Pope Francis on the Death Penalty

Pope Francis has ordered a change to the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the topic of the death penalty: NC Register story.

The death penalty

“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”,[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.”

Notice that the above teaching takes into account the modern circumstances: “more effective systems of detention have been developed”. Therefore, the Pope is not saying that the death penalty is intrinsically evil. He is not condemning the use of the death penalty, in past times, when systems of detentions were insufficient. And the ability of nations to defend citizens has improved in other ways. For example, modern means of communication and of information storage, processing, and retrieval, have helped to reduce crime rates. Law enforcement can communicate more efficiently and keep track of persons with a criminal record more easily.

So the death penalty is not intrinsically evil. And it may be the case, in the future, that society changes such that the death penalty becomes necessary, as for example, during a world war, when society is engulfed in chaos. So this development of doctrine does not rule out future use of the death penalty, morally.

Also, it is possible to faithfully dissent from this teaching, since it is based in part in an evaluation of the circumstances of the act, and is not solely based on doctrines of faith or morals.

Colorado Catholic Conference: “In some moral matters the use of reason allows for a legitimate diversity in our prudential judgments. Catholic voters may differ, for example, on what constitutes the best immigration policy, how to provide universal health care, or affordable housing. Catholics may even have differing judgments on the state’s use of the death penalty or the decision to wage a just war. The morality of such questions lies not in what is done (the moral object), but in the motive and circumstances. Therefore, because these prudential judgments do not involve a direct choice of something evil, and take into consideration various goods, it is possible for Catholic voters to arrive at different, even opposing judgments.” [Moral Principles for Catholic Voters, p. 2]

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: “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.” [Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion, General Principles, n. 3]

In my opinion, the death penalty is still necessary, moral, and fitting in present-day circumstances, for certain very grave crimes, such as mass murder, terrorism, and for persons who are dictators or crime bosses (who cannot be effectively incarcerated). I would also point out that present-day prison systems have many aspects that make them inhumane. Some prisoners would perhaps prefer a punishment of death, over a very lengthy sentence in a prison that daily offends against human dignity and good morals.

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

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29 Responses to Pope Francis on the Death Penalty

  1. stefano says:

    I would like to raise a couple of questions concerning the last statement of the explanatory letter to the Bishops:
    “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”.

    Firstly, I can’t see the consequential logic of the argument: if death penalty used to be admissible in the past due to the different circumstances with respect to modern world, how does this relate to the inviolability and dignity of the person? Further, should not these be perpetual values, independent of circumctances? If yes, was the Church wrong in allowing death penalty in the first place? Or is she wrong now in contradicting her pervious teaching? Anyway, how can the two teachings be presented in continuation, rather then in opposition? How can the latter be defined “an authentic development of doctrine”.

    It seems to me that no doctrine development or change is required based on the different circumstances from the past, just the recognition that today death penalty is no longer necessary.

    Secondly, the differences between ancient and modern world are self evident and do not need the “light of the Gospels” in order to be identified. So, what does the Church really mean with such expression? Is the Church of today more enlightend by the Gospel than she used to be in the past?
    If such is the point that is made, should we not need some more in depth theological explanation? Personally, I am not aware of any part of the Gospels were death penalty, as a public punishment of crimes, is declared unadmissible. Christ himself has not denied to Pontius Pilate his power to put him to death, but rather reminded him of where such power came to him from.

  2. Paul M. says:

    I have the same reservations that Stefano shares.

    The Catechism of the Council of Trent (1566, Part III, 5, n. 4) states:

    “The power of life and death is permitted to certain civil magistrates because theirs is the responsibility under law to punish the guilty and protect the innocent. Far from being guilty of breaking this commandment [Thou shall not kill], such an execution of justice is precisely an act of obedience to it. For the purpose of the law is to protect and foster human life. This purpose is fulfilled when the legitimate authority of the State is exercised by taking the guilty lives of those who have taken innocent lives. In the Psalms we find a vindication of this right: ‘Morning by morning I will destroy all the wicked in the land, cutting off all evildoers from the city of the Lord’ (Ps. 101:8).”

