Big news from Rome! Pope Francis has officially emended the text of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) to declare the death penalty (DP) “inadmissible.” This replaces the previous version, which held that cases in which it is legitimate, in the words of St. John Paul II, “are very rare, if not practically non-existent” (CCC #2267).[1] In this post I will:

  1. put this change into the context of previous revisions to the Catechism
  2. compare all three versions of CCC #2267,
  3. defend the correctness of Francis’s teaching, and
  4. discuss the scope of the magisterial authority of this revision.

Other changes made to the Catechism

A fact not widely known is that the first edition of the CCC differed considerably from the “typical edition” that has become widely known over the last two decades.[2] The first edition, written in French, was promulgated by JP II on December 8, 1992.[3] During the process of preparing a Latin “typical edition,”[4] the Vatican’s “Interdicasterial Commission”[5] received the feedback and criticism of bishops and theologians, which resulted in a number of substantial changes being made.[6] Here is how JP II described these changes:

They allow for a better expression of the Catechism’s contents regarding the deposit of the Catholic faith, or enable certain truths of this faith to be formulated in a way more suited to the requirements of contemporary catechetical instruction.[7]

Incredibly, the English-language Vatican website hosts the original version (with two big exceptions that I will explain)! To access the corrected version online, use the USCCB’s “flipbook” or this handy digital version.

In addition to many minor corrections, many changes made to the “typical edition” concern significant, albeit highly-technical, points of Catholic theology. For example, #1302 was changed from calling confirmation the “full” outpouring of the Holy Spirit to the “special” outpouring. Calling it “full” seemed to imply that baptism imparted only part of the Holy Spirit. But God has no parts! Confirmation is not strictly necessary, though it “completes” baptism: “Without Confirmation and Eucharist, Baptism is certainly valid and efficacious, but Christian initiation remains incomplete” (#1306; cf. 1288, 1294, 1304, 1306). The relationship between baptism and confirmation has been an issue in Catholicism ever since medieval bishops started reserving it to themselves and withholding it until the age of reason.

Similarly, CCC #398 was changed from saying that humanity was “created” in a state of holiness to saying that it was “constituted” in a state of holiness. While this sounds minor, it is important. It gets at a long-standing debate about the natural versus supernatural state of humanity. If we were “created” holy, then our current, sinful condition implies that human nature itself was warped by the original sin. Instead, the revised Catechism seems to me to take the view that Adam and Eve (at the same time they were created) were endowed with (“constituted in”) the supernatural gift of original holiness. This grace was subsequently lost and thus humanity “reverted” (so to speak) to its natural, mortal state (CCC #399-400). On this view, we are as God made us, albeit born without grace. As such, we exist, by God’s design, along with the rest of the cosmos, in a “state of journeying” (CCC #302). God could have made us and everything perfect from the beginning, but God chose not to. This view, first espoused by the Church Father St. Irenaeus,[8] is compatible with evolution, whereas the other view is not.[9] It was in 1996, one year prior to these revisions, that JP II called evolution “more than a hypothesis,”[10] an acceptance of modern science far beyond what Pius XII had said in 1950.[11]

A change that caught the attention of non-specialists back in 1997 concerned the hot-button issue of homosexuality. Originally, the Catechism said this: “They do not choose their homosexual condition; for most of them it is a trial” (CCC #2358). Apparently some conservative Catholics in the 90’s were scandalized to be told that homosexuality was not a choice. Attentive to this, JP II/Ratzinger had this language removed and replaced with the following: “This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial.” No doubt due to controversy, the corresponding Vatican webpage was, in this instance, updated to reflect the change. However, the webmaster forgot to change the hyperlinked, “concordance” version, which still has the old wording!

John Paul II’s change to doctrine on the death penalty

By far the most noteworthy emendation to the Catechism concerns the DP. The change was a direct result of the teaching of JP II: on March 25, 1995, he published his Encyclical on the Value and Inviolability of Human Life Evangelium Vitae. In this, he expressed the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment. Here is the crucial part of what he said about the DP:

[Punishment] ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.[12]

In this way JP II made this aspect of Card. Joseph Bernardin’s “consistent ethic of life” or “seamless garment” approach to pro-life issues the official teaching of the Catholic Church. (That hasn’t stopped some Catholics from pretending otherwise and continuing to support the DP.)

With the revisions to the Catechism underway at the time, the decision was made to incorporate this teaching. Here’s what the Catechism originally said:

As you can see, the DP was said to be acceptable “in cases of extreme gravity.” The state has the right to execute extreme criminals. No attempt is made to define what “extreme gravity” is. Now here is the revised, 1997 version:

Big changes! The sentence about political authority’s “right to use arms” was moved from #2266 to #2265. This lessons the appearance that the Church considers the DP to be the state’s right. The crucial clause “not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty” has been deleted. In its place, now in #2267, we find this: “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” (emphasis added). That is a big if. The prior version did not teach that the DP was legitimate only as a last resort: it said it was appropriate “in cases of extreme gravity”!

