The debate over the pope’s recently announced changes to the Catechism on the subject of capital punishment are being hotly debated in every corner of the Catholic world. Some are saying this change is a mere “development of doctrine.” Some think it’s not a change in doctrine at all, but an adjustment to practical application. On The World Over with Raymond Arroyo, Robert Royal characterized it as a “break” with tradition; Fr. Gerald Murray called it an “overthrow.” (Their discussion is worthwhile if you have time for it.) Others – like me – take it a step farther, believing that this represents a flat-out contradiction of dogma and, as such, a material heresy.
As is always the case with this pontificate, confusion and division reign. And we all know whose calling cards those are.
But there is more to this change than immediately meets the eye. As with other Francis initiatives, this stands as an affront to the sensus catholicus on its own, but also as an entrée to a larger program. I want to address both of these aspects here.
But first, I want to address a misconception: Catholics who are up in arms over this issue are upset not because they’re worried fewer people will go to the gallows; there are good reasons for reservations over how and when the death penalty should be applied, and that should be open for debate. What we are upset about is the stunning hubris on display here, taking an infallible teaching and tossing it upside-down. That sets the stage for the entirety of Catholic teaching to be thrown into question.
And if you’re not convinced yet that it’s infallible, read on.
An Infallible Proposition
I sought to establish yesterday that the moral liceity of the death penalty is a matter of divine revelation, affirmed by popes and doctors of the Church, and thus, dogmatic and infallible. You can read that longer piece here, but suffice it to say that this is a matter of faith or morals set forth specifically as a divinely revealed truth and thus not changeable. Pope Innocent makes this clear:
“It must be remembered that power was granted by God [to the magistrates], and to avenge crime by the sword was permitted. He who carries out this vengeance is God’s minister (Rm 13:1-4). Why should we condemn a practice that all hold to be permitted by God? We uphold, therefore, what has been observed until now, in order not to alter the discipline and so that we may not appear to act contrary to God’s authority.” –Pope Innocent I, Epist. 6, C. 3. 8, ad Exsuperium, Episcopum Tolosanum, 20 February 405, PL 20,495.
Edward Feser, one of the most knowledgeable and well read Catholics on this topic, explains the pedigree of this teaching in a piece today at First Things:
There has always been disagreement among Catholics about whether capital punishment is, in practice, the morally best way to uphold justice and social order. However, the Church has always taught, clearly and consistently, that the death penalty is in principle consistent with both natural law and the Gospel. This is taught throughout scripture – from Genesis 9 to Romans 13 and many points in between – and the Church maintains that scripture cannot teach moral error. It was taught by the Fathers of the Church, including those Fathers who opposed the application of capital punishment in practice. It was taught by the Doctors of the Church, including St. Thomas Aquinas, the Church’s greatest theologian; St. Alphonsus Liguori, her greatest moral theologian; and St. Robert Bellarmine, who, more than any other Doctor, illuminated how Christian teaching applies to modern political circumstances.
It was clearly and consistently taught by the popes up to and including Pope Benedict XVI. That Christians can in principle legitimately resort to the death penalty is taught by the Roman Catechism promulgated by Pope St. Pius V, the Catechism of Christian Doctrine promulgated by Pope St. Pius X, and the 1992 and 1997 versions of the most recent Catechism promulgated by Pope St. John Paul II – this last despite the fact that John Paul was famously opposed to applying capital punishment in practice. Pope St. Innocent I and Pope Innocent III taught that acceptance of the legitimacy in principle of capital punishment is a requirement of Catholic orthodoxy. Pope Pius XII explicitly endorsed the death penalty on several occasions.
What the Changes Signify
The death penalty is often mischaracterized by modern opponents as unnecessary because, allegedly, advances in technology and systematization have made it possible for criminals to be properly and indefinitely detained. It should be noted that historically, the mind of the Church was not only focused in this matter on the practical question of whether prisoners could be kept from harming others – a standard not yet realized in even the prisons of the First World – but also the realities of retributive justice (a punishment that fits the crime) and expiation (a punishment that, accepted willingly, remits temporal consequences of the sin committed).
Christ embraced death on the cross for precisely these reasons: that the punishment fit the crime (“The wages of sin are death” –Rom. 6:23), and it accomplished the expiation of our sins. He did not deny the authority of Pilate to condemn him. Rather, he said this power came “from above” (Jn. 19:11).
The move away from this understanding toward a utilitarian view of effective detainment had already made its way into the previous version of the Catechism, which read (p. 2,267):
Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.
If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.
The new language instituted by Francis takes this a good deal further:
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.
We see here an expression that the death penalty is “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” but this is apparently conditional upon “an increasing awareness” of this dignity and “a new understanding” of penal sanction and “more effective systems of detention.”
