Pope Francis seems to want to reverse the consistent teaching of the Catholic Church on capital punishment. I’m sure that plenty of my dear readers have heard about how he intends to change the current passage in the Catholic catechism. It is important to discuss this change, because it has the chance to undermine all Catholic dogma. If the Church was wrong about whether capital punishment is an intrinsic evil, can we ever trust the Church about anything? Moreover, God Himself seems to strongly encourage capital punishments at certain times during the Old Testament. Is Pope Francis then saying that God commands people to do moral wrongs or that God is completely arbitrary? These are very troubling notions which really can completely undermine the authority of the Catholic Church.
Before I comment on the new one, let’s take a look at the old passage:
2266 The State’s effort to contain the spread of behaviors injurious to human rights and the fundamental rules of civil coexistence corresponds to the requirement of watching over the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime. The primary scope of the penalty is to redress the disorder caused by the offense. When his punishment is voluntarily accepted by the offender, it takes on the value of expiation. Moreover, punishment, in addition to preserving public order and the safety of persons, has a medicinal scope: as far as possible it should contribute to the correction of the offender.
2267 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.
If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect 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.
Today, in fact, given the means at the State’s disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender ‘today … are very rare, if not practically non-existent.’
So, the old statement says that the State has the right to use capital punishment in defense of society. At the same time, it offers the opinion that First World systems of penal correction are sophisticated enough to protect society from even very violent people; hence, there is no need for Canada, the United States, Europe, and certain other countries to have recourse to the death penalty. There are many developing countries where the prison systems are not so perfect, so that line of argument does not fit there.
Still, as emphasized by Pope Benedict XVI, capital punishment is a topic over which Catholics may have legitimate disagreement. A Catholic’s stance on whether the State may use the death penalty for grave offenses does not harm his good standing:
3. Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.
Yet, I read at least one theologian claiming that now a Catholic’s opinion regarding capital punishment will affect his good standing in the Church. It’s not hard to believe that when passage 2267 of the catechism will be changed to read thus:
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.
The last paragraph avers or seems to aver that the death penalty is intrinsically evil. It does not appeal to prudence or to the possibility of mercy. Instead, it claims that the death penalty is inadmissible in light of the Gospel. However, the Church has enjoyed the light of the Gospel for two thousand years and not discovered that the death penalty is inherently wrong.
Shall we take a walk down memory lane? Even the Vatican prescribed the death penalty in its code of law for the assassination of the pope as late as 1969. Pope Pius XII, erroneously dubbed “Hitler’s pope,” sent legal counsel to the Nuremberg trials so that the Nazi war criminals might be punished to the full extent of the law–obviously including capital punishment. The Papal states themselves had an official executioner, Giovanni Battista Bugatti, who executed 516 malefactors between 1796 and 1865.
And, what do you suppose the Trent Catechism (1566) has to say on the matter? The Council of Trent (1545-63) was the most important Church council until the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). This is what you read on capital punishment when you pick up the Trent Catechism:
Execution Of CriminalsAnother kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder. The end of the Commandment is the preservation and security of human life. Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing outrage and violence. Hence these words of David: In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land, that I might cut off all the workers of iniquity from the city of the Lord.
I answer that…every part is directed to the whole, as imperfect to perfect, wherefore every part is naturally for the sake of the whole. For this reason we observe that if the health of the whole body demands the excision of a member, through its being decayed or infectious to the other members, it will be both praiseworthy and advantageous to have it cut away. Now every individual person is compared to the whole community, as part to whole. Therefore if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, [italics mine] since “a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump….”Reply to Objection 2. According to the order of His wisdom, God sometimes slays sinners forthwith in order to deliver the good, whereas sometimes He allows them time to repent, according as He knows what is expedient for His elect. This also does human justice imitate according to its powers; for it puts to death those who are dangerous to others, while it allows time for repentance to those who sin without grievously harming others [italics mine].