Some Initial Thoughts About Pope Francis’ New Teaching On The Death Penalty

Without reaching any definite conclusions about Pope Francis’ new pronouncement on the death penalty, I would like to make the following points:

1. “The death penalty is not intrinsically evil. Both Scripture and long Christian tradition acknowledge the legitimacy of capital punishment under certain circumstances. The Church cannot repudiate that without repudiating her own identity” (Archbishop Charles Chaput).

2. “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor” (from no. 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church under Pope John Paul II).

3. The  letter issued last week by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (by Cardinal Ladaria on behalf of Pope Francis) asserts that the changes promulgated by Pope Francis with respect to the death penalty constitute “an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium.” In point of fact, prior teaching by the Magestrium on the death penalty maintained that Capital Punishment is not intrinsically evil, so that “inadmissible,” as used by Pope Francis in his reformulation of CCC 2267, does not mean intrinsically evil. Only intrinsically evil acts admit to no exceptions.

4. The Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” (from the newly revised Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2267, as revised by Pope Francis last week).

5. By choosing not to characterize the death penalty as intrinsically evil, Pope Francis has essentially not closed the door all the way. Listen to the then Cardinal Ratzinger when he was the Prefect for the Congregation of the Faith under Pope John Paul II:

“Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”

See link:

Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion – EWTN.com

CONCLUSION: In continuity with Sacred Tradition, Pope Francis chose not to characterize the death penalty as intrinsically evil, choosing instead to characterize the death penalty as “inadmissible” in his revision of CCC 2267. Consequently, the then Cardinal Ratzinger’s comments remain valid,  that “there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty.” Only intrinsically evil acts admit to no exceptions (“The negative moral precepts, those prohibiting certain concrete actions or kinds of behavior as intrinsically evil, do not allow for any legitimate exception. They do not leave room, in any morally acceptable way, for the “creativity” of any contrary determination whatsoever.” – Veritatis Splendor 67).

BUT WHAT IF Pope Francis made it abundantly clear that he was teaching that Capital Punishment is intrinsically evil? Then we would be dealing with a monumental change in Catholic doctrine, and the profound concern registered by Dr. Edward Feser (whose articles have been helpful to me) would become palpable. Feser says, with respect to the traditional teaching of the Church which allowed recourse to the death penalty: –

“The reason the Church cannot repudiate it without repudiating her own identity is that to repudiate this teaching would be to affirm that the ordinary magisterium has been leading the faithful into grave moral and doctrinal error for two millennia. That would entail that the ordinary magisterium does not, after all, enjoy divine assistance, so that the Church is not what she has always claimed to be.”

These points are preliminary, as others weigh in on this important change in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, made by Pope Francis, pertaining to the death penalty.

Thomas L. Mulcahy, J.D., M.A.

P.S. As one theology professor has opined: “The term “inadmissible” is new and presents considerable confusion. The word means something “not permitted,” “not allowed.” It is most often used in the context of something rejected based on a technicality. An application is “inadmissible” because it was not properly signed. Or the testimony of a witness is “inadmissible” because it was given under duress. The word is not part of Catholic doctrinal-theological tradition. Catholic moral theology treats actions as right or wrong, licit or illicit, moral or immoral, good or evil, holy or sinful, etc. No one would expect the Church to declare for instance that “adultery is inadmissible” (Monica M. Miller). Christopher Zehnder adds: “The quapropter of the revised section 2267 seems to qualify the term “inadmissible” in the revised Catechism. The conditions that render the death penalty inadmissible, both in view of justice and the Gospel, have been laid out in the second paragraph. These conditions are largely the same laid down in the previous language of section 2267, though expressed in less emphatic terms. The previous language speaks in terms of conditions that may prevail (“if bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against a progressor…” then…); the new language asserts that the conditions do prevail, and so the Church declares the inadmissibility of the death penalty.” Jimmy Akin adds:  “One might think so, since it says the death penalty is “inadmissible” because “it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” However, a careful reading of the revision, and Cardinal Ladaria’s letter, suggests this is not the way the phrase should be understood.”

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7 comments

  1. If you agree with Avery Cardinal Dulles, et al, that the question of capital punishment is “prudential matter”, then we are in agreement on that point. And, certainly Pope Francis is entitled to his personal opinion on the matter. If, however, that you believe that that capital punishment is “inadmissible” in today’s world, then I have a few questions for you. What “language” is the relevant change of the CCC written in? And what “word” in the original text has been translated into English as “inadmissible”? For example, if the original text is Latin, was the word used “incovenientia” or “licet”? “Licet” (Lt) would include the meaning “forbidden” and would make for a very strong statement. In any case, “inadmissible” and “impermissible” share a common meaning, i.e., “not allowable”. And, on what basis would something be “not allowable” unless it was considered “evil”. And, how could something be “not evil” yesterday and “evil” today under equivalent circumstances? Finally, let me ask your opinion about “today’s world”. While it may be practicable and prudent in developed countries to incarcerate until death by natural causes, do you believe it to be practicable and prudent in the so-called third world – where there is extreme poverty and little infrastructure?