    In reading that excerpt against the proposed new writing, I cannot fail to see that doctrine has developed counter to prior teaching. This new writing proposes that what was once taught as a good (“fostering human life” and “vindicating” the rights of God) is now taught as evil (“inadmissible” and that the Church “works with determination for its abolition worldwide”).

  3. turnrod says:

    Pope Francis seems to state that the Church errored in the past believing erroneously that the criminal lost his or her dignity upon comision of a grave crime. Given this the Church erroneously held the position that the death penalty was admissible. In modern times the Church has seen her past errors and now realizes that the death penalty is never justified due to a person’s dignity. Did I misread this?

  4. Matt says:

    How are the consequences of an act to be judged? Take the death penalty. Imagine there are four positives and three negatives.

    1. Protect society by conveying the meaning that certain acts are very, very wrong, not merely deserving of a life sentence, but so wrong that they deserve removal from society. There is also the possibility of deterring crime (in rare cases).
    2. Rehabilitation by perhaps encouraging repentance in the face of death. According to Thomas Aquinas: if you won’t repent in the face of death, there is no reason to believe that you will ever repent.
    3. Just punishment for despicable, despicable crimes against humanity.
    4. The common good. According to Thomas Aquinas, just like one may have to amputate a finger for the good of the whole bodily system, so too one may remove a criminal from society for the good of humanity as a whole. (Execution will create a society with the few that happen to be guilty of heinous crimes being removed, which according to Aquinas, is an enormous positive. I take it because the proportion of people not guilty of heinous crimes is now larger).

    1. Human life has dignity. Therefore, any killing, while not intrinsically evil, is still an attack on that dignity.
    2. Better systems of incarceration have developed so that it is not necessary to execute anymore. There are high costs from multiple appeals. As well, there are studies showing estimates between 1-4 percent of death row inmates are exonerated. This implies potentially executing the innocent. While this is a small risk, it is not negligible.
    3. There is less time for rehabilitation and less time to repent. A lot can happen in the 40 years of a life sentence which is not allowed to death row inmates. While it’s possible they never repent, the opposite is also possible, and the gift of time may save some souls that only realize their errors at the end of their lives. The death penalty may deny some the possibility for this repentance.

    So how do we possibly go about judging these? Should I say there are 4 positives, 3 negatives, for a net 1 positive? Therefore, go death penalty!!!

    Should I dig into the numeric costs to society, to come up with a figure for how much the financial cost of a death penalty case is compared to life in prison? But then how could that FINANCIAL cost be combined with the worth of human dignity? Is human dignity of infinite worth, so we say never execute under any circumstances? Or is it finite, and what number should I assign it? Would the net present value of future wages, earning, and productivity be a good number?

    MOST IMPORTANT QUESTIONS. Are these answers objective, or subjective depending on the person? Because in considering whether a 1 percent chance of convicting the innocent is large or small, one person might say it is small, another person might consider it huge. What does God say? Would he say that even a one in a million chance of killing the innocent is too large? Different people may pray to God and come to different conclusions, so should we ask the Pope to pray and assume God will give the Pope this piece of knowledge? Does God have an answer to how this cost benefit analysis should be performed (combining the positives and negatives in different ways, such as using different weighting schemes, can lead to different conclusions). If God does have an answer to these questions, how on earth do we go about figuring out how He wants us to do it?

    • Ron Conte says:

      Those are arguments for and against the death penalty, they are not an evaluation (for the most part) of the circumstances of any particular case (which is what the three fonts requires). In the third font, a factor is reduced in weight if it is less likely, or more remote from the chosen act. A deterrent to others is more remote. A small chance of conversion is reduced in weight. Protecting society is proximate and likely, in cases where incarceration is very likely to be ineffective (dictators, crime bosses who can order crimes from behind bars, etc.)

