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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20 Responses

  1. Avatar Chris dorf says:

    It has always baffled me as to why certain segments of the Catholic faithful reject the consistent life ethic or seamless garment explanation of reverencing God’s human creation. If Jesus Christ the second part of the holy Trinity came to Earth as man God out of love for humankind then it should be a no-brainer to accept the consistent life ethic.

    • Avatar carn says:

      “It has always baffled me as to why certain segments of the Catholic faithful reject the consistent life ethic or seamless garment explanation of reverencing God’s human creation.”

      According to what i know it is not so much a rejection of consistent life ethic itself, but often people arguing in favor of consistent life ethic stretch it beyond any reasonable limit and this overblown consistent life ethic is perceived as the actual consistent life ethic and also deemed wrong and accordingly resisted.

      In other words, many people arguing in favor of a “consistent life ethic” create a false picture of what consistent life ethic is and this false picture gets resisted.

      More concrete, an example:

      https://thenewprolifemovement.com/index.php/the-11-pillars/

      There are a few totally overblown things among those 11 pillars, e.g.:

      “we oppose any legislation that … cuts benefits”

      So by the words it seems they would even oppose cutting benefits of government workers in face of imminent bankruptcy of the state and/or an imminent hyperinflation; which would both be totally stupid and has nothing to do with a consistent life ethic; but if taking their words as written, these consistent life ethics groups seems to argue that a consistent life ethic would require opposing cutting government worker benefits even in these cases.

      I do not actually think that they really mean it that way; but nonetheless due to these and other statements other people think that such stupid things are what “consistent life ethics” requires; and then correctly conclude that such a “consistent life ethic” is something to be opposed cause it is just inflexible stupidity.

      Accordingly, it boils down to a sort of communication problem.

  2. Avatar ONG says:

    Chris, an observation: why would you use the words “Jesus Christ the second PART of the Trinity”…
    It messes up with whenever one is trying to explain the Mystery to those who deny it.

    None of the PERSONS of the Trinity are PARTS, but each one always ONE and WHOLE.

    Neither SEPARATE (as sometimes one hears), but DISTINCT (from distinguish/distinction).

    • Avatar Mike Lewis says:

      Just a note about comments. We moderate all comments because we receive a number of abusive comments on everything we post. So the easiest way to handle the issue is to moderate them all. We let through nearly all substantial comments, positive and negative, although when the same person posts negative comment after negative comment, we might cut them off after a few.

      So if you submit one, it will show up once one of us gets around to approving it.

      FYI

    • Avatar Chris dorf says:

      I wasn’t making a theological comment… It is just that we say ‘father son and holy Spirit’… and son is always said second after father and before holy Spirit…

  3. Avatar Jane says:

    Can we not forget that the Church did not declare the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception until 1854? Christ our Savior prayed that we be brought to a fullness of the Truth. Is that not what our Holy Catholic Church has been doing since the very beginning? Was not a certain form of the Mass begun until 1570? And I’m sure we can come up with so many more examples. . .Did not Sts. Cyril and Methodius advocate for the vernacular back before the year 1000? I think what I am trying to say is that Our Holy Mother Church is continually seeking to come to a fullness of the truth, and Our Holy Father is the one and only person on this earth who has the graces to be the Pope ( definitely not ME!), and therefore the one to lead the entire church towards that fullness. God bless you

  4. Avatar Peter Aiello says:

    This implies that Genesis 9:6 is immature. I would not want to be in a position to imply that.

    • Avatar Chris dorf says:

      Just for the record this is what Peter aiello is pointed us towards from the old testament:

      “Genesis 9:6
      6 “Whoever sheds human blood,
      by humans shall their blood be shed;
      for in the image of God
      has God made mankind.”

      • Avatar Marthe Lépine says:

        I would not say “immature”, but rather it is a witness to the times when Genesis was written, and humanity has evolved since then, to the point when there are now other means to protect other members of society against a murderer, as well as development (or further progress) of the understanding of the notion of human dignity. However, I might be wrong…

  5. Avatar Cpt39 says:

    Thanks Mike, appreciate your writing this. I want to offer what I think is an important and often overlooked point. You wrote:

    “In other words, the only case in which John Paul taught that the death penalty was admissible was in order to protect society.”

