I’ve already written at length about the longstanding Catholic teaching about the death penalty and why Pope Francis is wrong in his attempts to change it. I won’t, therefore, rehash those arguments here.
For the purposes of this particular debate, what matters most is for Catholics to understand that the authority for civil powers to use the death penalty exists, that its proper use is not intrinsically evil, that this truth has been divinely revealed, and that it has also been magisterially affirmed. This is, therefore, an infallible, irreformable teaching of the Church.
For those who would like to see more theological substantiation, Dr. Edward Feser, who co-authored a book on this topic with Dr. Joseph Bessette, argued persuasively in an article last year at Catholic World Report with specific reference to statements made by Pope Francis. Dr. John Joy, who wrote the best explanation I’ve ever read on the proper understanding of the modes and exercises of the Magisterium, also wrote in support of Feser’s argument.
And even the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, who was opposed to the death penalty, wrote in his essay, “Seven Reasons America Shouldn’t Execute”:
If the Pope were to deny that the death penalty could be an exercise of retributive justice, he would be overthrowing the tradition of two millennia of Catholic thought, denying the teaching of several previous popes, and contradicting the teaching of Scripture (notably in Genesis 9:5–6 and Romans 13:1–4).
None of this is to say acceptance of the teaching requires that Catholics be enthusiastic about the application of the death penalty.
Within the context of the Church’s teaching, there’s room for debate about the prudential application of capital punishment. There are valid arguments to be had about when it can be licitly used, and in which circumstances. What is not permissible, however, is to deny the truth of the matter: God has affirmed that the state has the right, in principle, to use lethal force against individuals in retribution for crimes and in defense of the common good — and that, as some of the saints and doctors of the Church have taught, acceptance of that penalty by him who is to be executed can serve as the means of expiation of temporal punishment due for his sins.
This is why it is so troubling that Pope Francis has attacked the death penalty, calling it “always inadmissible” and “contrary to the Gospel.” He has condemned his predecessors in the papal office for allowing it, accusing them of ignoring the “primacy of mercy over justice,” and has commanded that language representing his view be inserted in the Catechism, replacing the prior teaching.
The implication of the term “inadmissible” is that use of the death penalty is forbidden by the moral law, for in no other instance could a pope say an action permits no moral exception but the case of intrinsic evil (cf. Veritatis Splendor 82).
And yet, as Archbishop Charles Chaput, who has said he opposes the use of the death penalty in most cases, stated in 2005 (emphasis added):
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.
So what are we to make of this?
A Doctrinal Trojan Horse
Whatever Pope Francis believes about the death penalty, he is powerless to change the teaching. He is the inheritor and guarantor of the Deposit of Faith, not the originator or arbiter of it.
Some have argued that he is not making the case that the death penalty is intrinsically evil, or he would have said so. Space does not permit a re-examination of our pope’s penchant for weaponized ambiguity, but suffice it to say I believe he has been very, very clever here in both what he has said and what he has not.
Clearly, he isn’t issuing a simple prudential judgment on this matter. In the first place, the pope is not omniscient. He cannot say with certitude that he knows the situation in every prison in every nation, state, and city, and that what was once considered a legitimate moral recourse that was in the interest of the common good can no longer be considered so because of a universal change in conditions.
The reality is manifestly different.
Leaving aside the question of retributive justice and focusing only on the ability to nullify the threat posed by violent criminals, a glance at the prison systems of the First World alone demonstrates that we’ve not even come close to eliminating the dangers posed by those we have incarcerated. Prison rapes, riots, assaults, and murders remain a serious problem. If we turn our attention to less advanced and prosperous nations, we find prisons in utter disrepair, with deplorable conditions where extreme violence is hardly uncommon. We have unquestionably not reached a moment in time when we can declare an end to the need to render the worst criminals harmless for the sake of the common good.
Logic dictates, therefore, that the pope must be advocating an absolute moral principle. This is what the language he uses implies. Fr. George Rutler agrees:
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.
