I’ve seen a lot of confusion in the past year about the Church’s new teaching on the death penalty that was issued last summer when Pope Francis changed paragraph 2267 of the Catechism. One of the key misconceptions I’ve heard is that this new teaching is simply the prudential opinion of the pope and therefore nothing has actually changed and Catholics are free to respectfully disagree. However, I think an attentive reading of the new teaching quickly refutes this misunderstanding. 

This isn’t the first time paragraph 2267 has been changed. The Catechism was first published in 1992, and that edition had this to say about the death penalty:

“If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.”

In other words, capital punishment is only allowed when a society isn’t capable of isolating violent criminals from the community. When the second edition of the Catechism came out in 1997 the Church revised that paragraph to say:

“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.'”

Notice that this revision doesn’t really change the doctrine that was taught in 1992.  Capital punishment is still only allowed when a society isn’t capable of isolating violent criminals from the community. However, John Paul II added the caveat that “guilty party’s identity and responsibility” had to be “fully determined.” The pope also added his prudential judgement that because states are capable of preventing an offender from harming the community that the circumstances that would allow the legitimate use of the death penalty “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

While the difference between the 1992 and 1997 teaching was largely prudential, the 2018 revision is different. The current Catechism says:

“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.”

I’ve heard many people say that all Pope Francis is doing is making the same prudential analysis that Pope John Paul II made but is coming to the more definitive conclusion that “the death penalty is inadmissible.” And if that’s the case then this new teaching is simply the prudential opinion of the pope and therefore nothing has actually changed and Catholics are free to respectfully disagree. However, this interpretation fails to account for what the new teaching actually says.

The Church gives three reasons for the new teaching. The third reason has to do with our capability of defending the community from violent criminals and is prudential in nature because the social, economic, and technological circumstances that make that possible could change at some point in the future. However, the first two reasons the Church lists are not contingent on the reality of modern prisons. 

The Catechism says that the Church today has a greater understanding of human dignity, namely that this dignity is not lost by committing a serious crime. Further, the Church also has an increased understanding of penal sanctions, that their primary purpose is rehabilitation and not punishment. We know this is what the Church means because the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a letter explaining the change to the Catechism which says:

“The new text, following the footsteps of the teaching of John Paul II in Evangelium vitae, affirms that ending the life of a criminal as punishment for a crime is inadmissible because it attacks the dignity of the person, a dignity that is not lost even after having committed the most serious crimes. This conclusion is reached taking into account the new understanding of penal sanctions applied by the modern State, which should be oriented above all to the rehabilitation and social reintegration of the criminal.”

These are not matters of personal opinion or prudence because the Church is commenting on the nature of human persons and the purpose of punishment. Further, this letter refers to the new teaching as a development of doctrine. Development means that things are not the same as they were before, and doctrine means that this isn’t simply the pope’s prudential opinion. 

The Church now teaches, as a matter of doctrine, that the death penalty is not morally acceptable. As Cardinal Dolan tweeted back in June, “With the clear and cogent clarification of the successor of St. Peter, there now exists no loophole to morally justify capital punishment.”

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