Pope’s Death Penalty Remarks Signal a New Approach to Development of Doctrine

NEWS ANALYSIS: What the Holy Father’s call for revision of the Catechism means for U.S. approach to criminal justice.

Pope Francis celebrates a Mass of thanksgiving at St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome Oct. 12 during the centenary celebration of the Pontifical Oriental Institute and the Congregation for Eastern Churches.
Pope Francis celebrates a Mass of thanksgiving at St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome Oct. 12 during the centenary celebration of the Pontifical Oriental Institute and the Congregation for Eastern Churches. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

VATICAN CITY — On Wednesday, Pope Francis told a gathering in Rome that the Catechism of the Catholic Church should significantly revise its treatment of the death penalty.

It's no surprise that Francis proposed a stronger theological condemnation of capital punishment.  He's criticized the practice throughout his papacy, as did his most immediate predecessors, Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. All three popes have pleaded for clemency when the execution of condemned prisoners is imminent, and all three have linked capital punishment to the “culture of death” and the “throwaway culture” they've criticized.  All three have called for nations to abolish the death penalty.

The Church's official position on the death penalty is nuanced. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that the “Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty,” assuming a criminal's guilt is sufficiently established, and only when execution seems to be the only just way of protecting public safety.  

In his landmark encyclical Evangelium Vitae, issued in 1995, John Paul wrote that the punishment of criminals should focus on rehabilitation, while also ensuring the common good — public order and safety. He opposed capital punishment “except in cases of absolute necessity,” when a community would have no other means to protect itself.

Because of the resources available for modern and secure penal systems, John Paul said that, today, “such cases are very rare, if practically nonexistent.”

In fact, the Catechism was formally revised in 1997 to reflect the teaching of Evangelium Vitae.

The gist of the Church's current teaching on the death penalty is this: the state has the right to execute criminals, if there is no doubt about that the crime was grave and the offender is guilty. The state cannot justly execute a criminal if it can protect the common good and public safety equally well through nonlethal means. It is the job of the state to judge its own civil conditions and capacity for punishment, in order to determine how to apply those principles, but, when doing so, it should take seriously the moral direction of popes and bishops who have repeatedly said that the death penalty seems unnecessary in the context of developed nations.

On Wednesday, Francis proposed a strikingly different vision. He said that the death penalty “is in itself contrary to the Gospel.” For many theologians, this language, and the idea that the death penalty “in itself” is contrary to the Gospel, has evoked the theological concept of “intrinsically evil acts,” a group that includes torture, rape, lying, abortion and sexual immorality.

The distinction is important. Intrinsically evil acts are understood to be wrong in all cases, regardless of the circumstances, intention or rationale. The morality of other kinds of acts is judged, in part, by circumstances. The traditional teaching on the death penalty puts it in the latter category; the morality of a particular execution is partially determined, as the Catechism explains, by the state's ability to secure the common good in other ways. 

If the Pope proposes that doctrine has developed, and that capital punishment is an intrinsically evil act, this would mean that there are no circumstances, in any time and place, in which it can be justified.

Francis' speech recognized this distinction. He explained that thinking about the death penalty in a new way is the result of the development of social doctrine.

“We are not in the presence of some contradiction with the teaching of the past,” he explained, “because the defense of the dignity of human life from the first moment of conception until natural death has always been found in the teaching of the Church.

“The harmonious development of doctrine, however, requires that we [now] leave out arguments which now appear decisively contrary to the new understanding of Christian truth,” namely, the circumstantial qualifiers which guide current moral reasoning about executions.

Francis proposes that because the Church has gradually developed a deeper understanding of human dignity, over time, we are now able to recognize that execution is always immoral.

The development of doctrine is a thorny theological concept. Theologians have already begun asking whether Francis' proposal represents a development of prior positions, or a rupture from them. This debate will be complex, likely contentious and not quickly resolved. But given increased attention to the death penalty in the last half-century, it is an important question to resolve.  

Francis did not announce which Vatican offices would be responsible for the reforms he proposed. Past revisions have included the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is likely to take a lead role in this process. But the Holy Father has a penchant for involving voices beyond traditional structures, so consultation may include some unexpected figures.

There is an additional factor of interest for American readers. In 2014, Pope Francis said that the use of long-term solitary confinement is a kind of torture. This position is also held by many psychologists, who have noted that solitary incarnation can have a profoundly negative impact on mental health. Long-term solitary confinement is the most prominent alternative to the death penalty proffered by American corrections officials, especially for habitual unmanageable inmates.

If long-term solitary confinement is a kind of torture, and thus an intrinsically evil act, it can never be morally justified. If execution also begins to be classified as an intrinsically evil act, Catholics will have to think carefully and creatively about very different approaches to criminal justice in the United States. Spurring that thinking may be a part of what Pope Francis has in mind.

Death penalty opponents across the world have cheered Pope Francis' comments on capital punishment. But his remarks Thursday might also reveal something about the Pope's understanding of doctrine's development, a theological issue with effect on many other elements of the pontiff's teaching, including the already controversial Amoris Laetitia. That conversation will probably make fewer headlines, but for the Church, its implications could be significant.