Is the Pope changing a dogma on the death penalty?

A related question is: Is the Pope is saying that the death penalty is intrinsically evil?

First lets carefully read the new revised numeral (It is ‘new’ because it was previously revised by Pope St. John Paul II as well):

“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.”

Notice here that the Holy Pontiff recognizes that this penalty was “long considered an appropriate response”. Therefore, the Pope is not saying that the death penalty is “intrinsically evil”, for even the Church considered this method in the past as appropriate.

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.”

The Pope is teaching that the dignity of the person is not lost even after severe crimes. This teaching was not fully understood in past times. The Pope is utilizing a development of doctrine, a doctrine that was not acknowledged in past times. That’s why I underlined the word “Today”. Notice that he is saying that “today” there is an “increasing” awareness. Therefore, this is a teaching that is developing, going more in depth, and becoming more understood better now than before, a teaching reaching to the conclusion that the dignity of the person is never lost.

“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.”

The Pope also recognizes the development of effective systems and methods to keep criminals in prison and also giving the guilty person more opportunity of salvation (hoping they convert).

“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.”

Notice that the Pope uses the word “teaches”; therefore, this falls under a non-fallible teaching of the Magisterium. The Church has developed Her teaching on human dignity, improving circumstances of life today, and; therefore, now not allowing this particular act (which is not intrinsically evil) any longer.  The Church no longer allows it for aforementioned reasons and it is a work in progress in order to have it abolished 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.”

Inadmissible does not mean intrinsically evil. Inadmissible means not allowed, invalid, unacceptable, impermissible, disallowed, forbidden, prohibited, precluded; whereas intrinsically evil means inherently evil, by itself, by its very nature evil.

So, what the Pope is basically saying that the death penalty (which is not intrinsically evil, not evil by itself or not evil by its own nature, for it was considered appropriate in the past) is “no longer allowed” or not permissible for our times.

The Magisterium teaches infallible (no error) and non-infallible (degree of limited error).

All infallible teachings require the full assent of faith. Infallible teachings are certainly true and are therefore irreformable. Rejection of infallible teachings is heresy. Infallible teachings are defined under 1. Papal Infallibility – a solemn definition of a doctrine on faith or morals by the Pope. This definition is called a defining act. 2. Ecumenical Council – a solemn definition of a doctrine on faith or morals by the body of Bishops led by the Pope gathered together in a Council. This definition is also called a defining act. 3. Universal Magisterium when the Pope and the Bishops dispersed through the world teach one doctrine of faith or morals definitively to be held. This occurs by a series of non-defining acts.

All other Magisterial teachings are non-infallible, subject to a limited possibility of error, and require only the religious submission of will and intellect, not the full assent of faith.

Since this new teaching of the Pope does not fall under infallibility, it falls under the non-infallible Magisterium, there is a limited possibility of error. The faithful is free to disagree to a limited extent (basing such limited disagreement on Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium).

Now let’s take a look at different instances where certain acts were permissible in the past, but no longer permissible (or vice versa).


There are two types of incest:

Incest in the direct line (parents/children) is intrinsically evil.

Incest in the collateral line (close brothers and sisters) is NOT intrinsically evil.

The offspring of Adam and Eve had to have relations between close brothers and sisters in order to procreate, it was a necessity at the time. However, as time passed and the population increased, this act became non-permissible any longer. Any type of incest today, whether direct or collateral, is inadmissible due to the ample population in the world today.

Similarly, but in a different way, the Pope considers inadmissible the use of the death penalty in current situations due to the current growth of the faithful in understanding human dignity and the advances on security measures in the world. But the death penalty as such is not intrinsically evil as it was permitted by the Church in the past.

The Church has developed (going more in depth on) Her teachings, or She has changed Her prudential order decisions.


The Church has never taught that cremation is intrinsically evil. But the She prohibited cremation for hundreds of years until recently that She has now allowed cremation under certain conditions, though burying the dead is still preferred.

