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The Death Penalty is Contrary to the Gospel

Sandie Cornish explains how the Catechism of the Catholic Church now reflects Pope Francis’ teaching that the death penalty is inherently contrary to the Gospel. In this article she explains how Church teaching on the death penalty has developed in recent times.

No to the Death Penalty

In an important new development in Catholic Social Teaching, Pope Francis declared on 11 October 2017 that “the death penalty is contrary to the Gospel”. He called for the Catechism of the Catholic Church to treat the topic “more adequately and coherently” at a celebration for the 25th anniversary of its promulgation. The official Italian text of the address is available here. An English translation from Vatican Radio is available here. On 11 May 2018 Pope Francis approved new text for n 2267 of the Catechism which addresses the death penalty. The Catholic Church itself used the death penalty in the past and until 2018 continued to teach that its use can be acceptable in some circumstances. The conditions for the acceptable use of the death penalty have been tightened more and more over time. Now Pope Francis has taken the next step and ruled it out completely.

The Death Penalty before Francis

So, how did the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church previously explain teaching on the death penalty? The Catechism addresses the death penalty in the light of the fifth commandment – you shall not kill. Until recently it taught that if the identity and responsibility of an offender are certain, and the death penalty is “the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively”, then the Church “does not exclude” the use of the death penalty (n 2267). But the Catechism also said that cases where the death penalty might be acceptable are “practically non-existent” in the world today. Furthermore, if “bloodless means” are sufficient to protect people, public authorities should use them instead because they are more consistent with “the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person” (n 2267). The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church agrees and goes further. It actively praises opposition to the death penalty as a sign of hope. Furthermore it calls growing public opposition to the death penalty and campaigns to abolish it or suspend its application “visible manifestations of a heightened moral awareness” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, n 405).

Development of Doctrine

Tradition is a living thing. As Pope Francis explains: “The word of God cannot be moth-balled like some old blanket in an attempt to keep insects at bay! No. The word of God is a dynamic and living reality that develops and grows because it is aimed at a fulfilment that none can halt” (Address, 11 October 2017). This means we may need to find new language to express perennial truths in a way that connects with the issues of the day. It also means that our understanding of what is and always was present in Church teaching can grow and deepen. God’s conversation with us is ongoing! Hence Pope Francis says “doctrine cannot be preserved without allowing it to develop, nor can it be tied to an interpretation that is rigid and immutable without demeaning the working of the Holy Spirit”(Address, 11 October 2017). In saying that the Catechism needs to treat the question of the death penalty more adequately and more coherently, Pope Francis was not advocating a change in doctrine, but rather its fuller expression.

What Pope Francis Said about the Death Penalty

Pope Francis places past Church teaching and practice in its historical context. He acknowledges that with fewer means of defence, the death penalty appeared to “less mature” societies “to be the logical consequence of the correct application of justice” (Address, 11 October 2017). Nonetheless, he judges the past use of the death penalty as “extreme and inhumane” saying that it ignores “the primacy of mercy over justice” (Address, 11 October 2017). He says that use of the death penalty reflects “a mentality more legalistic than Christian”. This way of thinking places too much value on the law and on preserving power and material wealth, thus preventing “a deeper understanding of the Gospel”. While he interprets the past in its context, Pope Francis concludes that if the Church were now to “remain neutral before the new demands of upholding personal dignity, we would be even more guilty”(Address, 11 October 2017). Pope Francis does not see this as contradicting past teaching because the Church has consistently and authoritatively taught “the defence of the dignity of human life from the first moment of conception to natural death” (Address, 11 October 2017). Furthermore, he says “the harmonious development of doctrine demands that we cease to defend arguments that now appear clearly contrary to the new understanding of Christian truth” (Address, 11 October 2017). Photo of skulls. Text "It must be clearly stated that the death penalty is an inhumane punishment ... It is, per se, contrary to the Gospel." Pope Francis, 11 October 2017.

Update to the Catechism

This is what the new text of paragraph 2267 of the Catechism says: 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”,[1] and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide. __________________________ [1] FRANCIS, Address to Participants in the Meeting organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, 11 October 2017: L’Osservatore Romano, 13 October 2017, 5.

Why Oppose the Death Penalty?

I believe that an integrated approach to human dignity and life issues across the personal and social domains can deepen tradition in a way that better reflects the Gospel. For example, a consistent approach to upholding the dignity of the human person and to life issues demands the rejection of both the death penalty and euthanasia. Here are some of my reasons for opposing capital punishment: – The death penalty offends the dignity and sanctity of all human life. All human beings, even those who have done great evil, have the right to life. – Using the death penalty undermines a society’s respect for life. It contributes to a culture of vengeance and death. – Applying the death penalty is out of step with the life and teachings of Jesus. He preached forgiveness rather than upholding the law of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. – The death penalty is cruel and unnecessary – there are other ways of protecting society from violent criminals. – The death penalty denies people the chance to repent and reform. – There is no empirical evidence that the death penalty actually reduces crime rates. – It doesn’t make sense to oppose killing by means of State killings, and it doesn’t work. – Even in the best criminal justice systems, there is a risk that innocent people may be put to death. – In many countries capital punishment is used in ways that discriminate against the poor, marginalized, disadvantaged and members of minority groups. See for example the case of Asia Bibi.

Pope Francis Sums Up

“It must be clearly stated that the death penalty is an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity. It is per se contrary to the Gospel, because it entails the willful suppression of a human life that never ceases to be sacred in the eyes of its Creator and of which – ultimately – only God is the true judge and guarantor. No man, “not even a murderer, loses his personal dignity” (Letter to the President of the International Commission against the Death Penalty, 20 March 2015), because God is a Father who always awaits the return of his children who, knowing that they have made mistakes, ask for forgiveness and begin a new life. No one ought to be deprived not only of life, but also of the chance for a moral and existential redemption that in turn can benefit the community.” (Pope Francis, Address, 11 October 2017)