Since the release of Fratelli Tutti a few days ago, the debate over the Church’s re-imagined position on the death penalty — covered in some depth in the new encyclical — has resumed with gusto. And the questions that surround this “development” — particularly whether it in fact represents a contradiction — have far reaching implications for both the papacy and the deposit of faith, well beyond the confines of this particular issue.
I’ve argued that the perennial teaching of the Church is that the death penalty is, at least in principle, a morally licit recourse as an act of retributive justice and in service of the common good. I’ve argued (and confirmed with competent theologians) that this is a truth revealed by God and affirmed via the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium, and thus, it qualifies as an infallible and irreformable teaching.
I’ve also argued that the extreme, widespread unpopularity of the Death Penalty on a prudential basis also makes it the perfect test case for whether an infallible teaching can essentially be overturned (with popular support). Very few Catholics are excited about the idea of executing people, so it causes them no distress at all when Francis, or John Paul II, makes a case against its use.
But not caring about this change, even if you think the death penalty should never be used, is a fatal error if you care about the integrity of the faith.
Now, I say the teaching can be “essentially overturned” because infallible teachings can’t actually be overturned, any more than water can be made not wet. Truth is truth. Even a pope can’t turn day into night. But teachings can be overturned in a practical sense, and that’s very important indeed.
What do I mean by this?
To stay with this issue, the irreformable teaching on the death penalty still exists. We can find it in the citations I link above, and more. We can find it in the scriptures, in the thought of popes and theologians and doctors of the Church, etc. All of that is still on the books. It hasn’t been memory-holed.
But Pope Francis has now pushed his attempted reversal of this issue by means of a variety of teaching modes. He has talked about it in public addresses. He’s brought it up in an apostolic exhortation. He’s changed the Catechism to reflect his view. He’s now also included it in an encyclical. He continues to build a new foundation on top of the old, obscuring what came before, leading the faithful to believe that the old morality was no good and had to be replaced, that modern man is better than all of that now, and worst of all, that the Church actually got it very wrong up until now.
So yes, in an abstract, technical, theological sense, it matters that the old teaching still exists, and that it can’t merely be thrown out. But the teaching has been functionally replaced, and a world full of Catholics are being told repeatedly, via the papacy itself, that we don’t believe any of that anymore.
And so, belief on this issue will change almost universally, and that chunk of the deposit of faith will be locked away in a dusty, dark archive of history. The Church, through her pope, bishops, priests, and teaching documents, will go on to act as though she has a diametrically opposed view to the one she always held.
I can’t overstate how significant this is.
And the only thing that is holding the ramifications of this new doctrinal crisis in check is a perceived ambiguity. Obfuscation. Circumlocution. In other words, Francis has dispersed the usual imprecise verbal chaff around his core usurpation of traditional teaching like a squid leaves a cloud of ink to confuse predators.
He has done everything he can to tell us that the Church’s prior teaching on the moral liceity was an explicit endorsement of intrinsic evil except actually saying those exact words.
The entire defense of what he is doing as somehow NOT a contradiction of perennial teaching appears to revolve around play acting that this is not what he is doing.
It’s interesting to note, by the way, that some of his favorite sycophants get exactly what he’s doing, and aren’t afraid to say so. Case in point:
Some of you will object that what a third-rate pseudo-theologian who teaches at a college that hasn’t actually been Catholic in my lifetime thinks about the issue doesn’t represent the mind of the pope. Fine. But file that away, because the most ardent defenders of Francis see it clearly, and that should tell you something.
If not, let me do the hard work of showing you.
The Use of Negative Space to Convey Meaning
In art, there’s a concept known as “negative space.” For the sake of time, we’ll just grab a definition from Wikipedia:
Negative space, in art, is the space around and between the subject(s) of an image. Negative space may be most evident when the space around a subject, not the subject itself, forms an interesting or artistically relevant shape, and such space occasionally is used to artistic effect as the “real” subject of an image.
The most common example of negative space would be Rubin’s Vase, which appears in various forms. The question is: did the artist create a chalice, or two faces?
M.C. Escher was a master of the use of negative space, producing images like the following:
Without further digression, the point is that negative space is used, as one art blog put it, “to say a lot with nothing.”
Negative space is not merely a function of visual art. It can also be created using language. Sometimes what is not said is as influential as what it is.
