capital punishment and the Catholic Church

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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