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  2. A good start. Thank you. But I am wondering about how you see the following:

    1. By saying in the new CCC entry that the Church, and therefore the Lord, is working for abolition of capital punishment worldwide, and where there is to be no exception of this worldwide abolition, as it can have no moral entry (inadmissible), is it not effectively asserting and affirming a universal ‘no exception’, and therefore effectively saying it is an intrinsic evil?? At the very least, the new CCC entry affirms that the Lord and the Church are working for worldwide exceptionless abolition – this is a change. The Holy Spirit, previously, and in the previous CCC, always Taught there are occasions, even if rare or almost non-existent, but still existent for His Commanded just taking of the life of a non-innocent person… is this not a change??

    2. The reference to the dignity of the person is linked by explanation by the Vatican to EV by Saint John Paul. Yet in EV [56-]57, the Holy Spirit Teaches that the dignity or absolute value is only a referal to the innocent person; those within the question of capital punishment are not ‘the innocent person’. Is this an omission or a change?

    3. The reasons for the new CCC entry have 3 justifications, which do not seem to be objectively valid or known:

    a. https://www.catholicculture.org/commentary/otn.cfm?id=1301
    b. https://www.catholicculture.org/commentary/otn.cfm?id=1300

    4. If the reason is for ‘the dignity of each person’, then this would mean that the Lord could would be violating the dignity of the Angels and of man both, by an eternal death, as well as by the bodily death that He has done (Acts of Ananias and Sapphira for lying to God the Holy Spirit) or Commanded. This would also require that the Canon of Sacred Scriptures be revised to abolish the False Commands and Acts of the Triune God for having commanded capital punishment or doing so Himself. Is this not a change??

    Thank you and blessings for all the wonderful articles – special graces of the Beloved’s Holy Transfiguration

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  3. Thomas Mulcahy.

    You are a dreamer, my friend. Prior to 8-2-18, Catholic Doctrine as described in the Catholic Catechism #2267 stated clearly that the death penalty was permissable only in rare circumstances (quoted below).

    Now, Thomas, ask yourself, “Why would Pope Francis want to change the Catholic teaching which ALREADY SAYS that the death penalty is admissable only in rare circumstances (i.e. “practically nonexistent”), to be more restrictive?” How can rule exceptions be more rare than “practically nonexistent”?)

    The answer, of course, is that Pope Francis decided to remove the possibility of even rare exceptions. That is, Pope Francis decided to make the prohibition against the death penalty to be EXCEPTIONLESS (i.e. “intrinsic evil”).

    CCC #2267: “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor….Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent”.

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    1. Once you first understand the foundation for what Ratzinger said in the quote I provide then you will understand the clear logic of my argument.

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    2. Just an interesting post on what is the actual official language and words of the revision from one item I saw: http://liturgicalnotes.blogspot.com/:

      5 August 2018
      More on Deathgate
      The Latin text has now been published; and there is indeed no suggestion that the death penalty is intrinsece malum. That would have been overt heresy.

      On the contrary: the accompanying letter to bishops makes clear that the death penalty is not intrinsece malum. “The new formulation … desire to give energy to a movement towards a decisive commitment to favour a mentality … in respectful dialogue with civil authorities … encourage the creation of conditions …”

      Exceptionless does not mean intrinsic evil, only that the moral validity and lawfulness of an action does not find a time and place for its application. But I think it is prudential to say that in the world’s present throwaway culture and penal systems, there are plenty of times and places for application… see my next posting of another person’s post….

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    3. here is the second post I referenced in my first reply:

      Posted by bill bannon on Monday, Aug, 6, 2018 5:34 PM (EDT):

      Hilarious. Brazil is the largest Catholic population and Mexico is the second largest. Both are non death penalty. Their murder rates are sky high. Their prisons can protect almost no one with Brazil having 80 inmates killed by a rival gang in January of 2017..during a prison riot caused by no water. Decapitations by rival gangs are recurring in Brazil’s prisons. Google it. And Mexico had a case of cartel inmates leaving a prison with weapons in trucks and killing rivals in a town and then returning to the prison which in their context was like a fort protecting them from the rival cartel. At youtube type in Mexican prison murder. You’ll see cartel men enter the prison, scare the guards into giving them the key, chase the guards ( watch guy with orange shirt) and bring in more men with submachine guns all of whom then machine gun the cell full of rival cartel members. This is the safe modern penolgy of ccc 2267 and of three Popes who did almost no research…and I’m being polite.

      China has a murder rate of point 67 per 100,000…Brazil is 27 per 100,000 (no decimal)…Mexico is 17 per 100,000. And we are teaching the world about the death penalty while non death penalty Catholic countries from Brazil up and across and up to Mexico is the number one most murderous area on earth. We are hilarious. The UN stats for every country are at wiki by googling homicide by country…but droves of theologians don’t seem to look or know of it.

      Non Christian death penalty dominant Asia is number one safest area from criminal murder. China has 11,000 murders to Brazil’s 50,000 to 60k+….and China has 7 times the population of Brazil and many poor people.

      No one in Catholicism knows any of this reality detail…they are guessing that the Popes must have researched it.

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    4. This is spot on, I think, and a change, when you share:

      The answer, of course, is that Pope Francis decided to remove the possibility of even rare exceptions. That is, Pope Francis decided to make the prohibition against the death penalty to be EXCEPTIONLESS

      May the Holy Spirit Transfigure us and tend us…especially in the Hour through Mary’s Intercession….

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