Pope Francis on the Death Penalty

Our holy father, Pope Francis, is the current valid successor of Peter, and he has the gifts of truth and of a never-failing faith. Therefore, he can never teach or hold material heresy, neither as a personal opinion, nor under the Magisterium, and he can never commit the sins of apostasy, heresy, or schism. However, he is capable, like every Roman Pontiff, of erring in his personal opinions, never to the extent of heresy, and capable of erring, to an even more limited extent, in his non-infallible teachings.

In a recent talk on the anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis spoke on the death penalty. His predecessors, Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, took the position that, while the death penalty is not intrinsically evil, we in modern times have sufficient alternative means to address the danger posed by persons found guilty of very harmful crimes. By imprisoning criminals, rather than executing them, we avoid taking life and we hope for the reform of their souls and their lives. Even so, both Pontiffs acknowledged that faithful Catholics may hold a different position on the death penalty, since it is not an intrinsically evil act of killing the innocent, but a punishment of the guilty and a way for the community to protect itself from further very grave crimes.

However, Pope Francis seems to be taking a different position. In his talk, reported by the National Catholic Register here, he stated the following (with my numbering).

[1] “It must be strongly confirmed that condemning a person to the death penalty is an inhumane measure that humiliates, in any way it is pursued, human dignity.”

[2] The death penalty, he said, “is in itself contrary to the Gospel because it is voluntarily decided to suppress a human life, which is always sacred in the eyes of the Creator and of which God only in the final analysis is the true judge and guarantor.”

[3] “No one, therefore, can have their life taken from them, nor the possibility of a moral and existential redemption that goes back in favor of the community.”

[4] “Let us take responsibility for the past, and let us recognize that these means were dictated by a more legalistic mentality than Christian,” he said.

[5] Concern for maintaining power “led to an overestimation of the value of the law, impeding it from a deeper understanding of the Gospel,” he said. “However, to stay neutral today in the face of the new demands for the reaffirmation of personal dignity would make us more guilty.”

[6] Pope Francis said that “harmonious development of doctrine” requires that new treatments on the death penalty “leave out positions in defense of arguments which now appear decisively contrary to the new understanding of Christian truth. … It is necessary to reiterate that, no matter how serious the crime committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attempt against the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

1. As Pope Saint John Paul II judged the temporal circumstances, modern society can defend itself against violent criminals without recourse to the death penalty:

“Among the signs of hope we should also count the spread, at many levels of public opinion, of a new sensitivity ever more opposed to war as an instrument for the resolution of conflicts between peoples, and increasingly oriented to finding effective but “non-violent” means to counter the armed aggressor. In the same perspective there is evidence of a growing public opposition to the death penalty, even when such a penalty is seen as a kind of “legitimate defence” on the part of society. Modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform.” [Evangelium Vitae 27]

Given this judgment, Pope Francis can legitimately say that the death penalty “is an inhumane measure that humiliates, in any way it is pursued, human dignity.” But that assertion must be predicated on modern circumstances, as the death penalty is not intrinsically evil.

Sacred Scripture imposes the death penalty for many different offenses in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, Jesus is the returning King, who has his enemies put to death before him: “Yet truly, as for those enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here, and put them to death before me.” [Lk 19:27]. And St. Paul does not object to being given the death penalty himself, if only he had been guilty of a serious crime: “if I have done anything deserving of death, I do not object to dying.” [Act 25:11].

2. When Pope Francis states that the death penalty is “in itself contrary to the Gospel”, perhaps he means that we cannot have recourse to the death penalty, in the current temporal circumstances. Any act is a sin if the circumstances are such that the bad effects of an act morally outweighs the good effects. And any sin is contrary to the Gospel, whether it is a sin by the intention, or object, or circumstances.

However, the death penalty is not intrinsically evil. It is not inherently immoral, in and of itself, by the very nature of the act.

3. Another reason for rejecting the death penalty is that it ends the possibility of repentance, thereby contradicting the highest calling and demands of that Good News. The Gospel is the good news that we can repent and be saved. Imprisoning hardened criminals allows for the possibility of repentance and salvation, just as the Gospel seeks for all human persons.

4. Excessive legalism (also called Pharisaism) is a trap that Christians must always seek to avoid. The mere fact that Christians acknowledge that the death penalty is not intrinsically evil, though, is not legalism. Rather, it is legalism to apply the death penalty too readily, or to jump to the conclusion that a hardened criminal cannot possibly repent.

