Pope Francis, building upon the teaching of St. John Paul II, has made it clear that the Church opposes the use of the death penalty. The two of them, though, have taught against the death penalty without addressing the primary reason the Church long taught that the death penalty was not only morally permissible, but even a duty in some circumstances.
In 1997, the Catechism of the Catholic Church was revised to reflect John Paul’s teaching in Evangelium Vitae that the circumstances in which the death penalty was required were now “very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” He concluded that the state had other means to “protect people’s safety” and that “nonlethal means” are “more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.”
Now, Pope Francis has directed that Catechism 2267 be changed again to read that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”
Both of these revisions — 1997 and 2018 — teach against the death penalty on safety and human-dignity grounds. The Catechism teaches, though, in the previous paragraph, that “legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict penalties proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense” (2266).
Both John Paul II and Francis have taught against the death penalty without addressing the “primary” purpose of the penalty itself, namely “redressing the disorder,” which has traditionally been the primary reason the Church has long taught that the death penalty was just.
Did John Paul thus change the settled teaching on the death penalty? No. He argued that circumstances made it inadvisable and to be avoided, but remained silent on whether it remained justified per se.
Did Pope Francis change the settled teaching? No. He could have said that the use of the death penalty is unjust, or intrinsically evil or immoral. Rather, he taught that it was “inadmissible,” which is a term apparently chosen because it has not been used before and therefore has no fixed meaning.
There is little doubt that Pope Francis thinks that the death penalty is intrinsically evil, but what the Holy Father thinks is not the same as what he has taught. The death penalty could be “inadmissible” due to a judgment about changing circumstances, similar to the judgment John Paul made.
So it appears that the quite ancient and continuous teaching about the death penalty remains intact, namely that the legitimate authority has a right to use it, but that at this moment in history the circumstances indicate that it should not be used. Even the strong language in the 2018 revision about an “attack on the dignity of the person” is explained by changing public attitudes, a reference to changing circumstances.
In the revised text promulgated by Pope Francis, there is another phrase that has puzzled commentators:
“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.”
The first sentence is clear enough; it continues and extends the argument made by John Paul II. But the second sentence is mysterious. What does it mean?
I might suggest — as the text does not explain itself — an approach that might better explain how the death penalty can be both justified and “inadmissible.”
The Catholic Tradition is clear that only the “legitimate authority” can inflict the death penalty. Private actors are vigilantes. The justice of the death penalty, then, depends on the legitimacy of the authority in question. To take an easy case, a totalitarian state that executes Christians for their faith is not a “legitimate authority.”
In times when (Christian) kings were considered by the Church to have a divinely entrusted mission, it was clear that they could stand in judgment in matters of life and death, even if they were personally mistaken or venal.
The late Justice Antonin Scalia made a similar argument when he observed that democracies generally moved toward abolishing the death penalty. It was as though private citizens, knowing that they did not have such authority over life and death, extended that to a state elected by private citizens.
Scalia thought that argument mistaken, but nevertheless the point remains. Can a democratic state, which claims no divine sanction, or perhaps even considers itself entirely secular, be a legitimate authority for the death penalty?
It is arguable that the modern state is no longer an instrument of divine justice. It often does not dispense natural justice adequately. And that is even before considering the corruption of the modern state by either open or “thinly disguised” totalitarianism, to employ the language of John Paul II.
I have long opposed the death penalty on the grounds of the incompetence of the modern state: incompetence in both senses.
The first is that the criminal justice system routinely makes grave errors, often exacerbated by discrimination on grounds of race or class, such that it is not possible to have sufficient certitude to proceed to an execution. Inmates on death row have been exonerated after conviction and sentencing.
The second is that the death penalty is beyond the shrunken remit of the modern state. One might say that the state is metaphysically incompetent. A state that makes no transcendent claims — and does not even recognize such claims — is not suitable for executions. A state that promotes grave evils under the false guise of human rights is not a worthy bearer of the executioner’s sword, or needle.
Would that render the death penalty “inadmissible” in our current circumstance? Yes, even I would prefer another word, with a more exact meaning.
is the editor in chief of