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Pope Bans Death Penalty

Reverses two millennia of Catholic teaching

This is big news:

Pope Francis has declared the death penalty inadmissible in all cases “because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” the Vatican announced on Thursday, in a shift in Roman Catholic teaching on the issue.

Francis, who has spoken out against capital punishment before — including in 2015 in an address to Congress — added the change to the Catechism of the Catholic Church — the compendium of Catholic beliefs.

The pontiff, who is the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics, said the church would work “with determination” for the abolition of capital punishment worldwide.

Previously, the catechism allowed the death penalty in some cases, if it was “the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor,” even if in reality “cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender today are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

I don’t see how he can do this. To be clear, I am in most cases opposed to the death penalty, but I agree (agreed) with the previous teaching of the Catholic Church, which was (until Francis’s statement) that it is permissible when there are no bloodless ways to protect society. Catholic supporters of the death penalty have pointed out in the past that there’s no way that the Church can totally forbid it, and remain faithful to its past authoritative teachings.

In 2001, Avery Cardinal Dulles, an eminent theologian wrote an essay about the Church and the death penalty. 

He shows how the Church, from the patristic period until the 20th century, maintained consistently that capital punishment was permissible under certain conditions. The (at the time) official position of the Catholic Church was that the death penalty should only be used in extreme situations. Excerpt:

In coming to this prudential conclusion, the magisterium is not changing the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine remains what it has been: that the State, in principle, has the right to impose the death penalty on persons convicted of very serious crimes. But the classical tradition held that the State should not exercise this right when the evil effects outweigh the good effects. Thus the principle still leaves open the question whether and when the death penalty ought to be applied. The Pope and the bishops, using their prudential judgment, have concluded that in contemporary society, at least in countries like our own, the death penalty ought not to be invoked, because, on balance, it does more harm than good. I personally support this position.

As do I today, even though I am not a Catholic.

Pope Francis, however, began making noises last year that the Church was wrong ever to support the death penalty. Last fall, Catholic philosopher Edward Feser said that the Magisterium (the teaching authority of the Catholic Church) cannot outright deny the licitness of the death penalty. Feser was writing to call on Pope Francis to clarify his statements on the death penalty. Excerpts:

To provide context, it is necessary briefly to review the Church’s traditional teaching on capital punishment. Consider first that the Church teaches that Scripture is divinely inspired and cannot teach error on matters of faith and morals. Yet there are a great many passages in Scripture that teach the legitimacy of capital punishment. For example, Genesis 9:6 states: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.” Romans 13:4 teaches that the state “does not bear the sword in vain [but] is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer.” Many other passages could be cited. The Fathers of the Church understood such passages to be sanctioning capital punishment, and the Church has for two thousand years consistently followed this interpretation. The Church also teaches (for example, at the First Vatican Council) that Catholics are obliged to interpret Scripture consistent with the way the Fathers understood it, and consistent with the Church’s traditional interpretation. Taken together, these teachings logically entail that the legitimacy of capital punishment is regarded by the Church as a divinely revealed doctrine.


Even Pope St John Paul II explicitly reaffirmed in the Catechism he promulgated that “the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty” under certain conditions. It is true that John Paul thought that capital punishment was in practice best avoided, but this was a non-binding prudential judgment rather than a doctrinal matter. Cardinal Ratzinger, John Paul II’s doctrinal spokesman and later to become Pope Benedict XVI, made this clear when he stated in 2004 that:

If a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment…he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities… to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to…have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about… applying the death penalty. [Emphasis added]

But mightn’t a pope reverse Scripture and his predecessors on such a matter? He may not. While the First Vatican Council taught that a pope is infallible when he speaks ex cathedra, it also insisted that:

The Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.

In a 2005 homily, Pope Benedict XVI reiterated the point, saying:

The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law… He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God’s Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down…

The Pope knows that in his important decisions, he is bound…to the binding interpretations that have developed throughout the Church’s pilgrimage.

