Catechism’s New Text on Death Penalty Draws Praise and Concern

Pope Francis approved the revision of Catholic teaching calling the death penalty 'inadmissible' and explaining how the language builds upon preceding magisterium of recent popes.

An armed California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officer stands guard at San Quentin State Prison's death row Aug. 15, 2016, in San Quentin, California. San Quentin State Prison opened in 1852 and is California's oldest penitentiary. The facility houses the state's only death row for men.
An armed California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officer stands guard at San Quentin State Prison's death row Aug. 15, 2016, in San Quentin, California. San Quentin State Prison opened in 1852 and is California's oldest penitentiary. The facility houses the state's only death row for men. (photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Two decades after Pope John Paul II revised the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s citation on capital punishment to reflect his belief that “cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent,” Pope Francis approved a further change to the Catechism’s teaching that has drawn praise from many Church leaders and scholars and questions from others.

In a letter to bishops across the globe, Cardinal Luis Francisco Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, unveiled revised language on the death penalty for the Catechism.

“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,” reads the revised language in Paragraph 2267 of the Catechism.

“Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.”

The modified text further notes the establishment of “more effective systems of detention” that protect society, but do not deprive “the guilty of the possibility of redemption.”

“[T]he death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” states the conclusion, which references Pope Francis’ prior denunciation of the practice, in an October 2017 address to the Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, and thus the Church “works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

Cardinal Ladaria’s letter confirmed that the Church will make the “abolition” of capital punishment a major priority and explained that the new text of the Catechism “situates itself in continuity with the preceding magisterium while bringing forth a coherent development of Catholic doctrine.”

Church leaders and specialists in Catholic social teaching and moral theology mostly agreed with this characterization of the new language, although some argued that Pope Francis had moved well beyond the teaching of his immediate predecessors.

Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Florida, the U.S. bishops’ point man on domestic-justice issues, embraced the revision of the Catechism and vowed to step up efforts to end the death penalty in the United States, where more than 30 states allow the practice.

“All human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, and the dignity bestowed on them by the Creator cannot be extinguished, even by grave sin,” said Bishop Dewane in an Aug. 3 statement that framed the revision as a further development of recent papal teaching. Pope Benedict XVI, he noted, had urged “the attention of society’s leaders … to make every effort to eliminate the death penalty.” 


Development of Doctrine

“In line with the teaching of his immediate predecessors, Pope Francis is consolidating Catholic teaching against the death penalty and proposing the rejection of capital punishment as a development of doctrine,” tweeted Robert George, professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University and a prominent Catholic public intellectual.

A number of Catholic moral theologians contacted by the Register agreed that the revised text is an authentic development of doctrine.

“My first response is, Deo gratias!” said Msgr. Stuart Swetland, a theologian and president of Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas, who addressed the morality of capital punishment in a book of essays, Where Justice and Mercy Meet: Catholic Opposition to the Death Penalty, which also included reflections from leading death-penalty opponents like Sister Helen Prejean.

“Theologians have been arguing that we could make this next step, as a true development of doctrine: to intend the death of a human person violates their human dignity and that the death penalty is always and everywhere non-admissible,” Msgr. Swetland told the Register.

Opus Dei Father Robert Gahl, a moral theologian at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, linked the revised language of the Catechism to the theological work of recent popes.

“John Paul and Benedict both contributed to a development of doctrine regarding the death penalty by viewing punishment through the lens of mercy, the key to understanding the entirety of their two pontificates,” Father Gahl told the Register.

“Francis is very much continuing in their legacy by emphasizing the role of divine mercy throughout all of theology and consequently the fullness of the redemption of human affairs, even for those guilty of the most heinous crimes.”

Likewise, just as John Paul and Benedict observed that the modern criminal-justice system had radically reduced the need for the death penalty, so “Francis continues with his predecessors’ approach of adjusting the Church’s recommendations for just punishment,” said Father Gahl, who emphasized the growing importance of incarceration ministry for an Argentinian pope who has regularly visited with prisoners, and for the Church at large.

“Now,” said Father Gahl, “the Church especially emphasizes the aim of rehabilitation in view of the possibility of redemption.” But if the revised text does not constitute a “change” in moral doctrine, Pope Francis surely offers a shift in emphasis, observed Father Gahl and other specialists.

The language of the new text of the Catechism of the Catholic Church “focuses on consensus, awareness and effecting political change more than on the inherent morality of actions or on the theoretical nature of punishment,” he said, and expresses the Pope’s “prudential evaluation of the political circumstances in light of the Tradition.” 


From ‘Very Rare’ to ‘Inadmissible’

Bradley Lewis, a political philosopher at The Catholic University of America who specializes in Catholic social teaching, challenged the characterization of the revised language as a development of doctrine and not a break with the Church’s past teaching.

“At a very basic level, there seems to be a pretty significant change here: what was admissible, at least in some cases, is now simply inadmissible,” Lewis told the Register, as he compared John Paul’s limited acceptance of capital punishment in “very rare” cases with Pope Francis’ judgment that the practice is “inadmissible.”

