[The following copyrighted article appears in the October 2018 number of The TRINITARIAN newspaper.  The author encourages all to subscribe to The TRINITARIAN.]

The official English translation of the 1994 edition of The Catechism of the Catholic Church, has the following to say about capital punishment:

  1. Preserving the common good of society requires rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm. For this reason the traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty. For analogous reasons those holding authority have the right to repel by armed force aggressors against the community in their charge.

The Catechism modifies this position in emphasis by adding an appropriate note in favor of avoiding bloodshed:

  1. If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

I think this position is in fact in accord with the central Christian tradition, ultimately rooted in the New Testament itself. The tradition is virtually unanimous in asserting that in principle legitimate public authority has the right to execute capital punishments in cases of extremely grave crimes and threats to public order.

The wealth of potential authorities that could be cited to establish the fact of this tradition is vast: so vast that it is hardly worth bothering to invoke. The Ignatius Press, in the same year as the publication of the Catechism itself, published The Companion to the Catechism of the Catholic Church: A Compendium of Texts Referred to in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (San Francisco, 1994). The only text relating to Sections 2266 and 2267 quoted in this Companion is Luke 23:40-43:

But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly, I say unto you, today you will be with me in paradise.’ 

While there are many unjust killings in the Old and New Testament, the basic assumption in the New is that capital punishment is a legitimate tool held by rulers. Certainly Saint Paul (Romans 13) and Saint Luke in Acts assume that the Romans were usually decent custodians of the penalty.

It should be understood clearly that this traditional teaching does not constitute an assertion that capital punishment is actually desirable, or that as a matter of public policy it should be used, or that any Christian is obliged to accept it in particular or in general policy as prudent. Whether capital punishments in fact should be imposed or not is a political question, about which the Church as such has no opinion. The moral teaching of the Church states the natural boundaries of public morality, but the policies established within those boundaries are matters for legislators and citizens, whose roles and authority are distinguished from the roles and authority of bishops and Christians. Therefore, the Church has always taught that capital punishments are potentially licit, but not that they are wise, much less mandatory.

Such was the consensus tradition, concerning which no one much dissented outside pacifist circles. A similar teaching is present in the Articles of Religion (Article XXXVII): ‘godly Princes…restrain with the civil sword the stubborn and evildoers….The Laws of the Realm may punish Christian men with death, for heinous and grievous offences.’

Despite this consensus position from Scripture and tradition, voiced as recently as 1994 in the Roman catechism, the Roman Catholic Church has in recent decades moved in an abolitionist direction regarding capital punishment. Just a few years after the 1994 Catechism, a second edition was promulgated with this important addendum to Sections 2266-2267:

Today, in fact, given the means at the State’s disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender ‘today…are very rare, if not practically non-existent.’ [John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56.]

This addition leaves the traditional teaching concerning capital punishment standing in theory, but effectively argues that ‘the State’ is now able to repress crime so effectively and to render malefactors so impotent that there is no need to impose capital punishments. The values of showing mercy and of leaving open the possibility for self-redemption are so great, that they effectively make capital punishment obsolete, according to this revision. The change is not based on doctrinal considerations but an assertion about facts (‘Today, in fact…’).

The addition, however, is very, very slippery on almost every level. First, it provides no evidence whatsoever for the essential premise of its whole position: that all States are now able to suppress crime and criminals with such effectiveness that there now are virtually no cases of the sort that led to a universal teaching in favor of the death penalty in principle. I think it would astonish millions of people in, say, Congo or Guatemala or Albania or Afghanistan to know that they live under such effective States with competent penal systems.

Secondly, the addition does not explain what the new, or newly effective, non-lethal means are that now rest in the hands of all States.

Thirdly, while the tradition has always encouraged mercy and proposed a positive value in using restraint, there was and is no requirement that capital punishment only be used in cases of ‘absolute necessity’.

And, fourthly, there is no evidence provided that penitence and contrition in a grave malefactor are more likely if he is permitted to fester for years in a prison than if he is confronted sharply by his coming execution. In fact, there may be reasons to think that a hardened and brutal criminal is more likely to be shocked into self-understanding and true penitence by the approach of his own death than by psycho-therapeutic or merely restraining punishment.

The revised Roman position has now been imposed by the Papacy at the highest level. Pope Francis in early August asserted that capital punishment is ‘inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.’ This is a breathtaking rejection of the universal Christian and Catholic position. Luis Cardinal Ladaria’s nearly simultaneous explanation for the papal abolitionism is far more moderate and simply repeats the (unsupported) assertions from the Catechism revision: ‘Given that modern society possesses more efficient detention systems, the death penalty becomes unnecessary as protection for the life of innocent people.’ But Pope Francis brushes aside this position with an absolute prohibition that rejects the historic position of his Church.

Meanwhile, for non-Roman Catholics, nothing has changed. The issue remains one for politicians and statesmen and citizens, with the Church’s position being: ‘The death penalty is permissible in theory, but may or may not be wise in fact.’

One thought on “The Pope and Capital Punishment

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