My opinion is different from that of the holy Pontiff. I think that the death penalty today should be rare, but it is still at times necessary. A wicked dictator, like Saddam Hussein, could not safely be imprisoned, as his supporters would not stop killing innocents until they freed him and returned him to power. He killed hundreds of thousands of innocents. So it is justice for him to be put to death. But it is also mercy for his victims.

In the United States, the death penalty is broken. Over 100 persons have been exonerated from death row by DNA evidence, indicating that it is not a rarity for the justice system to convict the innocent. Moreover, the death penalty has been disproportionately applied to minorities and the poor, indicating that it is not a fair application of justice. Therefore, we should spurn the death penalty, except in rare and severe cases, such as terrorism and mass murder, in my opinion.

5. It is true, because political leaders are fallen sinners, that they have, in the past, overused the death penalty partly to retain power, as well as for other reasons. But “the new demands for the reaffirmation of personal dignity” which would lead us to reject the death penalty, are not a change to the eternal moral law, but rather an improvement in the way that we deal with criminals, incarcerating them, rather than putting them to death. The new demands are based on the ability of society to apply better means to dealing with serious crimes.

In theory, that is true. But in practice, many nations have prison systems that are just as inhumane as a rush to apply the death penalty. And there are often no real programs for rehabilitation. So while we are able to deal with criminals more humanely and effectively, most prisons do not do so. There are many injustices in the prison system. We cannot ignore these injustices when evaluating the death penalty versus a life sentence in an inhumane system.

6. Development of doctrine is needed because we have new options for dealing with convicted criminals.

Pope Francis said that “harmonious development of doctrine” requires that new treatments on the death penalty “leave out positions in defense of arguments which now appear decisively contrary to the new understanding of Christian truth. … It is necessary to reiterate that, no matter how serious the crime committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attempt against the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

I disagree that arguments based on the death penalty as a defense of the community must be entirely neglected. If we can defend ourselves without the death penalty, then such arguments have less force. But in some cases, such as a criminal leader who can continue ordering crimes from behind bars, the defense of the community argument still applies.

I disagree that the death penalty is entirely inadmissible today. The sacredness of human life is subject to the plan of God that we all die at some point, and are judged by God. Our lives are sacred and inviolate only in a certain sense, and not absolutely, since we are fallen sinners who will die at some point. In an ideal Christian society, there would be no war or death penalty, but our society is not very Christian (even when most citizens call themselves Christian). And we are still far from living the ideals of the Gospel.

Faithful Catholics can disagree with any Roman Pontiff in his personal opinions and non-infallible teachings. But when we disagree, we must not exaggerate the position of the Pope, as if his position were certainly in error, or as if the alleged errors are graver than they really are. I could be mistaken in my views on any theological issue. And I could have misunderstood the Pope in his position. So when I disagree, I don’t present my position as inarguable or infallible. And I respect and support the Roman Pontiff, despite a relatively limited disagreement.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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8 Responses to Pope Francis on the Death Penalty

  1. deckercw says:

    Wouldn’t it be heresy to affirm that the death penalty is intrinsically evil? Or that it is never morally permissible?

    • Ron Conte says:

      It would be heresy to say that the death penalty is intrinsically evil. It is a tenable opinion, also held by JP2, that, in the present time, the death penalty is not morally permissible, because it is not necessary to defend the community. As an analogy, it is morally permissible to use deadly force in self-defense — but not in a circumstance where it is unnecessary to defend oneself.

  2. Phillip says:

    Any guesses on who what conservative pope might be? I’d have to think Arinze is an extreme long shot at this point. Maybe somebody like Cardinal Ouellete?

  3. Tom Mazanec says:

    Is boxing immorally dangerous? All other sports ,an injury is an unintended accident. Only in boxing is the explicit goal to knock someone unconscious and risk brain injury. You are excommunicated for getting a Heidelberg dueling scar, so shouldn’t boxing be frowned on?

  4. vucuzz says:

    Wow awesome read Ron, keep up the good work. I love how you share both arguments for why the death penalty could be frown upon and why it could be justifiable. As someone who isn’t Catholic, I have always been a bit confused and disarranged with this topic, as I believe there is no black or white answer. To see that the Pope has stood out with this different viewpoint to his predecessors, highlights the changing viewpoints in the 21st century.

    Lastly, I agree with your opinion the most. I too think that it should not be used frequently but in rare cases for Saddam Hussein and many other ‘evil’ in the world. As the society we live in is not perfect and there are a lot of ‘trouble’ and ‘sinner,’ it is good that this practice exists to as a preventive measure.

    If you have some time, I’d love you to check out some of the pieces I did, and provide some feedback or your opinion.


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