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. (new CCC#2267)Many on social media and elsewhere are confused and wondering if Francis has contradicted prior Church teaching. Others are far more concerned about the apparent exposure of widespread homosexuality within the global clergy or bishops wanting to give Communion to non-Catholics. And, Pope Francis himself is not known for his effective communication as we have seen multiple times in which the faithful find themselves confused after his comments. (Multiple articles have been written about confusion and he still has yet to respond to a Dubia from 5 Cardinals who asked for clarification on Amortis Laetitia). Mass media is not always accurate or forthcoming, as we have also seen. Thus, let's have a quick look at more background on this Catechism change.
The prior version of the Catechism 2267 read in part:
the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty ... the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent." (prior CCC#2267)As you can see, even the prior language of the Catechism treats the death penalty as an extremely rare method of recourse.
So is Francis absolutizing the idea that the death penalty has always been "wrong," or never could be acceptable in the future? This story broke only today, but my initial analysis is no. I think a very fair interpretation of the new text renders this teaching as within the realm of pastoral law as opposed to moral law.
|Judith and Holofernes (fresco detail, Sistine Chapel), |
Michelangelo, 1509. Acquired from Wikimedia Commons.
Consistent references to modern means
Leading up to Francis' new language in the Catechism is the earlier part of the new paragraph:
[M]ore effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens... (new CCC#2267)The prior version of the Catechism similarly referred to modern methods of detainment:
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime... (prior CCC#2267)A letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was also sent to the bishops explaining the new Catechism language. It claims the language is a development of both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. In quoting each of these two papal predecessors, we again see an appeal to modernity:
"Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform." (quoting John Paul II)
"[T]he substantive progress made in conforming penal law ... to the human dignity of prisoners and the effective maintenance of public order." (quoting Pope Benedict XVI)In all four main citations in the matter—Francis' new Catechism language, prior Catechism language, and quotes from both John Paul II and Benedict XVI—there is an appeal to modern society's ability to effectively police and protect the public without using the death penalty. (Others have already made similar observations, including Francis author Ross Douthat or Fr. Alek Schrenk, STL in Patristics)
Significance of the term "inadmissible"
Thus, I think it is significant that Pope Francis did not use a morally theological term such as "intrinsic evil" or "objective evil" when describing the death penalty as meted by the State. It is true that the final paragraph in Pope Francis' new Catechism language appeals to the dignity of the human person. However, so did the previous Catechism. And, certainly, the prior two Popes offered much in the way of teaching on human dignity. All prior aversion to the death penalty in the Church was indeed based on the reality of human dignity.
But, refer to other unchanged paragraphs in the Catechism, such as an earlier excerpt on self-defense:
Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow. (CCC#2264)Similarly, the Catechism addresses the concept of "just war" which could involve killing of others (CCC#2308ff). If one killed another in self-defense or as a soldier in a just war, that would not mean the deceased did not have human dignity. So, the Catechism is not contradicting the idea of human dignity by not attributing the crime of murder, per se, if it involves a grave situation like self-defense or just war.
Therefore, the prior Catechism, in granting the possibility of the use of the death penalty, even if extremely rare, demonstrates that the death penalty, per se, is not automatically evil. And, the new Catechism paragraph repeats the appeal to how modern and "[m]ore effective systems of detention have been developed." In doing so, the new Catechism language attaches the idea of an "inadmissible" death penalty to a society's ability to avoid it, for the sake of human dignity.
We cannot argue, ex post facto, that prior societies, particularly in ancient times, were necessarily "wrong" to employ a death penalty. Neither does the language of the new Catechism paragraph eliminate the possibility of a future society needing recourse to a "death penalty" because it lacks the "means" to protect the people without it. One could posit such a situation in war zones where containment options are absent. One could similarly imagine a science fiction scenario in a post-apocalyptic world, where resources are minimal and technology is destroyed. Or, one could hypothesize that there even today might exist a yet undiscovered society in remote lands, who haven't effective resources to contain a dangerous murderer. Such a society might be steeped in "immodernity" that would not fall under the context of the new Catechism language.
I do not believe one can fairly interpret the new Catechism paragraph on the death penalty as an "absolute" moral truth in all places in all times. To do so would be to render meaningless its own preceding sentences appealing to modern "development" of "systems of detention." To do so would also render moot the same appeal in all three of the other key citations behind this linguistic development.
This new appeal on the "inadmissibility" of the death penalty is, in its own words, built not only on the notion of human dignity, but on the current situation, on modern society's resources and technologies of criminal containment. The notion of the death penalty's "inadmissibility" in this new context is thus not a dogmatic comment about objective morality but more closely resembling pastoral law in light of modern resources.
Other recommended reading:
Pope Francis and the death penalty: another dose of confusion by Phil Lawler at Catholic Culture
Tweet thread on Pope Francis and death penalty language change by Ross Douthat