On August 2, 2018, Pope Francis announced a change in the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding the death penalty. A reflection, he argued, that continued the developing doctrine regarding capital punishment and its use. In the announcement, it was disclosed that the death penalty would be “inadmissible” as a practice. This set off a flurry of commentaries from both conservative and progressive Catholics on what this exactly meant. Many conservatives accused Pope Francis of changing doctrine; and if he could change doctrine on the death penalty, he could change it on other life issues such as abortion. Progressives, on the other hand, declared that Pope Francis had affirmed that capital punishment was an intrinsic evil and praised the new wording in the Catechism. However, if truth be told, neither of these things happened and a careful analysis of the wording of the new section shows what really has happened.
Before proceeding, one needs to look at the original language that was replaced. This language was inserted by St. Pope John Paul II in 1997 to reflect what he had written in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae. It simply states,
“The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor. “If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.” Today, in fact, given the means at the State’s disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender ‘today … are very rare, if not practically non-existent.’John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56.]”i
Here, it is clear that St. John Paul II acknowledges the traditional teaching of the Church that the death penalty was permissible. However, it is also apparent that he acknowledges that given modern means of being able to incarcerate prisoners that the death penalty ought to be rare if not non-existent. St. John Paul II certainly believed that the circumstances had advanced to such a degree that imposing the death penalty was not properly congruent to the dignity of the human person. As such, since the circumstances of modern society have changed and public authority has the means to better incarcerate offenders to protect the public good, the public authority should not employ the death penalty. Here the operative word is “should.” Why use this word? Because while St. John Paul II opposed the death penalty, he also understood that it was morally permissible in certain circumstances.
Circumstances, is an important word here, especially in light of the recent announcement. Pope Francis’ new language reads as follows,
“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. Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption. Consequently, 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,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”ii
It is important to note that the new language acknowledges the moral permissibility of the death penalty. Firstly, he claims it was “appropriate…and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.”iii Secondly, he acknowledges the human dignity of the guilty party just as St. John Paul II did. Thirdly, he comments on current circumstances of the prison system in the modern world and makes the determination because of the current situation (circumstances) it is now inadmissible.
But what does this mean? Does inadmissibility mean the same as intrinsic evil? The answer is a simple no. For example, when it comes to abortion, the Church teaches, “Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable.”iv
This means that abortion as an act is always wrong, has always been wrong, and will always be wrong. The act is never morally permissible. This language is also reflected in St. John Paul II’s encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, where he states,
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“Given such unanimity in the doctrinal and disciplinary tradition of the Church, Paul VI was able to declare that this tradition is unchanged and unchangeable. Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the Bishops-who on various occasions have condemned abortion and who in the aforementioned consultation, albeit dispersed throughout the world, have shown unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine. I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written Word of God, is transmitted by the Church’s Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.” No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church.”v
Again, notice the word circumstance in the second paragraph in the above quote. No circumstance can make abortion licit. Why, because it is a “deliberate killing of an innocent human being.”vi This means the object or intention is always disordered. The same sort of language can be seen when St. John Paul II speaks of euthanasia.vii This is a contrast to the teaching on the death penalty where in given historical circumstances could be licitly used. The death penalty’s licit use is contingent upon certain circumstances in the world. And as a result, St. John Paul II never condemns the death penalty as an intrinsic evil in the encyclical.
It is noteworthy that Pope Francis does not condemn the death penalty as intrinsically evil either. Meaning it does not have the same sort of character as abortion. It is different as a species of an act. Whereas with abortion, the intention, the object, or both, are always disordered, this is not the case with capital punishment. A pregnant woman may believe that she cannot afford college with a child and so seeks an abortion, but she still deliberately wills the death of her innocent unborn child. While with the death penalty typically the intention would be safety of the common good and the object sought would be that of restitution of the guilty party.
Now, this is not to say that the intention or object can’t be twisted with the employment of the death penalty. If vengeance is what is sought then that can make the act evil. And this is an interesting point. Pope Francis has proclaimed that the death penalty is inadmissible because of current circumstances. He seems to point out a sort of moral laziness to the current situation regarding the ability of incarcerating a prisoner for life. In essence, Pope Francis is asking if the state is doing this for the right reasons in light of the current circumstances.
To be clear, there is an obvious distinction between an intrinsically evil act, such as abortion, and an inadmissible act, such as the death penalty. Abortion will always be wrong because it is always disordered in some way. Capital punishment does not fit into that category because circumstances dictate if it is a morally licit practice. There may come a time when circumstances are different and the employment of the death penalty will become admissible, but even if that is ever the case, abortion will still be an intrinsic evil.
[i] This is the original wording from the 1997 revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2267.
[ii] This is the new language that has replaced the old language in no. 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
[iv] See Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2271.
[v] See Evangelium Vitae, no. 62.
[vii] See Evangelium Vitae, no. 65.
LifeNews Note: Joe Kral has been involved in the pro-life movement since he has been in college. His MA in Theology was completed at the University of St. Thomas where he specialized in bioethics. From 1996-2003 he was the Legislative Director for Texas Right to Life. During that time he was also a lobbyist for the Department of Medical Ethics at National Right to Life. From 2004-2007 he consulted the Texas Catholic Conference on pro-life legislative initiatives. In 2006 he was awarded the “Bishop’s Pro-Life Award for Civic Action” from the Respect Life Ministry in the Diocese of Dallas. He currently is an adjunct professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas. He runs the Society of St. Sebastian, a pro-life public policy group.