Feser went on to say:

For another thing, if the Pope is saying that capital punishment is always and intrinsically immoral, then he would be effectively saying – whether consciously or unconsciously – that previous popes, Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and even divinely inspired Scripture are in error. If this is what he is saying, then he would be attempting to “make known some new doctrine,” which the First Vatican Council expressly forbids a pope from doing. He would, contrary to the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI, be “proclaim[ing] his own ideas” rather than “bind[ing] himself and the Church to obedience to God’s Word.” He would be joining that very small company of popes who have flirted with doctrinal error. And he would be undermining the credibility of the entire Magisterium of the Church, including his own credibility. For if the Church has been that wrong for that long about something that serious, why should we trust anything else she teaches? And if all previous popes have been so badly mistaken about something so important, why should we think Pope Francis is right?

Read the whole thing.

So, today, there is no “if” about it: Pope Francis has said flat-out that the death penalty is immoral, and has ordered the Catechism to be written to reflect this new teaching. As of this morning, the Catechism now reads:

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.

It seems to me that the Pope has crossed a bright line. He is denying, for the first time in nearly two millennia of Catholic teaching, and in direct contradiction to the Fathers of the Church, that the state has the right to impose capital punishment. That’s a meaningful difference from saying that the state has that right, but shouldn’t use it.

Even if you disfavor the death penalty, understand what this means: this Pope has claimed forthrightly that the Catholic Church taught error, but now, at long last, he has set the Church straight. From a traditional point of view, though, this means that the Pope is teaching error.

This. Is. Big.

If Francis can do this, what can’t he do? What are the limits on his power?

Catholic friends keep saying to me how much they hope that the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches can end our thousand-year schism, and reunite. I would love for that to happen myself, but I keep telling them that even if the Orthodox set aside the historical prejudices that stand in the way, there is no way that Orthodoxy is going to take the chance of reunion with the Latin church that is so unstable, liturgically and doctrinally.

UPDATE: Lots of good commentary around this. Let’s start with this just sent to me by a Catholic priest:

So let me get this straight?  Francis breaks with 2000 years of tradition to change Church teaching on Capital Punishment (which was already practically banned) but he won’t clarify what the Hell he means by Amoris Laetitia?  Why was this necessary except for a shameless exercise of his Papal authority?

Ross Douthat has a Twitter thread saying that yes, this is adding to the confusion, but it’s not quite a bright red line. Excerpts:



A very, very important point: no normal person listening to popes would think that. This Jesuit pope is reminding people why the word “Jesuitical” is a pejorative synonym for clerical casuistry.

Along these lines, reader Matt in VA, who is not a Catholic, comments below on how Francis is defeating trads and conservatives:

The liberals and gays understand something that TradCaths are constitutionally, definitionally incapable of understanding. Fights over whether the doctrine changes on paper are incredibly small potatoes compared to what we actually see with our own eyes when we look at the world around us. Once you’ve changed the world around us, the world we all can see, and the unarmed TradCaths are huddled around that piece of paper, with absolutely zero resources other than their Bonhoeffer quotes, what on earth are they going to do?

Reader John A. shows how this is going to play out regarding homosexuality and official Church teaching:

From the Catholic Catechism of 2030:

“Sexual relations between persons of the same sex were long considered to be intrinsically disordered acts.

“Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost when a person engages in same-sex relations. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the meaning of human sexuality.

“Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘same-sex sexual activity is a legitimate expression of the inviolability and dignity of the person’, and she works with determination for its acceptance worldwide.”

That is what smart liberal Catholics like Father James Martin, SJ, argue: that what we know today about homosexuality makes authoritative Church teaching of the past null and void.

For me, as a seeker in my early twenties, the Catholic Church’s claims to be a solid rock of doctrine in a liberalizing world, was a huge draw. I don’t see how, under Francis, that is plausible any longer — not in the world of “normal people.”