    • Matt says:

      There are two acts:
      1. The death penalty itself
      2. The choice to do the death penalty instead of life in prison

      I agree, I’m mixing consequences from the two acts. I disagree though on one thing. I think they are consequences of one of the two acts listed above. For example, the direct consequences of choosing the death penalty over life in prison include time until death and the fact that you can’t repent in that future time if executed. Also, I articulated my arguments on a macro scale. But deterrence and the common good are still relevant for each particular execution, because the consequence of a specific execution on the micro scale is to incrementally effect the common good on the macro scale. It is the sum of these incremental effects that make the overall effect to the common good/ deterrence. It is the effects of a particular execution that are relevant to that particular act.

      A cost benefit analysis has two components (but could have more if we added in additional weights, quite like a weighted average in calculating a grade).
      1. The probability of an event
      2. The cost of that event.

      You haven’t answered the substance of my question. Take the consequence of wrongly executing an innocent person. Given the financial cost of a human life, according to the EPA and FDA, is between 8-10 million dollars. Is a 1 percent chance of wrongfully executing someone “small?” Is a 10 percent chance small? Is a 0.0001 percent chance small? Please answer what “small” is without saying: personal opinion, it varies by individual. What does God say?!!! Second, how “remote” an effect is, like deterrence, obviously can’t be answered until we test it, say with a study/ historical evidence. Until then, it is all speculation (but I agree some truth is out there, both sides are just debating what that truth is).

      The Pope says executing someone has the EFFECT of violating “human dignity.” Is this a consequence? If it’s not an intention, and not a part of the object (since it’s not intrinsically evil), it must be a circumstance (the only other font). This does assume the Pope knows the fonts of morality, and is not just being pastoral.

      MOST IMPORTANT QUESTION: how do we quantify the cost of violating human dignity in the circumstances?

    • Ron Conte says:

      I don’t think the death penalty, properly applied, violates human dignity. There is a contradiction between the goodness of human nature, made in God’s image, and the death penalty. But that contradiction is a result of the crime of the convicted person. There is also a contradiction between the same goodness of the human person and the sufferings of Hell, but this too is justified by the unrepentant sins of the reprobate.

  5. Mark P. says:

    A couple more questions on this topic:
    1) several outlets have called the change to the Catechism a “draft.” Was the statement released indeed a draft, as in open to comment and change before official inclusion into the CCC, or is it already permanent?
    2) What are your thoughts on the Holy Father’s emphasis on mercy in the context of eschatology? I know you have written on him being a kind of test of faith for conservative Catholics (to be followed by a conservative Pope testing liberal Catholics’ faith), but how about specifically him emphasis on mercy? Everything from allowing priests to forgive abortion, allowing SSPX confessions, the Jubilee Year of Mercy, and the revision to the death penalty teaching (although it could still be argued that a person on death row may repent earlier if they know the date of their death). Are Pope Francis’s teachings on mercy tied to eschatology in any way, perhaps in preparation for trials and persecutions of the faithful? Obviously St. Faustina’s revelations have influenced St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict, and now Pope Francis. Do any other private revelations emphasize mercy in the way Pope Francis does? Thank you.

    • Ron Conte says:

      It is effective 2 August 2018. It is not a draft. I think the Church is right to pressure society to move towards the ideal of not killing anyone, if at all possible. But grave sins and crimes continue, and sometimes deadly force is moral and even necessary. So I think the Pope erred in making this change, though the error is not heresy, nor a moral or doctrinal error. He erred in judging that the circumstances of society permit the total abolition of the death penalty, whereas I believe that it is still necessary in certain cases.

  6. Jonathan says:

    I would have to disagree with your assessment that the change to the catechism entails only a prudential judgement on the part of the Pope. As Archbishop Salvatore Fisichella states:

    “Stressing that today states have at their disposal many defense systems to protect the population, and that forms of detention have been developed which exclude the danger and trauma of violence being done to innocent people is also a determining factor. However, this is not enough. The new text of the Catechism states that in the light of the Gospel the Church teaches that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person”. This passage clearly demonstrates that we are dealing with a true dogmatic advancement with which a matter of the faith is clarified, one that has steadily matured to the point of making understood the unsustainability of the death penalty in our time.”