There is an entire discipline of psychology called “Gestalt,” which is devoted to understanding the subtle patterns that emerge from an amalgamation of component parts:
“The fundamental ‘formula’ of Gestalt theory might be expressed in this way,” Max Wertheimer wrote. “There are wholes, the behavior of which is not determined by that of their individual elements, but where the part-processes are themselves determined by the intrinsic nature of the whole. It is the hope of Gestalt theory to determine the nature of such wholes.”
Hemingway wrote a famous scene in Hills Like White Elephants where a couple takes a drive to a clinic so that the woman can have an abortion. They allude to what’s coming amidst their general discussion of various topics, but they never actually say exactly what it is that they’re about to do. The reader, however, finds it difficult to think of anything else.
Francis is a master of this art.
When confronted with a direct question from a Lutheran woman about whether she could receive Communion in a Catholic Church with her Catholic husband, the pope’s response was:
I wouldn’t ever dare to allow this, because it’s not my competence. One baptism, one Lord, one faith. Talk to the Lord and then go forward. I don’t dare to say anything more.
Not a “yes,” but also not a “no.” Implied permission contingent upon a completely subjective act of prayer. He knows the woman wants to receive, and he won’t even hint at forbidding it. He also knows that God is unlikely to appear to the woman and forbid it either. So by placing the impetus on her and her “talking to the Lord,” he is telling her “there’s nothing in your way. Go ahead.”
How about when the German bishops wanted to press this same issue? They created, as a conference, a handout with guidelines for intercommunion, and the CDF — with the pope’s backing — smacked it down. But shortly thereafter, he wove an ambiguous statement leaving an empty space in the shape of permission: the pope said that canon law leaves the decision to the local bishop. He didn’t want an entire bishops conference to deal with such questions, he said, because “something worked out in an episcopal conference quickly becomes universal.”
It also becomes concrete. Francis doesn’t work in positive space. He doesn’t paint the bowl of fruit, he paints the room the bowl sits in. It is your mind that that supplies the image that fills the gap — and this appears to be exactly what he wants. To be too direct would make it possible for him to be pinned down.
We see this again and again. His repeated interviews with Eugenio Scalfari wherein he denies the existence of hell (among other outrageous things) but never denies Scalfari’s reportage that this is what he said. Negative space. His footnotes in Amoris Laetitia, and his letter to the Bishops of Buenos Aires (later made official in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis) leaving the clear impression that the divorced and remarried can receive Holy Communion with out repentance, without so much as ever putting the permission in a sentence himself. Negative space. Signing the Abu Dhabi statement saying that God wills all religions, and then telling Bishop Schneider when asked for correction that he can tell people he meant something different, all while continuing to promote the original statement. Negative space.
And the most damning of all of these, the subject of our discussion today, is the negative space around his belief that the death penalty is intrinsically evil. Even M.C. Escher would be impressed with how he’s handled this one.
What Has Francis Actually Said?
On the ground, in the trenches of social media, in discussions amongst theologians, what is being debated right now is the question: just what is it that Francis is trying to say about the death penalty? Briefly, we need to look at the phrasing he has used over time, because these are the brush strokes that surround our bowl-of-fruit shaped hole in the painting.
I will provide links to each document along with the quote. The list is not exhaustive, as some of his (many) comments on the subject are too non-specific to merit consideration. Most of what is linked below should be read in full by those who wish to study this issue, but space will only permit the most relevant excerpts.
[T]he prerequisites of legitimate personal defense are not applicable in the social sphere without the risk of distortion. In fact, when the death penalty is applied, people are killed not for current acts of aggression, but for offences committed in the past. Moreover, it is applied to people whose capacity to cause harm is not current, but has already been neutralized, and who are deprived of their freedom.
Today capital punishment is unacceptable, however serious the condemned’s crime may have been. It is an offence to the inviolability of life and to the dignity of the human person which contradicts God’s plan for man and for society and his merciful justice, and it fails to conform to any just purpose of punishment. It does not render justice to the victims, but rather foments revenge.
Amoris Laetitia 83:
[T]he Church not only feels the urgency to assert the right to a natural death, without aggressive treatment and euthanasia”, but likewise “firmly rejects the death penalty.”
