Pope Francis has officially changed the Catechism of the Catholic Church this month to condemn capital punishment as “inadmissible” and that the Church will work for “its abolition worldwide.”
The Pope has announced a major change in the position of the Catholic Church to the death penalty. The Catholic Catechism has been formally amended. From the August 2, 2018 Vatican Press Release, here is the translation provided from Rome:
Traduzione in lingua inglese
The death penalty
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”, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.
What is the Catechism?
From USCatholic.org, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is explained as a reference for all Catholic doctrine published by Pope John Paul II in 1992 as part of the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Historically, the compilation goes back to 1566 when the first Roman Catechism was published as a result of the Council of Trent. For details, visit the site as it discusses the history of the Catechism, including various national catechisms (for example, the 2006 United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (USCCA)).
This Corresponds to Pope Francis’ Previous Statements Regarding the Death Penalty
The amendment is not a huge surprise. Pope Francis has been vocal about his position on the death penalty before. As an example, Sister Helen Prejean shares Pope Francis’ statements before the International Association of Criminal Law, here is the [translated] excerpt dealing with the death penalty:
I. In regard to the primacy of life and the dignity of the human person. Primatus principii pro homine
a) In regard to the Death Penalty
It is impossible to think that today States do not have at their disposal means other than capital punishment to defend the life of other persons from unjust aggression.
Saint John Paul II condemned the death penalty (cf. Encyclical Letter Evangelium Vitae, 56), as does also the Catechism of the Catholic Church (N. 2267).
However, it can be verified that States take life not only with the death penalty and with wars, but also when public officials take refuge in the shadow of State powers to justify their crimes. The so-called extra-judicial or extra-legal executions are deliberate homicides committed by some States and their agents, often making it appear as clashes with delinquents or presented as the undesired consequence of a reasonable, necessary and proportional use of force to have the law applied. In this way, even if among the 60 countries that keep the death penalty, 35 have not applied it in the last [ten] years, the death penalty is applied, illegally and in different degrees, across the whole planet.
The same extra-judicial executions are perpetrated in a systematic way not only by States of the International Community, but also by entities not recognized as such, and they represent genuine crimes.
The arguments opposed to the death penalty are many and well known. The Church stressed some of them opportunely, such as the possibility of the existence of judicial error and the use that totalitarian and dictatorial regimes make of it, which use it as an instrument of suppression of political dissidence or of persecution of religious and cultural minorities, all victims that, for their respective legislations, are “delinquents.”
Therefore, all Christians and men of good will are called today to fight not only for the abolition of the death penalty, whether legal or illegal, and in all its forms, but also in order to improve the prison conditions, in respect of the human dignity of the persons deprived of freedom. And I link this with a life sentence. In the Vatican, since a short time ago, there is no longer a life sentence in the Penal Code. A life sentence is a hidden death sentence.
Catholic Theologians Discuss What This Means to Capital Punishment
From the Catholic News Agency comes an excellent piece written by Ed Condon and entitled “Pope Francis and the death penalty: a change in doctrine or circumstances?” In the article, Condon delves into the confusion some may have regarding whether or not this announcement is “the development of doctrine”or if it is an outright change in position on the issue of the death penalty. Several respected theologians debate the issue.
Meanwhile, in the Catholic World Report comes an article by entitled “Why the Church Cannot Reverse Past Teaching on Capital Punishment.” It delves into the power of Pope Francis “… to change the Catechism of the Catholic Church so that it will “absolutely” forbid capital punishment [because] … Does Catholic doctrine permit a pope to make such a change? It very clearly does not,” pointing to teachings of both the First Vatican Council and the Second Vatican Council.
Finally, there is an op-ed by Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese, columnist for Religion News Service and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church, published on August 7, 2018 by the National Catholic Reporter and entitled “Pope Francis pushes Catholics to actively oppose the death penalty.”
Reese looks at the practicalities facing Bishops in the United States now that the Catechism has been officially amended, given that statistics show that the majority of Americans are in favor of the death penalty (emphasis added):
The U.S. bishops will now add opposition to the death penalty to their other lobbying issues. This list already includes controversial positions such as their support for comprehensive immigration reform, universal health care and programs to help the poor and their opposition to the Muslim ban, abortion and gay marriage.
Just as some Catholic politicians have parted from the bishops on these issues, there will certainly be some who oppose the bishops’ call for eliminating the death penalty. One of the things I like about the bishops is that they make both political parties uncomfortable.
As long as the discussion of the death penalty is conducted in the abstract, it can remain rather academic. But once it becomes focused on an individual criminal, passions will flare up. If the criminal is a serial killer, a rapist-murderer or someone who has shot schoolchildren, the bishops’ call for clemency will meet fierce opposition.
In the past, some bishops have opposed the execution of specific criminals in their states and called on governors to commute their sentences to life imprisonment. Now we can expect all the bishops to join in these efforts, and we can also expect vocal opposition. This is a fight the bishops will not win unless their people join them.
Will This End Prosecutors Seeking the Death Penalty? No.
This news from Rome will not stop prosecutors across the United States, as well as the rest of the world, from seeking the death penalty. For the position of the prosecutor on Pope Francis’ amendment to the Catholic Catechism, read “Prosecutor disagrees with Pope Francis’s death penalty ruling,” where Ohio’s Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters explains the prosecutorial stance.
As for what it will mean for individual jurors, and jury selection, that is a different and difficult issue. Will prosecutors try and find ways to keep Catholics off their juries? What do you think?