This language is nonsensical. Either a thing is inadmissible – meaning no exceptions, because it is a moral evil – or it is not. Morally admissible things do not become morally inadmissible because circumstances change. Either the death penalty always violated the dignity of the person or it did not. Pope John Paul II explains the moral principles involved in Veritatis Splendor 67:
In the case of the positive moral precepts, prudence always has the task of verifying that they apply in a specific situation, for example, in view of other duties which may be more important or urgent. But the negative moral precepts, those prohibiting certain concrete actions or kinds of behaviour as intrinsically evil, do not allow for any legitimate exception. They do not leave room, in any morally acceptable way, for the “creativity” of any contrary determination whatsoever. Once the moral species of an action prohibited by a universal rule is concretely recognized, the only morally good act is that of obeying the moral law and of refraining from the action which it forbids.
In other words, applied to the present issue, as a positive moral precept, the moral permissibility of the death penalty is subject to prudential judgment in application. Catholics who admit this divinely revealed permissibility can nevertheless, as John Paul II did, argue that the circumstances in which the death penalty might properly be utilized are extremely limited.
But Francis has turned the question into a negative moral precept. He has attempted to exclude the possibility of utilizing capital punishment by calling it “inadmissible” and an “attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” This means that he is seeking to establish his own understanding that capital punishment is “intrinsically evil, do not allow for any legitimate exception” – in direct contradiction to his predecessors, like Pope Innocent I.
Whereas Innocent sought not to “appear to act contrary to God’s authority,” Francis doesn’t seem to care.
This is not a thing that can simply be explained away.
Dogma Does Not Evolve
It is always alarming to see what a Rorschach test these papal novelties prove to be. People see in them what they want, and consequently, many – perhaps even most – find a way to justify them. What is astonishing is how many faithful people deny that this represents a manifest rupture with the Church’s perennial teaching. Many contest the assertion that this is a truth divinely revealed and constantly upheld by the Magisterium on a matter of faith and morals and, as such, is dogmatic and infallible. These include Catholic clergy who at least appear to be committed to doctrinal orthodoxy.
Or perhaps some do believe this teaching is divinely revealed but that nevertheless, it is subject to evolution.
What is happening, in either case, is a perfect example of the very Modernism Pope St. Pius X explicitly condemned in Pascendi Dominici Gregis. He wrote of the way being pried open for “the intrinsic evolution of dogma” through a chipping away at absolute truth. “An immense collection of sophisms this, that ruins and destroys all religion. Dogma is not only able, but ought to evolve and to be changed. This is strongly affirmed by the Modernists, and as clearly flows from their principles.”
And yet, for this to happen at the hands of a pope is catastrophically self-defeating; it undermines the very foundations upon which papal authority is erected. As Cardinal Avery Dulles – who was himself an opponent of the use of the death penalty – said in 2002:
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).
I doubt whether the tradition is reversible at all, but even if it were, the reversal could hardly be accomplished by an incidental section in a long encyclical focused primarily on the defense of innocent human life. If the pope were contradicting the tradition, one could legitimately question whether his statement outweighed the established teaching of so many past centuries.
Via Feser, Dulles states elsewhere:
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.
Repudiating her own identity. Undermining her own authority. If this long held and infallible teaching can simply be overturned by papal fiat, which other teachings are subject to change?
Every single one.
Pandora’s Box is Open
Astute observers began speculating shortly after the news broke of the latest change to the Catechism that this argumentation would be used to batter down the prohibitions against sexual immorality. In record time, they were proven correct.
Today, in a blog post at New Ways Ministry – an advocacy group for “justice and equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Catholics” – we see clearly that the floodgate has opened:
It’s important for Catholic advocates for LGBT equality to take note of this change because for decades Catholic opponents of LGBT equality argued that it is impossible to change church teaching. They often pointed to the fact that condemnations of same-sex relationships were inscribed in the Catechism, and so were not open for discussion or change. Yet, the teaching on the death penalty is in the Catechism, too, and, in fact, to make this change in teaching, it was the text of the Catechism that Francis changed.
Ironically, unlike faithful Catholics who are currently bending themselves into knots trying to demonstrate that this change represents no big deal, the people at New Ways Ministry call a spade a spade:
So, the change is not a contradiction, even though it is the opposite of what came before it? Hmmmm.
What does this death penalty news mean for Catholic advocates for LGBT equality? … we now have a clear, explicit contemporary example of church teaching changing, and also a look into how it can be done: with a papal change to the Catechism.
The lid has been blown off Pandora’s box, and Rome lit the fuse. We had best be prepared for what comes out.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher 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 eight children. You can find more of his writing at his Substack, The Skojec File.