Scholars Debate Impact of Pope Francis’ Statement on Death Penalty

The Holy Father advised Oct. 11 that the Catechism of the Catholic Church should be revised to categorically prohibit capital punishment in all cases.

The lethal injection room at San Quentin State Prison.
The lethal injection room at San Quentin State Prison. (photo: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation via Wikimedia Commons)

Pope Francis’ recent condemnation of the death penalty builds upon rather than breaks with the teaching of his predecessors and bolsters Catholic efforts to repeal capital punishment, according to several theologians.

“The Pope’s remarks are likely to reinforce the teaching of John Paul II, which has been strongly resisted by pro-capital punishment Catholics,” said Christian Brugger, a theologian who has authored a book on the death penalty and serves as a senior fellow on ethics at the Culture of Life Foundation.

However, other Catholic scholars on the death penalty who hold that Church teaching does not prohibit capital punishment in all cases have expressed a somewhat different view, arguing that Pope Francis’ remarks should not be interpreted as definitively ending the debate.

At an Oct. 11 meeting to mark the 25th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church under Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Francis declared that the death penalty is “contrary to the Gospel” and constitutes “an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.”

In light of this, Francis indicated the Catechism should be updated to provide “a more adequate and coherent treatment in the light of these expressed aims.”

The Pope said that this specific declaration that the death penalty is impermissible in all cases, no matter how serious the crime, is not a contradiction of earlier Church teaching because “the defense of the dignity of human life from the first moment of conception to natural death has been taught by the Church consistently and authoritatively.”


Reinforcement, Not Rupture

While some observers interpreted his remarks as a rupture with past teaching, Brugger says that all Pope Francis is doing is drawing out the implications of John Paul II as reflected in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and his landmark pro-life encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life).

Both documents restrict the death penalty to narrowly defined situations and even then seem to question its necessity. The Catechism states that the punishment is allowable if it is “the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor” (2267). It also communicates that in modern societies, “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.’”

“The CCC does not draw out the conclusion, but the text, I believe, clearly points to it: The death penalty, as a form of intentional killing … is always wrong,” Brugger said.

Likewise, in Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II discusses the possibility of capital punishment for self-defense, but also communicates that modern society has other means “of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform.”

Stated John Paul II, “The problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God’s plan for man and society.”

A leading Catholic death-penalty abolitionist agreed that Pope Francis is in continuity with recent Church teaching.

“Pope Francis’ strong statement against the death penalty has reinforced and clarified the Church’s consistent pro-all-life teaching. The Church has long understood the death penalty as opposed to our understanding of human dignity. The last three popes, as well as the USCCB, have all long been in agreement that the death penalty must end,” said Karen Clifton, executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network, which advocates against capital punishment.

However, some caution against reading too much into the Pope’s remarks. One is Edward Feser, a Catholic philosopher at Pasadena City College and co-author of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, which argues in favor of the death penalty.

True, Pope Francis has spoken in strong terms about the incompatibility of the death penalty and the Gospel. But the Holy Father also insisted that he was “not in any way contradicting past teaching” or “changing doctrine,” Feser added.

“If that is really the case, then his more extreme remarks about capital punishment would have to be interpreted as speaking very loosely and rhetorically, rather than having any novel doctrinal significance,” Feser said.


Call for Catholics to Unite

Others view Pope Francis’ remarks as an emphatic restatement of Church teaching directed at those who have yet to absorb recent Church teaching on the death penalty, which restricts it to acts of societal self-defense.

“It is unfortunately the case that some in Catholic circles have continued to resist this plain development,” said David Cloutier, a moral theologian at The Catholic University of America. He cited the example of recent executions in which the offenders were clearly no longer a threat to society because they were incarcerated.

“Yet some Catholics have continued to defend these executions as a matter of so-called prudential judgment,” Cloutier said. “This ignores the logic of the development in teaching. It is quite possible that Francis is dissatisfied with the Catechism because the inclusion of the ‘rare, if not practically nonexistent’ cases of social self-defense has allowed this sort of dissent to persist. Thus, Francis wants the statement against the death penalty to be stronger.”

Clifton says the Pope’s speech is a call to action for Catholics in the United States.

“Pope Francis has given the whole Church a clear and concrete directive to work to end the death penalty. Nine more executions in the U.S. are scheduled before the year’s end. The Pope’s words should serve as an invitation to all people of goodwill to listen to the movement of the Spirit and awaken our moral opposition to the death penalty,” Clifton said.


Development or Correction?

But while Clifton eyes the Pope’s recent words as an opportunity for unity against the death penalty, Feser worries that the Holy Father’s words will only further divide and confuse Catholics.

“Unless the Pope clarifies his meaning and reaffirms traditional teaching, his words are bound to sow even more doctrinal confusion and division among Catholics than already exists,” Feser said.

Feser believes that the acceptability of the death penalty — not just as a societal defense, but as a form of retributive justice — is a teaching upheld by Scripture, the Church Fathers and the statements of past popes. “If it could be changed, absolutely anything could be changed. The stakes are very, very high,” Feser said.

But Brugger says Feser mischaracterizes past teaching.

“Since the long-standing Catholic defense of the death penalty was never defined dogmatically, it is subject to change, just as the Church’s long-standing defenses of torture and the coercion of heretics to right belief were changed. What we are seeing is something akin to the Church’s rejection of those two practices,” Brugger said.

Feser and Brugger do agree that the current teaching on the death penalty is not really a “development” in doctrine — a concept popularized by Cardinal John Henry Newman in the 19th century. “A true development never contradicts past teaching, but merely draws out its implications,” Feser said.

“I do not think that a principled rejection of the death penalty can rightly be called a development, at least not if we are using Newman’s understanding of development of doctrine as an organic unfolding of an antecedent idea. It seems to me more correct to call it a correction of a past view that was false,” Brugger said.

But what about some of the Scripture verses that Feser says are clearly in support of the death penalty? One of the most commonly cited passages is Romans 13:3-4, where St. Paul states that government authority “does not bear the sword with no purpose.”

In his book Capital Punishment and Roman Catholic Moral Tradition, Brugger explains that the “sword” is meant to symbolize the authority of the state. Paul’s statement is to be understood in this broader context and not taken as a specific endorsement of capital punishment, according to Brugger.


Broader Message of Mercy

Ultimately, Pope Francis’ message must also be understood in the context of one of the thus-far defining themes of his papacy: mercy. In his Oct. 11 remarks, Pope Francis prefaced his call for an unequivocal prohibition of the death penalty by commenting, “With the joy born of Christian hope, and armed with the ‘medicine of mercy,’ we approach the men and women of our time to help them discover the inexhaustible richness contained in the Person of Jesus Christ.”

Said Cloutier, “Pope Francis has obviously and consistently emphasized the fact of God’s constant mercy and forgiveness. While the teaching against the death penalty rests most firmly on the natural-law principle of universal human dignity — and thus can be proposed to all societies, regardless of their faith commitments — it is even more strikingly contrasted with the radicality of Jesus’ teaching about God’s constant forgiveness.”

Stephen Beale writes from

Providence, Rhode Island.