    The “dogmatic progress” being alluded to is our understanding of the inviolability of human life. Under no circumstance is the death penalty permitted because to exercise it entails a violation of the dignity of human life. This suggests that the dignity of the human person is absolute. This is the dogmatic progress being made, i.e., our understanding that the dignity of the human person is absolute and inviolable.

    This conception of the absolute inviolability of human life/dignity runs contrary to the Catholic faith, insofar as She teaches that God condemns certain men on account of their sins to hell for all eternity. Is eternal hell consistent with human dignity? Only if it isn’t absolute.

    It also runs contrary to Divine Revelation which clearly permits the exercise of the death penalty for far less serious crimes such as fornication and adultery (cf. Leviticus 20).

    • Ron Conte says:

      Killing a human being, even in just self-defense, it always an ontic evil (a physical evil) because the person is made in the image of God. It can be moral, but there is always that aspect of the act, evaluated in the circumstances, that killing is a negative. But this does not imply that killing is always wrong.

  7. Jonathan says:

    Your response doesn’t address the substance of my argument.

    The “dogmatic progress” being made is our understanding of the absolute and inviolable dignity of the human person. Hence, the death penalty is “inadmissible” (read: intrinsically wrong/evil). Observe the similar language used by Christian Brugger here: http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2017/10/20341/

    The fact that some countries have more effective detention systems is only a secondary or tertiary consideration. One could say it is extrinsic to the essential argument which asserts that the death penalty inherently violates human dignity. The only instance wherein human dignity would actually be violated is if the man being sentenced to death was innocent of the crime he was accused of committing. Hence, I stand by my comment that this is indeed a doctrinal statement and not merely a prudential one.

    Of course, I disagree with the Pope’s statement that the human dignity/life is absolutely inviolable for the reasons I mentioned above (i.e., the eternality of hell and divine revelation).

    • Ron Conte says:

      I don’t agree with Pope Francis on this topic. But he has not exercised infallibility, and his position is not heretical. It would say it is an error in the ordinary papal magisterium, as does happen from time to time.

      I don’t think the development of doctrine, to which the Pope refers, is specifically the absolute and inviolable dignity of the human person. That is not the part that developed. I’m not sure, at this point, what the development was.

  8. Matt says:

    One last question. The Catechism will say the death penalty is:

    “inadmissible because it attacks the dignity of the person, a dignity that is not lost even after having committed the most serious crimes.”

    You say the death penalty does not attack or violate human dignity, in contradiction to this statement.

    Since this statement (if it’s true at all) must pertain to the circumstances of the act, does this imply it is not binding on the faithful whatsoever? (Or can things in the circumstances be Doctrine/ binding)?

  9. Jonathan says:

    Pope Francis on the death penalty

    The changes made to the catechism regarding the death penalty represent not only a change in prudential judgment, but in fact a change in doctrine. This is proven not only by Archbishop Fisichella’s statements in L’Osservatore Romano (August 2, 2018), but also in Pope Francis’s address to the participants in the meeting sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization (Oct 11, 2017). In fact, it is altogether possible that Archbishop Fisichella is the ghostwriter of the address to the Pontifical Council.

    In his article on the inadmissibility of the death penalty, Fisichella notes that it is not enough to demonstrate that the death penalty is inadmissible on the grounds that modern society has developed advanced detention systems to ensure the safety of the public. Rather, the inadmissibility of the death penalty must be grounded in our understanding of the dignity of human person, which is absolutely inviolable. He goes on to clarify that our understanding of the dignity of the human person represents “true dogmatic progress.”

