(This originated as an article in my parish bulletin, but I reworked it a little.)
Let's talk about the Holy Father’s recent decision about the death penalty. This is complicated, so I apologize in advance if my brief comments don’t answer all questions; but I do think some explanation is needed. On Friday, August 3, the Vatican issued a letter – from Cardinal Laderia, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – that included a new paragraph for the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that states the following:
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.
This announcement was hailed as a “change in Church teaching”; this startled me when I heard it on the radio. This is where the problem and the confusion lies.
The death penalty issue actually involves two distinct but overlapping questions. First, a morality question: what is good vs. what is evil? And both the Bible and the Church have said, continuously, that the death penalty is moral, if guilt is properly determined, and if not inhumanely applied. To be clear, this part cannot change! The pope did not – because he cannot – decide that what had been morally permissible for thousands of years, now is not. He can’t do it, because no one can. Only God determines good and evil.
The second question is a public-policy one: working from what is morally acceptable (the prior question), now we ask: what is a wise, prudent way to go forward as a society in our particular time and circumstances? Only this latter issue is subject to change with the times, whether by Pope Francis, or any other pope. The confusion here is that people are mixing these questions together.
Recall that it was Pope John Paul II who first proposed that society should avoid the death penalty, unless absolutely necessary; and in my judgment, Pope Francis is really only reiterating that point with greater emphasis. Pope John Paul II stated the following in the Catechism:
“The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor” (CCC 2267, prior version). However, Pope John Paul II went on to urge that non-lethal punishment be preferred, stating that “cases of absolute necessity” for use of capital punishment today “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”
Candidly, I think the way this was presented, first by the Vatican and then others, lacked the clear distinctions that are needed. The Holy Father, having a praiseworthy objective of minimizing the death penalty (as did prior popes), is not addressing these distinctions at the moment, but he is well aware of them and knows that they matter. In time they will need to be clarified.
As far as I can see, the language of Pope John Paul remains in force, even if it isn't entirely retained in the Catechism. Namely: that on the morality question: is capital punishment good or evil -- then what the Church has always taught, is still true; the death penalty is justified with the usual conditions.
Nevertheless, on the public-policy question -- what's good for us here and now -- the Church urges avoidance of the death penalty to the maximum extent possible.
I know what many are saying: nope, Pope Francis closed that door. But the thing is, I can't see how he can. Can the pope declare good evil, and evil, good? No, he cannot. And note well, his language does not do that. Not once does the pope declare, explicitly, that capital punishment is "intrinsically" (or any other kind of) evil. He merely says, "inadmissible," which is -- from a theological and philosophical standpoint -- vague and loose. In my judgment, it boils down to a restatement of Pope John Paul's, try to avoid it all you can.
Someone asked me, does this mean I disagree with the pope? Well, the honest answer is, I don't know! But I don't really think so. The very lack of clarity here leaves me not knowing what Pope Francis' full intentions are. So I have to guess, and here's my guess:
1) He wants to discourage the death penalty as much as possible.
2) He thinks, at least in our circumstances, it is "bad" to do; meaning, it makes a net negative impact on society.
On these two points I agree with Pope Francis.
But does he think that the death penalty is morally evil and can never be justified in any fashion? Perhaps he does, and many people believe that's what he's saying here; but the problem is, if I say the pope believes that, I am accusing him of denying something the Church has always held, on the basis of Sacred Scripture, no less. And I will not make any such accusation against him; instead, I will err on the side of charity, especially in this matter.
That's not just an equivocation out of charity. I simply do not know what is in the heart of the pope, because I cannot know that. What I know is that the pope has issued new language for the Catechism, that in my judgment is muddled; but even then, it notably is careful about not going too far. That is to say, what if he had declared the death penalty intrinsically evil? And why didn't he? The answer, I think, is because he was told, if he did not tell himself, that he cannot do that and must not do that. In any case, he did not do that.
So, we have a mess. The pope is famous for saying "Hagan lio," which is translated as "make a mess." In the context, as I recall, he was encouraging folks not to be passive or inert, but to be active, engaged, and not to be afraid that their activism will ruffle feathers or challenge the status quo. This is something the pope himself does. At times this is very good advice; at other times, it can be unsettling, including for me in the present case. Some want to accuse him of malicious intent or gross neglect; some accuse him of being a heretic. If you wish to find fault with me for not reaching those conclusions, so be it; but I will make no such grave accusations unless I really have no alternative.
Nevertheless, I cannot help saying this. One regrettable consequence of this is that the Catechism, which heretofore I have always treated as a clear statement of Church teaching, is now a bit of a "mess." I'm sorry about that; and it will be a little more complicated making use of it. I have the prior edition, and I intend to keep using it. That way I can share with people the language placed there by Pope John Paul II that I think maintains the necessary clarifications. I will refer to the desire of the current Holy Father that use of the death penalty be "inadmissible," and do my best to explain how that is consistent with the unchanging teaching of the Church on this matter.