The added paragraph at the end makes it clear that the routine execution of murderers is now out of the question, in the eyes of the Catholic Church. Because modern states have effective means for preventing crime (i.e., incarceration), legitimate uses of the DP, as EV said, “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” To legitimize a specific use of the DP by this criterion, one would have to make the case that there was literally no other way to prevent a criminal from harming again. Obviously, this is never the case with modern prison systems. Without technically excluding the DP on theoretical grounds, JP II/Ratzinger effectively de-legitimized its use.

Since then, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and bishops around the world, including the USCCB, have consistently advocated for the global abolition of the DP. JP II followed up his words with deeds: in 1999 while visiting St. Louis, MO, with the movement of his hand and just three words, he convinced Governor Mel Carnahan not to execute Darrell Mease.[13] Subsequently, Pope Benedict XVI followed suit. For example, in 2011 he said the following to participants in an anti-DP conference:

I express my hope that your deliberations will encourage the political and legislative initiatives being promoted in a growing number of countries to eliminate the death penalty and to continue the substantive progress made in conforming penal law both to the human dignity of prisoners and the effective maintenance of public order.[14]

Further examples of papal words on the DP are cited in today’s letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith announcing the new wording of CCC #2267. This, then, is the context for understanding Pope Francis’s teachings on the death penalty.

Francis’s change to CCC #2267

These examples prove that the Catechism can be changed for theological reasons, including due to new developments. So now let’s look at the new text, just released by Pope Francis, to replace #2267:

The specific teaching of JP II in EV 56 has been replaced almost entirely. There is a reference to the traditional teaching, but instead of calling it “the traditional teaching,” it simply reads: “it was long considered appropriate…” This seems to me to undermine the legitimacy of the prior doctrine, which no longer merits to be called a “teaching” but only a “consideration.” The old clause “if this is the only possible way…”, which was never part of the traditional view but something introduced by JP II/Ratzinger, has been removed. The older view is accurately said to have been that the DP was sometimes “appropriate” and “acceptable.” Francis has kept the reference to “more effective systems of detention” (equivalent to JP II/Ratzinger’s “possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime”), but he no longer uses that as the primary basis for his opposition to the DP.

Instead, the new wording speaks of “an increasing awareness of the dignity of the person” and “a new understanding.” This is the crux of Francis’s view: the DP is to be opposed not just because it is unnecessary, but because we have a new understanding that it is inhumane. In his words, “it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” In this way, Francis has closed the “loophole” of the JP II/Ratzinger view that allowed for at least the theoretical possibility of the DP (so often exploited to claim that the Church did not really oppose the DP, even while the pope called for its abolition!). Lest there be any doubt, the new section ends by saying explicitly that the Church “works with determination for its abolition worldwide”! This was already true as a matter of fact, as anyone could see, but now it is a matter of official doctrine, too.

The final quotation is from Francis’s speech on the DP that he gave last year. In that speech he suggested that the Catechism should be changed, and now we know that that was his intention. A lengthy quotation from it will explicate the updated doctrine:

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….

In past centuries, when means of defence 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.[15]

Although he does mention JP II’s alteration of the doctrine, Francis places much more weight on “the change in the awareness of the Christian people” rather than the modern means of incarceration. The new awareness is that the DP itself is “an inhumane measure” that is “per se contrary to the Gospel.” The old position of the Church only “appeared” to be just. Rather than defending the older view, he simply says that it was “more legalistic than Christian.” He sees the errors of the past as somewhat understandable due to both limited “means of defense” and a lack of “maturity.” Francis’s view of the matter is qualitatively different from the old view. Of course, JP II’s belief that the DP was legitimate only if necessary as a last resort was also a qualitative change from the old view. Furthermore, the CDF letter points out that JP II also invoked “evidence of a growing public opposition to the death penalty” as a “sign of hope.”[16] Still, he did not adopt the absolute condemnation that Francis has. Francis knows that his position goes well beyond that of JP II, which is why he goes on in the speech to give an explanation for how he understands doctrinal development in the Church.[17]

Is Francis wrong on the death penalty?

No, he is right. The DP is “per se contrary to the Gospel.” The plain words of Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount forbid Christians to retaliate against evil. In this regard, Jesus specifically quotes the law of retaliation (lex talionis) that is the basis for the DP in the Old Testament and all societies that use it:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to them as well. (Matt 5:38-39)

Jesus forbids retaliating against evil. Jesus’ teaching transcends the law and retributive justice. This is why, I believe, Francis said that the DP is “per se contrary to the Gospel” rather than “per se evil.” Evil is a category that pertains to law and morality, but the Gospel is a higher calling. As Francis says, Christians are called to “the primacy of mercy over justice.” Basic moral intuition tells us that “an eye for an eye” is just. From that narrow viewpoint, the DP can be just. But it is not the way of love/mercy and thus should not be the way of the Church. This is the “legalism” that afflicted too many Christians in the past. This, by the way, does not mean that law is bad, but law and order are not at all the guiding center for Christian praxis. The Gospel is! And the Gospel excludes violence and retaliation. I am sorry to say that this concept is strange to many Christians due to long-standing confusion about the difference between law and Gospel, justice and mercy.

