Catechism Change on Capital Punishment: Justified and Inadmissible?

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National Catholic Register

Pope Francis, building upon the teaching of St. John Paul II, has made it clear that the Church opposes the use of the death penalty. The two of them, though, have taught against the death penalty without addressing the primary reason the Church long taught that the death penalty was not only morally permissible, but even a duty in some circumstances.

In 1997, the Catechism of the Catholic Church was revised to reflect John Paul’s teaching in Evangelium Vitae that the circumstances in which the death penalty was required were now “very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” He concluded that the state had other means to “protect people’s safety” and that “nonlethal means” are “more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.”

Now, Pope Francis has directed that Catechism 2267 be changed again to read that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

Both of these revisions — 1997 and 2018 — teach against the death penalty on safety and human-dignity grounds. The Catechism teaches, though, in the previous paragraph, that “legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict penalties proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense” (2266).

Both John Paul II and Francis have taught against the death penalty without addressing the “primary” purpose of the penalty itself, namely “redressing the disorder,” which has traditionally been the primary reason the Church has long taught that the death penalty was just.

Did John Paul thus change the settled teaching on the death penalty? No. He argued that circumstances made it inadvisable and to be avoided, but remained silent on whether it remained justified per se.

Did Pope Francis change the settled teaching? No. He could have said that the use of the death penalty is unjust, or intrinsically evil or immoral. Rather, he taught that it was “inadmissible,” which is a term apparently chosen because it has not been used before and therefore has no fixed meaning.

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