“Clearly Pope St. John Paul II did not approve of capital punishment and probably wanted to ban it, but he stopped short, on the ground that, while the death penalty could be justified in theory, the circumstances that would justify it were very rare in modern societies with far more developed systems of criminal justice.”

If the death penalty can never be justified, then traditional moral analysis would describe it as an intrinsic evil, he concluded.

Said Lewis, “If executing those guilty of capital crimes is wrong, why is this not the case with the intentional killing of enemy combatants in a just war? If the protection of the common good does not authorize capital punishment, does it no longer justify killing enemy soldiers?”

He posed these questions to highlight additional concerns that will likely prompt a robust internal debate within the Church.

“Are we really talking about a prudential matter, one over which, it seems, there could be reasonable disagreement?” he said.

“What happens in countries where the criminal-justice system is not so well developed?” he continued, pointing to the activities of “narco-terrorist gang” leaders who manage “criminal organizations from prison and thus continue to gravely damage the common good.”

The Pope may have concluded that capital punishment cannot be morally justified in even extreme cases, he said. Otherwise, why “entrench such a prudential judgment in the Catechism?” 

Edward Feser, the co-author of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, who has challenged John Paul’s teaching on the death penalty, also took a critical view of Pope Francis’ revision of the Catechism.

“The CDF letter announcing the change asserts that the new teaching ‘is not in contradiction’ with previous teaching,” Feser told the Register. Yet, not only has Pope Francis gone further than his predecessors and judged capital punishment to be inadmissible in every case, he has justified “this claim on doctrinal grounds, rather than the prudential grounds that John Paul appealed to.”

Now, if the Pope judges capital punishment to be intrinsically evil, “then he is manifestly contradicting Scripture, Tradition and all previous popes,” said Feser, citing Scripture from “Genesis 9 to Romans 13.”

“The Fathers and Doctors of the Church and the popes before Pope Francis have consistently affirmed and reaffirmed this scriptural basis for the legitimacy of capital punishment,” he said.


Teaching the Revision

But if some scholars are prepared to openly debate Pope Francis’ moral analysis, others are more concerned with how Church leaders present this development of doctrine.

Gerard Bradley, a professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School, told the Register that he “welcomed” the amendment to the Catechism.

“The Holy Father expresses in a clear way the conclusion toward which Church teaching has been developing for at least two generations,” said Bradley.

“It is very important, however, that the Church’s pastors present this new teaching to the faithful in a way that does not — repeat, not — undermine the faithful’s confidence in the constancy and authority of Church teaching, and so make this an occasion for people to think that this Pope is likely to ‘change Church doctrine’ on, say, contraception or homosexual relations, just the way he did on capital punishment.”

“For the simple truth,” said Bradley, “is that this new section of the Catechism represents a legitimate development of non-infallible teaching, whereas Church teaching on matters such as contraception is clear, and definitive.”

Indeed, news headlines that framed the revised text of the Catechism as a major “change” in Church teaching could complicate any efforts to clarify the full context of the Pope’s development of doctrine in the case of capital punishment.

Another hurdle for Church leaders is ongoing support for the death penalty among the majority of U.S. Catholics, including political leaders like Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts.

Reacting to news of the Pope’s sweeping condemnation of capital punishment, Ricketts said he would move forward with an execution planned for late August.

“While I respect the Pope’s perspective, capital punishment remains the will of the people and the law of the state of Nebraska,” said Ricketts. “It is an important tool to protect our corrections officers and public safety. The state continues to carry out the sentences ordered by the court.”


Strengthening Restorative Justice

For now, however, Church leaders, activists opposing the death penalty and Catholics engaged in prison ministry say they are inspired by the Pope’s statement affirming the dignity of every person, even those condemned by the state.

“This gives renewed strength to already strong advocacy efforts to push for … the abolition of the death penalty, or minimally the elimination of recourse to it,” said Bishop Barry Knestout of Richmond, Virginia, where two executions took place last year.

“Further, it speaks to the need to focus our efforts on restorative justice — to fully restore the dignity of those men and women who are incarcerated,” he told the Register.

In California, where the death penalty is also legal, Roger Hagman, a volunteer who ministers to the Catholic community at San Quentin State Prison, reacted to the news from Rome with enthusiasm.

“This ministry has shown me that there is redemption for everyone,” Hagman told the Register, as he reflected on the experience of serving as an extraordinary minister of Communion in a maximum-security prison.

“The men feel that they have been condemned by society, and the bottom line is that most who are there will die of natural causes. But God does not condemn them. When you bring the Eucharist to the condemned, you do it because Jesus tells you to do it,” he said.

There, gathered in a gray concrete space with the men who have undergone a conversion of heart, Hagman has “experienced a palpable and profound sense of God’s forgiveness, for the men and for myself, and felt the healing presence of Christ.”

“I am very proud that my Church has taken this position,” he said. “It will bring a sense of peace to the practicing Catholics on death row.”



Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.