Address Marking 25th Anniversary of the Catechism – Oct 11, 2017
This issue cannot be reduced to a mere résumé of traditional teaching without taking into account not only the doctrine as it has developed in the teaching of recent Popes, but also the change in the awareness of the Christian people which rejects an attitude of complacency before a punishment deeply injurious of human dignity. It must be clearly stated that the death penalty is an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity. It is per se contrary to the Gospel, because it entails the willful suppression of a human life that never ceases to be sacred in the eyes of its Creator and of which – ultimately – only God is the true judge and guarantor. No man, “not even a murderer, loses his personal dignity” (Letter to the President of the International Commission against the Death Penalty, 20 March 2015), because God is a Father who always awaits the return of his children who, knowing that they have made mistakes, ask for forgiveness and begin a new life. No one ought to be deprived not only of life, but also of the chance for a moral and existential redemption that in turn can benefit the community.
In past centuries, when means of defense were scarce and society had yet to develop and mature as it has, recourse to the death penalty appeared to be the logical consequence of the correct application of justice. Sadly, even in the Papal States recourse was had to this extreme and inhumane remedy that ignored the primacy of mercy over justice. Let us take responsibility for the past and recognize that the imposition of the death penalty was dictated by a mentality more legalistic than Christian. Concern for preserving power and material wealth led to an over-estimation of the value of the law and prevented a deeper understanding of the Gospel. Nowadays, however, were we to remain neutral before the new demands of upholding personal dignity, we would be even more guilty.
Here we are not in any way contradicting past teaching, for the defense of the dignity of human life from the first moment of conception to natural death has been taught by the Church consistently and authoritatively. Yet the harmonious development of doctrine demands that we cease to defend arguments that now appear clearly contrary to the new understanding of Christian truth. Indeed, as Saint Vincent of Lérins pointed out, “Some may say: Shall there be no progress of religion in Christ’s Church? Certainly; all possible progress. For who is there, so envious of men, so full of hatred to God, who would seek to forbid it?” (Commonitorium, 23.1; PL 50). It is necessary, therefore, to reaffirm that no matter how serious the crime that has been committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.
Tradition is a living reality and only a partial vision regards the “deposit of faith” as something static. The word of God cannot be moth-balled like some old blanket in an attempt to keep insects at bay! No. The word of God is a dynamic and living reality that develops and grows because it is aimed at a fulfilment that none can halt. This law of progress, in the happy formulation of Saint Vincent of Lérins, “consolidated by years, enlarged by time, refined by age” (Commonitorium, 23.9: PL 50), is a distinguishing mark of revealed truth as it is handed down by the Church, and in no way represents a change in doctrine.
2267. 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.
Encyclical Letter Fratelli Tutti – October 3rd, 2020:
Saint John Paul II stated clearly and firmly that the death penalty is inadequate from a moral standpoint and no longer necessary from that of penal justice. There can be no stepping back from this position. Today we state clearly that “the death penalty is inadmissible” and the Church is firmly committed to calling for its abolition worldwide.
“…All Christians and people of good will are today called to work not only for the abolition of the death penalty, legal or illegal, in all its forms, but also to work for the improvement of prison conditions, out of respect for the human dignity of persons deprived of their freedom. I would link this to life imprisonment… A life sentence is a secret death penalty”.
What Does “Inadmissible” Mean?
The word that comes up most frequently in these various statements from Francis is “inadmissible.”
Theologically, the word has no decisive meaning. Father George Rutler explains:
Pope Francis uses the term “inadmissible” to describe the death penalty, although it has no theological substance, and by avoiding words such as “immoral” or “wrong”, inflicts on discourse an ambiguity similar to parts of Amoris Laetitia. The obvious meaning is that capital punishment is intrinsically evil, but to say so outright would be too blatant. He also calls all life “inviolable,” a term which applies only to innocent life and has no moral warrant otherwise. Then there is the ancillary and unmentioned consideration of the role of punishment and hell in all this, conjuring a suspicion of universalism, which is the denial of eternal alienation from God.
Lacking theological meaning, we’ll turn instead to a standard dictionary. Merriam Webster tells us that inadmissible means, simply, “not admissible.” It also tells us that “admissible” means “capable of being allowed or conceded.”
In other words, in standard parlance, inadmissible means “not capable of being allowed or conceded.” This term is exclusive and absolute. When something is inadmissible, no exceptions are permitted.