The pope’s phrasing manages to be just vague enough to narrowly avoid direct charges of heresy while being obvious enough in its intent to make clear exactly what this is: a direct refutation of Catholic doctrine.
I don’t believe that the choice to attempt a reversal on this particular issue is at all accidental.
In fact, it is a perfect opportunity to do something critical in the advancement of his “reform” agenda.
The death penalty is unpopular, even in a society steeped in moral justifications for abortion and euthanasia. Pope John Paul II helped make it so with Catholics — including many conservatives. If you support the Church’s traditional teaching on this issue, you will wind up on the receiving end of accusations like this:
Fr. Horan is a noted progressive thought leader in the Church, but you can count on hearing this exact sort of language from other, less ideologically driven Catholics, too.
This particular deck is stacked, and that’s an advantage the pope is making use of.
By selecting a teaching a majority of Catholics — including many in the hierarchy — are at least prudentially opposed to, and then changing it in the Catechism, Francis has signaled something extremely significant:
We can change this teaching, because the Church was wrong about it in the past. And if the Church could be wrong about this moral issue, she can be wrong about any of them. That means we can change those, too.
If the goal here is, as I suspect, to dismantle the teaching authority and credibility of the Church on matters of faith and morals, the death penalty teaching is the perfect vehicle to accomplish that. It is a custom-made Trojan horse designed to carry the forces in support of doctrinal and dogmatic relativism into the heart of the Church for a critical victory.
The fact remains that a change in the Catechism isn’t truly a magisterial act, but many will see it that way. It’s also not anywhere near rising to the level of an ex cathedra statement, but when we rely on legal distinctions such as these to console ourselves, it feels like splitting hairs.
It may be technically true that the pope didn’t violate the protections of infallibility, but it is practically true that the vast majority of Catholics will believe that this unchangeable teaching has nevertheless been officially changed. It’s not just an interview or a homily. It appears in both an apostolic exhortation and an encyclical. But perhaps most direct in terms of its effects on the faithful, the Catechism has been altered to reflect this reversal. This is the one book most Catholics have been taught to rely upon with certitude for the better part of the past 30 years. We will now (and already do) see the revised Catechism cited against us when we attempt to defend the perennial teaching. They will even call us schismatic for “refusing to obey the pope” and not accepting this new “truth.”
And we already know where else logic like this might take us in the near future.
Remember Fr. Chiodi, the priest from the papally revamped Pontifical Academy for Life, who said in a 2016 lecture that there are “circumstances — I refer to Amoris Laetitia, Chapter 8 — that precisely for the sake of responsibility, require contraception”?
That argument hasn’t been advanced any further yet. But now there’s precedent.
Or how about Bishop Erwin Kräutler, a primary architect of the Amazon Synod, who has argued that Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which definitively precludes female priests, “is not a dogma and does not even have the weight of an encyclical”?
Do we really believe that this is an issue that will be left alone indefinitely?
Close papal ally Cardinal Christoph Schönborn has indicated that he agrees, to some extent, with both of these men. Schönborn allowed his official diocesan website to publish articles that signal favor for overturning Humanae Vitae, without offering a defense of the traditional teaching. He personally proposed that the ordination of women is still possible — though he later backtracked after significant outcry, saying he was only considering the ordination of female deacons.
Only ordaining female deacons…which would still mean including them in Holy Orders.
This approach, a form of Hegelian dialectic, works as follows: propose an idea that pushes the envelope, test the response, retreat if the opposition is overwhelming. Often, even when forced into retreat, those pushing for a more progressive position wind up much farther along than where they started. “Oh, I didn’t mean female priests and bishops, just female deacons! And obviously we need to abandon priestly celibacy, too…” They always push to take two steps forward, still advancing toward the goal even if they have to take one step back.
It’s unclear how far open the “official” position change on the death penalty kicks the door, but we’d be foolish to think other unchangeable things won’t be following it through at some point in the not too distant future.
Originally published on July 29, 2019. Updated and republished following the re-visitation of the death penalty theme in the 2020 encyclical, Fratelli Tutti.