The Catholic Catechism will argue “dignity of the person” prohibits capital punishment.

Pope Francis has long been an outspoken critic of the death penalty. This Thursday, the Vatican announced, he has approved formal alterations to the catechism, the Catholic Church’s primary teaching document, to clarify that the death penalty, in the eyes of the church, is completely unacceptable.

In a statement published Thursday morning, the Vatican announced an emendation to the section of the Catholic Catechism that deals with the death penalty, which will now read:

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.”

Quoting a 2017 speech given by Pope Francis during a pontifical council, the document continues: “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.”

In a letter released Thursday, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, the Vatican’s Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, characterized the change as an “authentic development of doctrine” in keeping with prior church teaching. Earlier, Ladaria wrote, more ambiguous approaches to the death penalty could be rationalized by the responsibility of governments to defend people against offenders. Ladaria confirmed in his letter that Pope Francis had specifically requested the changes.

In October 2017, Pope Francis told clergy gathered at the Vatican to honor the 25th anniversary of the catechism’s existence that, “one has to strongly affirm that condemnation to the death penalty is an inhuman measure that humiliates personal dignity,” suggesting that the catechism might be updated to reflect that. The move stirred debate among Catholics about the extent to which Pope Francis is refining an existing understanding of the death penalty or — more controversially — downright changing church teaching. These questions have come to mark the controversial pontiff’s papacy more broadly.

The catechism has been updated regarding the death penalty before

While updates to the catechism are not unheard of, they are extremely rare, and thus this move represents a significant step on the part of the pope to advocate for an abolition of the death penalty worldwide.

That said, the catechism itself is relatively recent, dating back to 1992 under John Paul II as part of a wider program to codify and clarify church teaching after the Second Vatican Council of 1962-’65. The 1992 version of the catechism noted that governments had the right to apply the death penalty under specific circumstances, but only when “bloodless means” are not “sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor” or “to protect public order.”

In 1997, an emendation to the catechism was published under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who would later become Pope Benedict XVI), clarifying that circumstances under which the death penalty might be acceptable were so rare, they were potentially nonexistent.

The final 1997 text states that the Church traditionally “does not exclude recourse to the death penalty” but with the caveat that it acknowledges the death penalty as legitimate only “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” However, the catechism goes on to say, “[In today’s society], the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

The language of the latest update, therefore, builds on the 1997 document, citing, in part, the universal development of adequate prison systems as proof that the death penalty is no longer necessary in rare cases to ensure public safety.

Overall, it is unclear how much political influence the change in the catechism will have. Given that, by and large, Catholic bodies (at least in the United States) have already been advocates for abolition of capital punishment and that no majority-Catholic countries have the death penalty, the move is unlikely to have significant global effects.

Nevertheless, the change in the catechism — the primary instruction document codifying the nature of the Catholic faith — is a striking one.

Theologians have not always been opposed to the death penalty

In recent decades, several popes, including John Paul II, Benedict XIV, and Francis himself have all been vocal opponents of the death penalty. This was not, however, always true. Throughout the early church and the Medieval period, enormously influential theologians like Saint Augustine (354-430 AD) and Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) both made a distinction between murder and lawful government-sanctioned execution.

Augustine, for example, wrote that if “there were no other means established to curb the malice of the wicked, extreme necessity might perhaps urge that such men be put to death,” although he also urged local magistrates to show mercy to condemned prisoners and commute their sentences in order to give them time to repent.

The Catechism of Trent, which dates back to 1566 and was the broadest available teaching document for the Church prior to 1992, explicitly condones the death penalty. “Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent,” it reads. “The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder.”

In the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, however, prominent Catholic figures have been increasingly opposed to the death penalty. In part, this is due to a wider focus — perhaps best expressed in Pope John Paul II’s 1992 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (Gospel of Life) — on a “culture of life,” an overall approach to social teaching on issues like abortion and medical care that holistically stressed the dignity of the human person from conception through (natural) death.

In the US, Catholic bodies like the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have actively lobbied for the abolition of the death penalty in America in recent years. That said, when it comes to Catholics on the ground, the numbers tell a different story; 53 percent of American Catholics support the death penalty, just 1 point under the nationwide average.

Pope Francis has, during his papacy, interpreted the call for a “culture of life” more broadly, advocating not only for traditional “pro-life” causes like opposition to abortion, but also lobbying for environmental protections, the rights of refugees, and the dismantling of economic inequality. His approach to the death penalty, therefore, falls well within wider trends in both his own papacy and the Vatican more broadly.

Francis’s critics are worried about his tendency to make unilateral decisions

The actual change to the catechism is relatively minor. However, for Francis’s critics, it’s yet another example of his tendency to unilaterally influence church teaching. Because Catholic theology is fundamentally predicated on historical continuity — though doctrine may in theory be refined — Francis’s critics see him as threatening the fundamental unity of the church.

In recent years, Francis has come under fire for including a footnote in an apostolic exhortation he wrote, suggesting that parish priests have the authority to grant communion to divorced-and-remarried couples, even as the Catholic Church formally denies the legitimacy of these unions. Often, Francis’s method has been to use his media platform to informally advocate for, say, greater compassion to LGBTQ persons on a pastoral level (such as when he famously asked reporters, “Who am I to judge?” gay people), while avoiding going through formal channels to refine or alter church teaching.

Francis’s decision to request a “development” of doctrine, therefore, is worth considering within the context of his wider papacy. While many Catholics have celebrated the move, some of his longtime critics have expressed suspicion.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, whose book on Francis, To Change The Church, criticized the pontiff’s divisive approach, characterized the move as “another example of how Pope Francis has consistently exposed the tensions in the post-Vatican II conservative position.” He added that Francis has “pushed the [John Paul II] synthesis” — i.e., allowing for the death penalty in theory while arguing its undesirability in practice — “into intellectual crisis.”

Still, for many Catholics, the move was a welcome one — particularly after a week that has seen one of America’s most influential Catholic leaders resign over allegations of sexual abuse.

Author: Tara Isabella Burton
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