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On August 2, Pope Francis revised the official Catechism of the Catholic Church to state that the death penalty was “inadmissible” under all circumstances. He used the key phrase “the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel…” to elevate what was until now a matter of genuine disagreement among Catholics to a binding teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.

Both the substance of the change and the manner in which it has been explained should be deeply troubling to observant Catholics.

The statement that Pope Francis changed was written in 1992 by Pope Saint John Paul II. It reads: 

The nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. 

In the Catechism, this statement follows a discussion of the moral duty to defend oneself and innocent victims: “legitimate defence can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another’s life, the common good of the family or of the State.”

John Paul II’s teaching on the death penalty and his justification of self-defense are both consistent with a respect for life. His reasoning starts with the premise that respect for life must include the lives of the victims and the defenders as well as the aggressors. Indeed, he states plainly that the respect for one’s own life and that of the victims comes first: “Love thy neighbor as thyself” assumes the validity of love for one’s own life. 

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a letter with a terse explanation of why the new teaching was adopted: 

Today the increasing understanding that the dignity of a person is not lost even after committing the most serious crimes, the deepened understanding of the significance of penal sanctions applied by the State, and the development of more efficacious detention systems that guarantee the due protection of citizens have given rise to a new awareness that recognizes the inadmissibility of the death penalty. 

John Paul II did not go far enough, they state, because he worked “in a social context in which the penal sanctions were understood differently, and had developed in an environment in which it was more difficult to guarantee that the criminal could not repeat his crime.” 

In contrast to John Paul II’s clear theological reasoning, this new rationale combines a chronological fallacy with wishful sociology. It replaces theological reasoning with reference to “a new awareness” in the classic style of the chronological fallacy. Incredibly, this new awareness appeared in just a quarter century since John Paul II’s Catechism.

The next step in the Vatican’s justification is that we now have “more effective systems of detention … which ensure the due protection of citizens.” How this radical prison reform could have been accomplished in the scant 26 years since John Paul II wrote is never explained. 

The fact is our prison system provides no such protection. There are numerous examples of murderers who were released from prison only to kill again. While the number of convicted murders who kill again might not be a large percentage of the population, respect for life is not a matter of numbers. 

Not even a life sentence is sufficient to stop a murderer from continuing to take innocent lives. Drug lords and terrorists often run their criminal empires while in prison and commit murders through the agency of their minions. Without the death penalty, those who murder their prison guards or other inmates remain able to do so again. 

Imposition of the death penalty is not an easy decision for anyone who believes in the sanctity of human life as a matter of natural law and revelation. However, as John Paul II clearly stated, the death penalty is nevertheless permissible in certain circumstances. If we follow his reasoning, the moral obligation to defend oneself and innocent victims may justify use of the death penalty for defensive purposes. 

It is troubling that Pope Francis would change words written by his predecessor so recently, and that he would do so with such inadequate theological justification and dubious factual claims. 

It is perhaps more troubling that Pope Francis would elevate such a belief to an instruction “in light of the Gospel.” The death penalty is an act of the state, so that opinions on that topic partake of the political as well as the moral. This is why, as Edward Feser points out, “John Paul II’s Catechism appeals to prudential considerations concerning what is strictly necessary in order to protect society.” 

Pope Francis’s predecessors were much more circumspect about giving mandatory instructions dealing with matters of public policy. Notable counterexamples include the much graver and morally unambiguous matters of abortion, euthanasia, and genocide.

Pope Francis’s action on the death penalty leaves uncomfortable questions about which of his other political beliefs he will make into teachings “in light of the Gospel.”

David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy. He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America.

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