    In the Pope’s address to the Pontifical Council, he clearly indicates that his view on the death penalty is not merely a prudential one, but rather doctrinal. In the introduction of his address, Pope Francis alludes to the Church’s role in preserving the deposit of faith. However, he prefaces this by claiming that doctrine is not intended to be “static,” but supposed to develop. He states explicitly, “Doctrine cannot be preserved without allowing it to develop.” He states elsewhere, “This issue cannot be reduced to a mere résumé of traditional teaching without taking into account not only the doctrine as it has developed in the teaching of recent Popes, but also the change in the awareness of the Christian people which rejects an attitude of complacency before a punishment deeply injurious of human dignity.” Clearly, the Pope is intending to clarify a teaching of the faith. The only question is which doctrine is being developed? After centuries of upholding the morality of the death penalty, why has the death penalty suddenly become inadmissible in all circumstances? It certainly isn’t circumstantially based, since (1) no prison facility is so advanced as to avoid all possible criminal activity taking place outside its own confines, and (2) most nations don’t have developed detention systems alluded to in the Catechism. Furthermore, the fact that the Pope is not basing his teaching on the circumstances of modern society is proven by his remark that the Papal States were guilty of inhumane treatment of individuals, despite not having “more effective systems of detention.” He states,

    “Sadly, even in the Papal States recourse was had to this extreme and inhumane remedy that ignored the primacy of mercy over justice. Let us take responsibility for the past and recognize that the imposition of the death penalty was dictated by a mentality more legalistic than Christian. Concern for preserving power and material wealth led to an overestimation of the value of the law and prevented a deeper understanding of the Gospel. Nowadays, however, were we to remain neutral before the new demands of upholding personal dignity, we would be even more guilty.”

    Clearly, the Pope does not excuse them of all guilt.

    So what does Pope Francis base his new teachings on? He bases it upon his own view that human dignity is absolutely inviolable. In several statements, he claims that the death penalty inherently violates/abases human dignity.

    (1) It is necessary, therefore, to reaffirm that no matter how serious the crime that has been committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.

    (2) Here we are not in any way contradicting past teaching, for the defence of the dignity of human life from the first moment of conception to natural death has been taught by the Church consistently and authoritatively. Yet the harmonious development of doctrine demands that we cease to defend arguments that now appear clearly contrary to the new understanding of Christian truth.

    (3) It must be clearly stated that the death penalty is an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity.

    (4) Nowadays, however, were we to remain neutral before the new demands of upholding personal dignity, we would be even more guilty.

    (5) This issue cannot be reduced to a mere résumé of traditional teaching without taking into account not only the doctrine as it has developed in the teaching of recent Popes, but also the change in the awareness of the Christian people which rejects an attitude of complacency before a punishment deeply injurious of human dignity.

    Pope Francis goes farther than merely claiming that the death penalty is inadmissible in our current circumstances, but asserts that it is “per se contrary to the Gospel.” The “new understanding” which Pope Francis alludes to is in fact his view that human life is absolutely inviolable. Hence, the death penalty is intrinsically evil.

    Pope Francis has not only contradicted a doctrine of the Catholic Church, but gone so far as to propose a new one. Pope Francis at a minimum has fallen into material heresy. He must be rebuked.

    • Ron Conte says:

      I don’t think his error rises to the level of material heresy. He errs by taking the position of JP2, and stretching it a little too far. He does not say the death penalty is intrinsically evil. He does refer to the circumstances of society. It is simply an error in the non-infallible teaching of the papal magisterium. It happens. JP2 was criticized by Dulles for taking a list of grave sins and grave harm in society and trying to claim that the list was of intrinsically evil acts (which it does not seem to be, not unless the list were substantially modified). VS 80

  10. Jonathan says:

    He says that it is “per se contrary to the Gospel,” on the basis that the death penalty violates human dignity. I went to lengths to demonstrate that the basis of the argument is grounded in the absolute inviolability of human life.

    This is not merely a case of magisterial error, but of heresy.

    I know this contradicts your interpretation of papal infallibility, but you have to deal with the evidence.

    • Ron Conte says:

      You are exaggerating. Popes sometimes err. I can think of errors by JP2 and Benedict 16, in their teachings. I could exaggerate the gravity and nature of those errors and falsely claim heresy too. So he thinks the death penalty is contrary to the Gospel, and it is in some sense. He is not denying a dogma.

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