In recent days, I’ve been thinking about the Church’s teaching on Human Life and Dignity. Here are some thoughts and reflections on the subject.

In the past, we’ve written about Pope Francis’s views on abortion, and last month we shared a quote from his address to Italian pro-life leaders:

Voluntarily extinguishing life in its blossoming is, in every case, a betrayal of our vocation, as well as of the pact that binds generations together, which allows us to look forward with hope. Where there is life there is hope! But if life itself is violated in its arising, what remains is no longer the reception of the gift of life with awe and gratitude, but a cold calculation of what we possess and what is disposable. Life is reduced to a consumer good that we can use or throw away. How dramatic is this vision, unfortunately widespread and deeply rooted, and presented as a human right, and how much suffering it causes the weakest of our brothers!

He was very forceful when speaking about the role of those in public service in defending human life, making “an appeal to all politicians, regardless of each person’s faith belief, to treat the defense of the lives of those who are about to be born and enter into society as the cornerstone of the common good.”

More recently, Pope Francis spoke (via video message) to the 7th World Congress Against the Death Penalty. This speech caused some consternation among Catholic death penalty advocates, especially when he spoke about the way that the teaching has changed in the history of the Church:

The Church has always defended life, and her vision on the death penalty has matured. Therefore, I desired that the Catechism of the Catholic Church be modified on this point. For a long time, the death penalty was taken into account as an appropriate response to the gravity of some crimes and also to protect the common good. However, the dignity of a person is not lost even when he/she has committed the worst of crimes. The life of no one can be taken away and deprive him/her of the opportunity to be able to embrace the community again that he/she wounded and made suffer.

The objective of the abolition of the death penalty at the world level is a courageous affirmation of the principle of the dignity of the human person and of the conviction that the human race can address the crime, and also reject the evil, offering the condemned the possibility and the time to repair the damage committed, to think about his/her action and thus be able to change his/her life, at least interiorly.

We’ve heard from many critics of the change of this teaching. In this particular case, they focused on the suggestion that the Church has “matured” in her vision of the death penalty. Indeed, they argue, if the Catholic Church has always been the source of Truth, then how can it “mature” on important points of moral teaching?

The idea that the Church’s teaching on matters of human dignity can deepen, ripen, and mature over time, in light of the Gospel, is not Francis’s idea. Indeed, this concept was ratified by the Church in 1965 in Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitas Humanae, which in its very first paragraph states,

1. A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man,(1) and the demand is increasingly made that men should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty. The demand is likewise made that constitutional limits should be set to the powers of government, in order that there may be no encroachment on the rightful freedom of the person and of associations. This demand for freedom in human society chiefly regards the quest for the values proper to the human spirit. It regards, in the first place, the free exercise of religion in society. This Vatican Council takes careful note of these desires in the minds of men. It proposes to declare them to be greatly in accord with truth and justice. To this end, it searches into the sacred tradition and doctrine of the Church-the treasury out of which the Church continually brings forth new things that are in harmony with the things that are old.

The Declaration goes on to reinforce this concept further down (#12):

The leaven of the Gospel has long been about its quiet work in the minds of men, and to it is due in great measure the fact that in the course of time men have come more widely to recognize their dignity as persons.

Pope Francis is also not the first to assert that the death penalty is not in accord with human dignity and the common good. Indeed, St. John Paul II’s 1997 change to the Catechism’s paragraph 2267 includes the statement:

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.

In other words, the only case in which John Paul taught that the death penalty was admissible was in order to protect society. When the public’s safety was not in danger (a danger that St. John Paul suggested was “practically nonexistent”), the death penalty was just as inadmissible as it is today. The 1997 formulation even cites the same reasons as Francis for its inadmissibility: the common good and human dignity.

Despite what some might argue, it is indeed true that we as a Church continue to mature and develop in our understanding and respect for the inviolable dignity of human life. We are pro-life for all life.

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Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He's a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He's active in his parish and community. He is the founding managing editor for Where Peter Is.

Human life and dignity: our maturing teaching
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