This is exciting! The Catholic Church has officially changed its teaching on the death penalty. Pope Francis, via the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, updated the Catechism.

The Catechism now states:

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”,[1] and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.

The Catechism previously said:

2267. 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.”

Here’s the link to the official document (scroll down for English).

NOTE: Some commenters have pointed out that the title of this post might be misleading and suggests a rupture or an essential change in doctrine. To clarify: we are not suggesting that. While the title of our post is accurate (the Catechism is a comprehensive collection of teachings of the Catholic Church, and the section that contains the official teaching on the death penalty has been revised), we fully maintain that this change is a legitimate development made in continuity with Tradition.

Paul Fahey

Paul Fahey is a husband, father of four, parish director of religious education, and co-founder of Where Peter Is.  He can be found at his website, Rejoice and be Glad: Catholicism in the Pope Francis Generation

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6 Responses

  1. Anne Lastman says:

    Excellent news.
    I personally have found it difficult reconciling fighting to defend the child in the womb and euthanasia victims from slaughter and then daying, believing that legalised murder of another human being was legitimate and right.
    We believe in the personhood of child in womb and its dignity as one created in image of God. We helieve in the dignity of the disabled and we believe in the dignity of elderly and frail but we saw no dignity in someone who went terribly wrong and removed his/her right to redemption or even that his sin has been greater than the sacrifice of Jesus.
    For me that logic never made sense.
    Bless our holy Father Pope Francis. May the Lord hold him safe.

  2. Christopher Lake says:

    For the sake of evangelization (among other reasons), might it not be more helpful to speak of this, not in terms of “changing Church teaching,” but perhaps, as a development in Church teaching, as Church teaching obviously can and does develop her teachings over centuries? Years ago, when I was studying Catholicism, and pondering the claims of the Church, and yet still a Protestant, I would have been very confused by Catholics happily announcing that the Church had changed her teaching on a highly important matter.

    • Mike Lewis says:

      Good point. Several of us have death penalty posts in the works that will be more precise. I will see if Paul can update it.

      • Christopher Lake says:

        Thanks for the reply, Mike. I look forward to reading those future posts!

        Just to be completely clear here, I fully accept and support this development, for the same simple reason that I accept and support all other genuine, Papal, Magisterial developments in Church teaching: I’m a Catholic! 🙂 It doesn’t have to be nearly as complicated as some people make it, which is one of the great things about being Catholic!

      • carn says:

        “Several of us have death penalty posts in the works that will be more precise.”

        Please try to make them precise regarding the passage:
        “Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time,”

        and regarding the situations wherein a catholic

        – arrives after careful discernment at the conclusion that at a certain time in a certain place those more effective systems of detention are currently and for the foreseeable future unavailable; would said catholic have to presume death penalty to be still inadmissible? (if you need an example and cannot think of one, presume a country with extensive civil war wherein in a small enclave some order is preserved – local judges and police still do their work – but no sufficient detention center is available and a serial killer is caught and found guilty)

        – arrives after very, very careful and extensive discernment, research and considerations at the conclusion that the claim comprised within the catechism – that such effective system of detention has been developed – is false as the systems of detention only seem to be effective but in truth aren’t; would said catholic be legitimately still in favor of the application of the death penalty in contemporary stable states? (“very, very careful” of course meaning the catholic acquired more detailed knowledge about the workings of prison and justice system that practically anybody else on the level of an researcher extensively studying the prison system, death penalty, etc.)

  3. Christopher Lake says:

    Correction: I meant to say that “…as the Church obviously can and does develop her teachings over centuries.”

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