    This teaching is not unique to St. JPII. The Catechism of the Council of Trent taught way back in 1566 that the source of the civil authorities’ just power to inflict death as a punishment is its duty to act in accordance with “the preservation and security of human life.” In other words, according to the Catechism of Trent, the death penalty is licit not merely when the criminal objectively deserves execution as a matter of proximate justice, but when this penalty *also* serves to preserve and protect innocent human life. St. John Paul II echoed this traditional teaching in his catechism, albeit with a strong shift in emphasis, but ultimately both catechisms are saying the same thing: the State is not God, and must not play God. Its charter is to cultivate and protect the common good in the practical domain, not to immanentize the eschaton. There is much less development than meets the eye between Trent and St. JPII on this point.

    I think this is important because one of the responses I’ve seen come up repeatedly in this debate over whether the Holy Father has “changed” Church teaching is that the real change happened not with Pope Francis, but with Pope St. JPII. This claim is plainly false (it seems to me).

    In light of this I am left with lingering questions regarding how to understand Pope Francis’s magisterial teaching on this topic. He has stated that, “no matter how serious the crime that has been committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.” Is the Holy Father saying that the Church’s understanding has developed to contradict the catechisms of Trent and St. JPII on this point, implying that they were/are in error?

    • Avatar Mike Lewis says:

      I think John Paul took “retributive justice” off the table as a justification for the death penalty, (not that it was ever taught officially by the Magisterium), and left the protection of society as the only justification for its use. He taught that it was not to be used (in other words, was inadmissible) except in such a situation, which he saw was extremely rare or even nonexistent in practice.

      But the key, and here I disagree with you, is that John Paul recognized, as Dignitas Humanae acknowledged, that the Church has indeed come to a deeper understanding of human dignity, and that our approach to the death penalty must reflect that. He thought that the death penalty was not in accord with either human dignity or the common good. That was the biggest shift, not Francis’s declaration that it is inadmissible.

      • Avatar Cpt39 says:

        Mike, thanks for the response. You wrote:

        “I think John Paul took “retributive justice” off the table as a justification for the death penalty, (not that it was ever taught officially by the Magisterium), and left the protection of society as the only justification for its use.”

        I’m not clear on what you mean when you say he took retributive justice “off the table”. It was never on the table by itself to begin with, and Pope St. John Paul II did not remove it from the equation. In order for the State to justly execute a criminal, it must be true – simultaneously and separately – that the punishment is just, and it is necessary in order to protect the innocent. Pope St. John Paul II affirmed this when he wrote:

        “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.”

        Both criteria must hold, simultaneously and separately. They must both be “on the table”, so to speak.

        From where I sit Pope St. John Paul II’s magisterial teachings on the subject don’t look like much of a development, given that the State’s legitimate power to inflict the death penalty arises – according to Trent, and when and only when it is also a just punishment – from a mandate to “[preserve] and [secure] human life.”

        I agree that the Church’s understanding deepens and develops over time, but my understanding is that development of doctrine functions in the manner described by Blessed John Henry Newman. In other words, genuine development does not contradict what came before. The Nicene Creed is a genuine development of the Apostle’s Creed, and the Creed of Pope St. Paul VI (Credo of the People of God) is an even further development of the Nicene Creed, but if I choose to sum up the Catholic Faith by reciting the Apostle’s Creed I am not wrong to do so. I would expect this to work with all genuine developments so that reciting the “undeveloped” doctrine does not place me in error.

      • Avatar Mike Lewis says:

        How do you tackle the 1997 formulation’s assertion that nonlethal means are more in line with respect for human dignity and the common good?

        John Paul was clearly asserting that the death penalty was morally problematic. His later statements reaffirmed that assertion. And both he and Benedict called for its abolition.

        Francis’s “inadmissible” was simply a more definitive assertion of the practical implications of the prior teaching.

      • Avatar Cpt39 says:

        “How do you tackle the 1997 formulation’s assertion that nonlethal means are more in line with respect for human dignity and the common good? ”

        It is expressly stating what ought to have been already surmised from Trent. In addition to the burden of proving guilt and punishing justly, charity obligates the additional requirement of resorting to the death penalty only when it is, in addition to being just punishment, necessary to do so for the protection of society. This is clear (at least to me) in the light of what Trent tells us about the source of the State’s just power to inflict death as a punishment. Therefore if, as Pope St. John Paul II wrote, “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.” This follows directly from what the Catechism of Trent taught. It is not licit to execute a man merely because he objectively deserves it as a matter of justice, his execution must also be necessary to protect innocent human life. If non-lethal means exist to protect the innocent, it cannot ever be licit to execute a criminal no matter how heinous his crime. Both criteria must be met.