For most of Church’s history, She prohibited cremation because of degradation and potential blasphemy against the human body but then, in 1963, this ban was lifted by Pope Saint Paul VI with the document ‘Piam et Constantem’. This document lifted the general prohibition against cremation:…hristo_en.html

Later, Pope Saint John Paul II promulgated the Code of Canon Law in 1983, with this new regulation in it:

Canon 1176
§3. The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the deceased be observed; nevertheless, the Church does not prohibit cremation unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine.


The Roman Catholic Church

For most of its history, the Roman Catholic Church had a ban against cremation. It was seen as the most sacrilegious act towards Christians and God, not simply blaspheming but physically declaring a disbelief in the resurrection of the body. In 1963, the Pope lifted the ban on cremation and in 1966 allowed Catholic priests to officiate at cremation ceremonies. The Church still officially prefers the traditional interment of the deceased. Despite this preference, cremation is now permitted as long as it is not done to express a refusal to believe in the resurrection of the body.…hristian_World

So we see here judgements of the prudential order from time to time. For most of Church’s history cremation was prohibited (considered it inadmissible), but since not too long ago, this ban was lifted and now cremation is permitted under certain conditions.


In ancient times, due to the circumstances of life, slavery, as a way of having servants 24/7, was permitted and it was not a sin as long as the dignity of the person was respected. It was not only permitted but also necessary due to the fact that some poor people could not maintain themselves (and their loved ones) by their own resources. Do not confuse it with any kind of abuses or denigrations which resulted by some of the masters taking advantages of the type of services and conditions of the slaves, those acts are definitely condemned, and each act stands on its own. I’m not talking about slavery defined as “force labor, denigration of people, treating people like objects, treating people with no dignity, oppression”, that is of course always gravely immoral. I’m talking about defining a ‘slave’ as someone dependent on someone else with whom they stand in some sort of relation. Or, as St. Louis De Montfort put it: “There is nothing among men which makes us belong to another more than slavery” [i]. The Catechism of the Council of Trent teaches regarding the Sacrament of Penance: “that they [the faithful] have been reconciled as slaves to their kind master, or rather, as children to their best of fathers” [ii].  Thus, ‘Slavery’ is not an inherently negative term, and is related to work and dependence on someone else (e.g. a lord, a superior).

Today, the word ‘slavery’ has gotten a negative connotation due to the abuses and evils which resulted from it by some of the masters. However, this word, properly defined, deserves its separate ancient non-evil purpose, meaning and context that commonly worked in olden times.

In Sacred Scripture, we read that some 24/7 servants were so happy with their masters that they wanted to live with them permanently thus becoming their slaves for life (Deuteronomy 15:12-17).

Luke wrote his Gospel in Greek (For ample information about the original writings, see The Writing of the Gospels and Biblical Inerrancy by Ronald L. Conte, Jr.). In Luke 1:38, when the Virgin Mary responds to the Angel, the Greek text uses the word δούλη,n  \{doo’-lay} to describe what she considers herself before the Lord. This word has the following meanings: a female slave, bondmaid (a slave girl), handmaid. Therefore, our Blessed Mother considered herself a slave of our Lord. She would not consider herself something intrinsically evil. St. Louis De Montfort teaches: “…and also according to the example of the holy Virgin, who called herself the servant and slave of the Lord (Lk. 1:38). The Apostle calls himself, as by a title of honor, “the slave of Christ”” [iii].

Jesus taught that whoever wants to be first must be slave of all (Matthew 20:27) (Mark 10:44) – NIV. (Can be translated as servant or slave). Jesus Christ Himself emptied Himself and took “the form of a slave” as the Catechism describes of Philippians 2:7 (CCC # 472). St. Paul teaches us to become “slaves of God” (Romans 6:22) (CCC # 1995).

Abraham had slaves and if he had had no offspring one of them would inherit all he had (Genesis 15:3). See Sacred Scripture permitting slavery or not referring to it as a negative term (Galatians 4:7) (Galatians 4:22-23) (Ephesians 6:5-8) (Colossians 4:1) (Exodus 21:20-21) (Exodus 21:18–27) (Deuteronomy 23:15-16). The Hebrew word: ‘obd’, or ‘ebed’ (transliteration) seen in the OT Scriptures, can be translated ‘slave’ or ‘servant’.

