natural justice of the death penalty. Rather, Christians were called to a different standard, an evangelical one, the imitation of Christ.

After the legalization of Christianity by Constantine in 313 A.D., the civil culture and structures began to be influenced by Christian moral principles. It was now possible for Christians to take their rightful role in society and to infuse Christian values into official civil roles. The teaching of the fourth-century Church Fathers and Doctors reflect this new situation. The Christian state would need to defend itself against its enemies; indeed, had an obligation to do so, whether in war or by capital punishment.

Having a natural right to self-defense, however, did not permit war simply, but just war, or taking any life judicially, but proportionately, for the greatest crimes. The moral tradition would settle on three conditions; therefore, for such an act to be morally good: 1) the thing done (or object) must be good, or at least indifferent; 2) the end or intention must be good; and 3) the prudential circumstances must favor it.

These criteria help us understand how the Church’s application of both the received revelation of the Old Testament, as well as the philosophical wisdom regarding the justice of capital punishment (the object), could in one set of historical circumstances disapprove of the death penalty (that is, its use) and in a different set of circumstances approve of its use.

Perhaps the most perplexing issues with the Catechism changes are twofold: the moral conclusion reached and the argument used to support it. The new text states that capital punishment is morally “inadmissible,” and is so “because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” This modifies the revised language of Pope St. John Paul II in 1997, based on the 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life, 55-56), which left cases of societal necessity alone, while arguing for the rarest use of the death penalty.

The expression “inadmissible” (non posse admitti) is the moral conclusion. It has the implication of “not allowable” or “impermissible.” This could be inadmissible by reason of the object (that is, always and everywhere evil, like abortion), or inadmissible by reason of intention and/or circumstances.

This latter would be in keeping with the Church’s different approaches toward capital punishment historically. The text could have said “intrinsically evil,” but did not. This suggests the creation of a practical norm, as in the early Church, when Christians chose not to exercise their natural rights.

Ultimately, however, substantial questions remain about the change, which only the magisterium can solve or explain. These include whether the judgment “inadmissible” applies to the moral act taken as a whole, and thus theoretically admitting of historical exceptions. Or does it apply to the moral object irrespective of intention and circumstances, in which case it would effectively be “intrinsically evil”? If the latter, how does the development of this moral doctrine based on personal dignity relate to the Tradition regarding the natural justice of capital punishment regarding fitting crimes, intention and circumstances?

Yet, as Catholics, we must nonetheless respect such authoritative teaching. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger explained, in his 1990 instruction “The Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian,”  “[t]he willingness to submit loyally to the teaching of the magisterium on matters per se not irreformable must be the rule” (24).

This doesn’t mean that the theologian, or ordinary Catholic, can’t have questions, even doubts. The cardinal notes that a dialogue about the form, expression and the reasoning of a teaching can be fruitful, but only if it proceeds in the “unity of truth” and “the unity of charity” (26).

Today the culture of death that reigns in most countries is worse than that which existed in antiquity. So, beyond the theological considerations, and the proper interpretation and implications of this teaching, is the prophetic office which the Church, and especially the pope, holds.

As it did in the early centuries, the Church seems to be saying to the modern world, and even to Catholics, that the solution to problems is not the one chosen by Pilate 2,000 years ago, but the evangelical witness of Jesus, expressed through the Church and which converted the empire which Pilate served.

As Pope St. John Paul II insisted in his teaching on the human person, the way to witness to the dignity of the human person is to see it everywhere human beings are found, in the embryo (who has become an object of commerce), in the womb (where a child can be freely destroyed), in the poor, in our enemies and even in the criminal.

Colin Donovan, STL,

is vice president for theology

at EWTN. He can be heard on

EWTN Radio’s Open Line 

Fridays from 3 to  5pm.