        In this context it is hardly problematic for the Church to call for the abolition of the death penalty. If non-lethal means exist to protect the innocent we should seek to spread those means across the globe. Furthermore, I fully recognize the authority of the Sovereign Pontiff to command State actors to refrain from executing criminals. The spiritual power is superior to the temporal, etc., etc.

        None of the above stands in contradiction to the Church’s constant teaching from (at the very latest) Trent all the way down to magisterial teachings of Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. The death penalty is not intrinsically immoral but any licit exercise of it must simultaneously fulfill two separate criteria – (1) it must be a just punishment and (2) necessary to protect innocent life – the latter of which is becoming ever increasingly easier to fulfill through non-lethal means and the Church works to ensure the eventual abolition of the death penalty through the global spread of these non-lethal means.

        Pope Francis’s “inadmissible” appears to do something different because he has stated, “no matter how serious the crime that has been committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.” A plain interpretation of this, and the one that most people seem to be taking away, is that the first criteria for licit application of the death penalty is wrong. Whereas St. JPII and BXVI sought to expand awareness and understanding of the second criteria, Pope Francis appears to be saying that actually it is the first criteria that can not ever be fulfilled. If this in fact what he’s saying it is quite different from what Trent, St. JPII, BXVI, or any other magisterial source taught in regard to the matter.

      • Avatar Mike Lewis says:

        Pope Francis avoids the “intrinsic evil” debate by declaring it inadmissible. He took John Paul’s “if not practically nonexistent” and said, “yes, non-existent in practice. Don’t do it.”

        In addition, it carries the weight of Magisterial teaching, along with a CDF justification, so religious assent of the mind and will is required. It appears that you are unwilling to recognize Francis’ justification for the teaching, but you might want to ask yourself why you are doing so.

      • Avatar Cpt39 says:

        Thanks Mike. You wrote:

        “Pope Francis avoids the ‘intrinsic evil’ debate by declaring it inadmissible. He took John Paul’s ‘if not practically nonexistent’ and said, ‘yes, non-existent in practice. Don’t do it.’”

        If the proper interpretation of the Holy Father’s teaching is that the death penalty is not intrinsically immoral, but the spiritual power is superior to the temporal, and Christ’s Vicar on Earth now commands temporal powers to refrain from this act, I will gladly shut up and row.

        I note, however, that such an interpretation completely sidesteps His Holiness’ justification of the change, which appear to use his role as teacher rather than his ruling/imperative role (“the Church teaches…” rather than “the Church commands…”).

        “In addition, it carries the weight of Magisterial teaching, along with a CDF justification, so religious assent of the mind and will is required. It appears that you are unwilling to recognize Francis’ justification for the teaching, but you might want to ask yourself why you are doing so.”

        I have already granted religious assent of the mind and will to the consistent teaching of both the catechisms of Trent and St. Pope John Paul II with regard to this subject. I desire to assent to the His Holiness’ magisterial teaching, my only question is whether this requires me to withdraw my assent to the consistent teaching of those two prior catechisms.

      • Avatar Mike Lewis says:

        You are to accept it as a legitimate development in continuity with Tradition. Read the CDF document. Read Lumen Gentium and Donum Veritatis.

        You know what is required of you in response to magisterial teaching.

        I don’t want to be overly authoritarian in my approach, but I’ve laid out the reasoning and justifications for you behind the revision to paragraph 2267 and you appear to be committed to rejecting them.

        I have directed you towards the official teaching and the reasons behind it. At this point, it’s a matter of your own conscience and how important it is to you to assent to the teachings of the Church.

      • Avatar Marthe Lépine says:

        cpt39: I think your basic error here is to make an unnecessary distinction between what the Church teaches and what the Church commands, since there is also a command elsewhere that we are to accept everything that the Church teaches.

  6. Avatar carn says:

    “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.”

    So PJPII taught that death penalty was admissible in one and only one case (which might even occur never or nearly never in present times).
    And PF teaches that death penalty is admissible in no case or in zero cases.

    Did i understand you correctly?

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