Though nonetheless considered a burden because of the general lack of freedom, the Church also permitted slavery in ancient times (finding support on Sacred Scripture) (See Third Lateran Council – 1179 A.D. under Pope Alexander III, (contra iniquitous men) # 24 & 27). Slaves were excluded from the Priesthood [iv].  The Catechism of the Council of Trent also taught: “To enslave a freeman, or appropriate the slave of another is called man-stealing” [v]. Some important history figures owned slaves but we cannot thereby conclude that they were all evil by judging them with our 21st century glasses. We have to justly judge according to the conditions, customs, ways of thinking of their time. There were some bad/abusive/evil lords, yes, but there were also good/kind lords who were accepted, loved and appreciated by their slaves. Each act of abuse or denigration is separate from the accorded relationship between master and slave and each of those acts stand on their own before our Lord, thus these acts cannot be mingled together with the servant’s dependence on their master as if slavery (properly defined) and denigration or abuses were one sole act.

Today, however, with our current state of life, with the development of society and knowledge, slavery as such (carnal) [vi] is no longer admissible, it is inadmissible.

Freedom of Religion:

Up to and during the middle ages, freedom of religion was not permitted by the secular power, even in Christendom, for the religion was based on the leader of the country’s religion. However, Vatican II has developed the teaching on freedom of religion (Declaration – Dignitatis Humanae – On The Right Of The Person And Of Communities).

So we see that the Church has been developing in certain teachings and changing some decisions of the prudential order as the times see fit. Acceptance and approval of capital punishment within the Catholic Church has varied throughout time [vii]. This very teaching about the death penalty was previously revised by Pope St. John Paul II to allow the death penalty as “very rare, if not practically nonexistent” (See also Evangelium Vitae). So, Pope Francis’ new revision is not that big from the previous amendment.

In conclusion, Pope Francis considers and teaches that due to the current state of life, the death penalty is no longer admissible. The Pope is not changing any dogma. As Catholics, we can respect this verdict with submission of mind and will. Since ‘the no longer allowing this act’ is not an infallible teaching, the faithful is free to respectfully disagree up to a limited extent basing such limited dissent on Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium. Can the revision of this numeral vary with time? – Since non-infallible teachings are reformable, they are subject to change. In any case, I abide to Magisterial teaching which is guided by the Holy Spirit with the authority given by Christ.

-Francisco Figueroa

[i] True Devotion to Mary, St. Louis De Montfort Translated by Fr. Frederick Faber – TAN, pg. 45 # 72.

[ii] The Catechism of the Council of Trent, The Rites Observed in the Sacrament of Penance

[iii] True Devotion to Mary, St. Louis De Montfort Translated by Fr. Frederick Faber – TAN, pg. 45 # 72.

[iv]  The Catechism of the Council of Trent – Qualifications for the Priesthood, Canonical Fitness, n2.

[v] The Catechism of the Council of Trent – Various Names Given To Stealing

[vi] We can talk about spiritual slavery such as becoming slaves of Christ or practice a devotion or consecration to become slaves of Christ, to Christ through Mary, etc.





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2 Responses to Is the Pope changing a dogma on the death penalty?

  1. Mark P. says:

    What is the “new” understanding of human dignity that didn’t know about before? That remains unanswered. This statement just comes out of the blue, as if for the last 2000 years the Church herself did not understand the dignity of the human person.
    “Human dignity,” as used by the Church these days, has the same connotation as “pastoral.” Both terms are used as “get out of jail free” cards, in a sense, by allowing certain sinful actions and ways of life contrary to Church teaching, without providing any concrete instruction on how to overcome these sins.

  2. Robert Fastiggi says:

    With respect to human dignity, Pope Francis is building on the teaching of John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, no. 9, which cites St. Ambrose (339-397) and his recognition of God’s protection of the life of the murderer, Cain (Gen 4:15). John Paul II teaches: “Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this.” Pope Francis’s teaching on capital punishment did not just “come out of the blue.” I agree with you, though, that “human dignity” should not be used to allow criminals to walk free or sinful actions to be excused. I don’t think the teaching of Pope Francis against capital punishment suggests this at all.

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