To return to the question of prudential judgment, then, there could therefore never be a circumstance where the death penalty was warranted, according to Pope Francis. Not for a mass murderer, not for Hitler, Stalin, or Mao, not for the most heinous of crimes against children, no exceptions.
And yet, the Church allowed the Death Penalty before. What’s different now?
Why Francis Thinks the Death Penalty is Inadmissible
To try to make some sense of his claims, we have to evaluate the pope’s stated reasoning. Distilling the quotes above, we can arrive at the following points of emphasis:
- Capital punishment is “unacceptable” regardless of the severity of the crime because it is an offense to the inviolability of life and the dignity of the human person.
- This understanding and change to the Church’s teaching comes because of a new awareness of how injurious the death penalty is to human dignity.
- The death penalty is inhumane no matter how it is conducted.
- The Church’s previous position was the result of valuing “power and material wealth” which “prevented a deeper understanding of the Gospel.”
- There are “new demands of upholding personal dignity” and we can see that the Church’s previous position appears contrary to this “new understanding of Christian Truth.”
- A new understanding has emerged not just of human dignity, but also of the “significance of penal sanctions.” Also, “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.”
- The Church now teaches, therefore, “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.”
Working through these arguments, a picture emerges in the negative space.
Some have argued that Francis is making a prudential judgment that in the modern world, methods of incarceration have advanced sufficiently that there is never a circumstance where a criminal need ever be executed for the sake of the common good. (He never speaks about retributive justice, but we’ll leave that aside for now.)
Clearly, this reasoning is absurd, because in order for such a judgment to be reached, the pope would need to be omniscient. He would have to know about incarceration in every prison in the world, and every circumstance regarding every criminal, no matter how dangerous. He would have to demonstrate that murder, rape, and assault are no longer commonplace in prisons everywhere.
He can’t, because it isn’t true. So that’s not his reasoning.
Francis makes clear that he believes the Church’s previous moral position on this matter was defective, rooted in greed, and contrary to the Gospel. He believes that we moderns have not just new understandings of law and new methods of incarceration, but a new morality, a new understanding of human dignity, and a new version of Christian truth.
His argument that the death penalty is inadmissible, however, rests fundamentally on the bolded section of point 7: it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.
This has nothing to do with prudential judgment or modern circumstances. It has to do with the essential character of execution in Francis’s own view. And his view makes clear that capital punishment is evil no matter the circumstances.
In his encyclical Veritatis Splendor (#80-81), Pope John Paul II wrote the following about intrinsically evil acts. Pay close attention to the bits I emphasize in bold:
Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature “incapable of being ordered” to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed “intrinsically evil” (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances. Consequently, without in the least denying the influence on morality exercised by circumstances and especially by intentions, the Church teaches that “there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object”. The Second Vatican Council itself, in discussing the respect due to the human person, gives a number of examples of such acts: “Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat labourers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: all these and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honour due to the Creator“.
If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain “irremediably” evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person. “As for acts which are themselves sins (cum iam opera ipsa peccata sunt), Saint Augustine writes, like theft, fornication, blasphemy, who would dare affirm that, by doing them for good motives (causis bonis), they would no longer be sins, or, what is even more absurd, that they would be sins that are justified?”.134
Consequently, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act “subjectively” good or defensible as a choice.
It seems we have here a reliable hermeneutic by which to ascertain what Francis is actually teaching. If whatever violates the integrity of the human person and whatever is offensive to human dignity are, per the Church’s own definition, intrinsically evil acts, then the death penalty, inasmuch as it is “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” is intrinsically evil, according to Francis.
And this means that he believes that the Church, through multiple popes, doctors and saints, and even God Himself, condoned intrinsic evil. And that only this “new understanding of Christian Truth,” of which Francis is evidently the herald, can set us free from the greed and power-driven embrace of evil from the Church’s past.
No matter how hard the CDF’s explanatory note assures us that the change to the teaching on the Death Penalty is “an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium,” this assertion — made twice in the course of two paragraphs, as though they thought repetition would help sell it — is clearly false. Anyone trying to sell this line should arouse deep suspicion. For once, Massimo Faggioli got it right.
The Church’s best and brightest need to address this issue. It represents a serious theological and doctrinal crisis, and it can no longer be ignored.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.