In a move that should surprise no one, Pope Francis has once again appeared to contradict two millennia of clear and consistent scriptural and Catholic teaching. The Vatican has announced that the Catechism of the Catholic Church will be changed to declare the death penalty “inadmissible” given the “inviolability and dignity of the person” as understood “in the light of the Gospel.”
There has always been disagreement among Catholics about whether capital punishment is, in practice, the morally best way to uphold justice and social order. However, the Church has always taught, clearly and consistently, that the death penalty is in principle consistent with both natural law and the Gospel. This is taught throughout scripture—from Genesis 9 to Romans 13 and many points in between—and the Church maintains that scripture cannot teach moral error. It was taught by the Fathers of the Church, including those Fathers who opposed the application of capital punishment in practice. It was taught by the Doctors of the Church, including St. Thomas Aquinas, the Church’s greatest theologian; St. Alphonsus Liguori, her greatest moral theologian; and St. Robert Bellarmine, who, more than any other Doctor, illuminated how Christian teaching applies to modern political circumstances.
It was clearly and consistently taught by the popes up to and including Pope Benedict XVI. That Christians can in principle legitimately resort to the death penalty is taught by the Roman Catechism promulgated by Pope St. Pius V, the Catechism of Christian Doctrine promulgated by Pope St. Pius X, and the 1992 and 1997 versions of the most recent Catechism promulgated by Pope St. John Paul II—this last despite the fact that John Paul was famously opposed to applying capital punishment in practice. Pope St. Innocent I and Pope Innocent III taught that acceptance of the legitimacy in principle of capital punishment is a requirement of Catholic orthodoxy. Pope Pius XII explicitly endorsed the death penalty on several occasions. This is why Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as John Paul’s chief doctrinal officer, explicitly affirmed in a 2004 memorandum:
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.
Joseph Bessette and I document this traditional teaching at length in our recent book. For reasons I have set out in a more recent article, the traditional teaching clearly meets the criteria for an infallible and irreformable teaching of the Church’s ordinary Magisterium. It is no surprise that so many popes have been careful to uphold it, nor that Bellarmine judged it “heretical” to maintain that Christians cannot in theory apply capital punishment.
So, has Pope Francis now contradicted this teaching? On the one hand, the letter issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith announcing the change asserts that it constitutes “an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium.” Nor does the new language introduced into the catechism clearly and explicitly state that the death penalty is intrinsically contrary to either natural law or the Gospel.
On the other hand, the Catechism as John Paul left it had already taken the doctrinal considerations as far as they could be taken in an abolitionist direction, consistent with past teaching. That is why, when holding that the cases in which capital punishment is called for are “very rare, if not practically non-existent,” John Paul’s Catechism appeals to prudential considerations concerning what is strictly necessary in order to protect society.
Pope Francis, by contrast, wants the Catechism to teach that capital punishment ought never to be used (rather than “very rarely” used), and he justifies this change not on prudential grounds, but “so as to better reflect the development of the doctrine on this point.” The implication is that Pope Francis thinks that considerations of doctrine or principle rule out the use of capital punishment in an absolute way. Moreover, to say, as the pope does, that the death penalty conflicts with “the inviolability and dignity of the person” insinuates that the practice is intrinsically contrary to natural law. And to say, as the pope does, that “the light of the Gospel” rules out capital punishment insinuates that it is intrinsically contrary to Christian morality.
To say either of these things is precisely to contradict past teaching. Nor does the letter from the CDF explain how the new teaching can be made consistent with the teaching of scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and previous popes. Merely asserting that the new language “develops” rather than “contradicts” past teaching does not make it so. The CDF is not Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, and a pope is not Humpty Dumpty, able by fiat to make words mean whatever he wants them to. Slapping the label “development” onto a contradiction doesn’t transform it into a non-contradiction.
An irony is that John Paul’s Catechism was issued to clarify matters of doctrine, and finally put a halt to post–Vatican II speculation that Catholic teaching was open to endless revision. Yet now we have had two revisions to the Catechism’s own teaching on capital punishment—one in 1997, under John Paul himself, and another under Francis.
Nor is the problem confined to capital punishment. This latest development is part of a by-now familiar pattern. Pope Francis has made statements that appear to contradict traditional Catholic teaching on contraception, on marriage and divorce, grace, conscience, and Holy Communion, and other matters. He has also persistently refused to clarify his problematic statements, even when clarification has been formally and respectfully requested by eminent theologians and members of the hierarchy. The effect is to embolden those who want to reverse other traditional teachings of the Church, and to demoralize those who want to uphold those teachings.
If capital punishment is wrong in principle, then the Church has for two millennia consistently taught grave moral error and badly misinterpreted scripture. And if the Church has been so wrong for so long about something so serious, then there is no teaching that might not be reversed, with the reversal justified by the stipulation that it be called a “development” rather than a contradiction. A reversal on capital punishment is the thin end of a wedge that, if pushed through, could sunder Catholic doctrine from its past—and thus give the lie to the claim that the Church has preserved the Deposit of Faith whole and undefiled.
Not only does this reversal undermine the credibility of every previous pope, it undermines the credibility of Pope Francis himself. For if Pope St. Innocent I, Pope Innocent III, Pope St. Pius V, Pope St. Pius X, Pope Pius XII, Pope St. John Paul II, and many other popes could all get things so badly wrong, why should we believe that Pope Francis has somehow finally gotten things right?
One does not need to support capital punishment to worry that Pope Francis may have gone too far. Cardinal Avery Dulles, who was personally opposed to the practical use of capital punishment, still insisted that “the reversal of a doctrine as well established as the legitimacy of capital punishment would raise serious problems regarding the credibility of the magisterium.” Archbishop Charles Chaput, who is likewise opposed to applying the death penalty in practice, has nevertheless acknowledged:
The death penalty is not intrinsically evil. Both Scripture and long Christian tradition acknowledge the legitimacy of capital punishment under certain circumstances. The Church cannot repudiate that without repudiating her own identity.
If Pope Francis really is claiming that capital punishment is intrinsically evil, then either scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and all previous popes were wrong—or Pope Francis is. There is no third alternative. Nor is there any doubt about who would be wrong in that case. The Church has always acknowledged that popes can make doctrinal errors when not speaking ex cathedra—Pope Honorius I and Pope John XXII being the best-known examples of popes who actually did so. The Church also explicitly teaches that the faithful may, and sometimes should, openly and respectfully criticize popes when they do teach error. The 1990 CDF document Donum Veritatis sets out norms governing the legitimate criticism of magisterial documents that exhibit “deficiencies.” It would seem that Catholic theologians are now in a situation that calls for application of these norms.
Edward Feser is co-author of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment.
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