Rather than trying to develop this argument at length myself, I will direct you to two outstanding recent essays on the topic by Catholic theologians. Both were written as rebuttals of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment (2017), by Edward Feser. The first is by E. Christian Brugger (himself a critic of Pope Francis on divorce and remarriage!), and the second by David Bentley Hart. I cannot recommend these essays highly enough.

Is this now a dogma?

No, it is not. Contrary to some popular misconceptions, the inclusion of something in the Catechism does not make it a dogma of the faith. In fact, according to Ratzinger, inclusion in the Catechism confers no additional doctrinal authority on a teaching: “The individual doctrines which the Catechism presents receive no other weight than that which they already possess.”[18] The authority of any given statement has to be evaluated according to what it is based on. In this context, the authority behind the now-superseded CCC #2267 was EV. Since that was an encyclical of a pope, it clearly constituted an ordinary teaching of the papal magisterium. “Ordinary” teachings are not dogmatic, irreformable, infallible, or “of faith” (de fide). Nevertheless, it is expected that Catholics accept them.[19] The new CCC #2267 is obviously based on the pope’s address of last year. However, there is no precedent for a pope making an individual change to one paragraph of the Catechism (as opposed to the general revisions of 1997). Furthermore, this announcement has been made with a letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that further spells out the meaning of the teaching. Given this doctrinal letter, it is very clear that it is the pope’s intention to make this a teaching of his ordinary magisterium that will be normative for the Church’s teaching and praxis.

Due to the horrible polarization in Western society at the moment, it is a foregone conclusion that the many conservative Catholics that regard Francis as the worst pope ever will reject this teaching as nothing more than the latest example of his “heresies” (e.g., here, here, here). There is little that can be done about this calamity except pray. I am convinced that Francis’s teachings will outlast the current crisis. And let us also pray and work for the abolition of the DP in the U.S.!

A version of this article was posted to Adam’s personal blog, click here

Image: Adobe stock


[1] Quoting John Paul II, Encyclical on the Value and Inviolability of Human Life Evangelium Vitae (March 25, 1995), 56.

[2] In 1989 a first draft of the Catechism was originally circulated privately among bishops, for review and comment. To my knowledge, that text has remained secret, but the USCCB’s FAQ about the CCC says that it was “considerably different” from the Catechism we know, due to the 24,000 emendations suggested by bishops.

[3] John Paul II, Apostolic Constitution on the Publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church Prepared Following the Second Vatican Council Depositum Fidei (October 11, 1992). This text constitutes the beginning of the CCC (pages 1-6).

[4] From the Greek τύπος (typos), which is a model or pattern from which copies are made.

[5] The various “departments” at the Vatican are called “dicasteries,” from the Greek δικαστήριον (dikasterion, in Latin dicasterium), which is a court of law. Thus the “interdicasterial commission” was a committee made up of people from across the Holy See. It was headed by Card. Joseph Ratzinger since he was at that time Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He became Pope Benedict XVI on April 19, 2005.

[6] The changes are listed both here and here.

[7] John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Laetamur Magnopere (August 15, 1997). This letter is included as a preface to the CCC (pages xiii-xvi).

[8] Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4,38.

[9] That being said, the section of the Catechism on the fall and original sin remains problematic, given what we know scientifically about human origins. See Gabriel Daly, OSA, “Creation and Original Sin (Paragraphs 268421),” in Commentary on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, ed. Michael J. Walsh (Liturgical Press, 1994): 81-111.

[10] John Paul II, “Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences: On Evolution” (October 22, 1996).

[11] Pius XII, Encyclical concerning Some False Opinions Threatening to Undermine the Foundations of Catholic Doctrine Humani Generis (August 12, 1950), 36-37.

[12] John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae 56 (emphasis added).

[13] John L. Allen, Jr., “Vignettes from the Beatification of John Paul II,” National Catholic Reporter (May 2, 2011)

[14] “Pope Benedict XVI: support for efforts to eliminate death penalty” (emphasis added).

[15] Francis, “Address to Participants in the Meeting Promoted by the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization” (October 11, 2017)

[16] John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae 27

[17] Since space does not allow me to go into this extremely difficult topic here, please see my very brief and preliminary post about it from 2012.

[18] Joseph Ratzinger and Christoph Schönborn, Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), 27.

[19] On this, see this post of mine.

Discuss this article!

Keep the conversation going in our SmartCatholics Group! You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.

Liked this post? Take a second to support Where Peter Is on Patreon!

Dr. Rasmussen is an adjunct professor in Georgetown University's Department of Theology & Religious Studies. He has a Ph.D. in the same subject from The Catholic University of America, specializing in historical theology and early Christianity. He is the author of Genesis and Cosmos: Basil and Origen on Genesis 1 and Cosmology (Bible in Ancient Christianity 14; Brill, 2019).

Francis changes the Catechism: Death penalty now “inadmissible”
Share via
Copy link