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Understanding the Catechism Revision on the Death Penalty

On August 1, Cardinal Luis Ladaria issued a letter to the bishops of the world announcing that Pope Francis had approved a change to the section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church dealing with the death penalty.

Here are some key facts for understanding this revision . . .

What does the Catechism now say?

The relevant passage now reads:

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” (Francis, Discourse, Oct. 11, 2017), and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.

For a history of what the Catechism formerly said, see here.

Is this revision a surprise?

Not really. The last several popes—St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis—have taken a negative tone toward the death penalty, and the Catechism had already been revised once to reflect this. In addition, Cardinal Ladaria explains:

The Holy Father Pope Francis, in his Discourse on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of the apostolic constitution Fidei Depositum, by which John Paul II promulgated the Catechism of the Catholic Church, asked that the teaching on the death penalty be reformulated so as to better reflect the development of the doctrine on this point that has taken place in recent times (1).

We thus already knew that a revision was under consideration.

Is this new revision an exercise of papal infallibility?

No. Although many individual teachings in the Catechism have previously been taught infallibly, the Catechism itself is not an infallible document. This is one reason it is capable of being revised.

To understand the level of authority of an individual teaching, one must look at the circumstances of an individual act of teaching to determine what level of authority it has.

As Cardinal Ladaria explains in his letter, Pope Francis approved the new revision that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) proposed, but he did not issue it in a document of his own. This is significant for two reasons:

  1. Popes cannot delegate their infallibility to departments of the Roman Curia, such as the CDF. Consequently, the approval that popes regularly give to CDF documents does not make them infallible.
  2. To issue an infallible teaching, popes use a special form of language, typically invoking their authority as the successor of Peter and using the phrase I/we define as a way of indicating that the teaching is definitive. (See, for example, the language Pius XII used in defining the Assumption of Mary in Munificentissimus Deus 44.) Pope Francis did not use this kind of language in granting the approval of the new revision.

What level of authority does the new revision have?

According to Cardinal Ladaria:

The new revision of number 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, approved by Pope Francis, situates itself in continuity with the preceding Magisterium while bringing forth a coherent development of Catholic doctrine (7).

As a doctrinal development, it would qualify as authoritative teaching (as opposed to mere theological opinion), and it would qualify as non-definitive (i.e., non-infallible) Church teaching.

According to Vatican II, such teachings call for “religious submission of mind and will” on the part of the faithful.

What if I have trouble accepting this teaching?

The Church recognizes that individuals can have difficulties accepting non-definitive Church teaching and that, in some cases, they may find themselves unable to accept them.

This situation is addressed—with specific application to theologians—in a 1990 instruction from the CDF known as Donum Veritatis, which states:

Such a disagreement could not be justified if it were based solely upon the fact that the validity of the given teaching is not evident or upon the opinion that the opposite position would be the more probable. Nor, furthermore, would the judgment of the subjective conscience of the theologian justify it because conscience does not constitute an autonomous and exclusive authority for deciding the truth of a doctrine.

In any case there should never be a diminishment of that fundamental openness loyally to accept the teaching of the Magisterium as is fitting for every believer by reason of the obedience of faith. The theologian will strive then to understand this teaching in its contents, arguments, and purposes. This will mean an intense and patient reflection on his part and a readiness, if need be, to revise his own opinions and examine the objections which his colleagues might offer him (28-29).

Donum Veritatis further states:

It can also happen that at the conclusion of a serious study, undertaken with the desire to heed the Magisterium’s teaching without hesitation, the theologian’s difficulty remains because the arguments to the contrary seem more persuasive to him. Faced with a proposition to which he feels he cannot give his intellectual assent, the theologian nevertheless has the duty to remain open to a deeper examination of the question (31).

Of course, having a private disagreement does not entail a right to publicly oppose Church teaching. Fortunately, those experiencing such difficulties can have the consolation that the Holy Spirit is guiding the Church “into all the truth” (John 16:13).

For a loyal spirit, animated by love for the Church, such a situation can certainly prove a difficult trial. It can be a call to suffer for the truth, in silence and prayer, but with the certainty that if the truth really is at stake, it will ultimately prevail (31).

Does the new revision indicate that the death penalty is intrinsically evil?

One might think so, since it says the death penalty is “inadmissible” because “it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” However, a careful reading of the revision, and Cardinal Ladaria’s letter, suggests this is not the way the phrase should be understood. (Msgr. Charles Pope reaches the same conclusion.)

First, the revision notes that “a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state.” This refers to the fact that in the past the state’s penal sanctions were understood principally as administering justice (including divine justice) to wrongdoers, but today the Church understands them principally as seeking to protect society and (hopefully) rehabilitate the offender (see Ladaria 7 and the changes made to paragraph 2266 in the Catechism).

Second, in light of this new understanding of the function of the state’s penal sanctions, the death penalty could still be justified as a means of protecting society.

However, according to the revision, “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.”

From these considerations, one could understand the death penalty as something that involves “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” but an attack that could be tolerated or even required in situations where there is no other way to effectively protect society.

This understanding appears to be confirmed by Cardinal Ladaria, who seems prepared to acknowledge that “the political and social situation of the past made the death penalty an acceptable means for the protection of the common good” (2).

He further seems prepared to acknowledge that, as in the previous edition of the Catechism, “it can be justified if it is ‘the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor’” (3). He states that “given that modern society possesses more efficient detention systems, the death penalty becomes unnecessary as protection for the life of innocent people,” though, “certainly, it remains the duty of public authorities to defend the life of citizens” (7). He thus concludes:

All of this shows that the new formulation of number 2267 of the Catechism expresses an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium. These teachings, in fact, can be explained in the light of the primary responsibility of the public authority to protect the common good 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 (8).

The new revision would be “in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium” if it held that the death penalty was intrinsically evil and thus had always been wrong in the past. Instead, Cardinal Ladaria indicates that the revision is warranted by the changed understanding of the state’s penal sanctions and the development of more effective detention systems.

If the death penalty is not being judged intrinsically evil, what has changed?

It appears that Pope Francis has made a prudential judgment that, given present circumstances in society, there are no longer situations in which the death penalty is warranted.

Consequently, this judgment has been added to the social doctrine of the Church, which applies the underlying principles of its moral doctrine to concrete situations in society. The underlying moral principles have not changed, but, in Pope Francis’s judgment, society has changed in a way that requires a different application of them.

This judgment is now reflected in the Church’s social doctrine, without contradicting prior teaching on the underlying moral principles. Thus Cardinal Ladaria says that the new formulation “expresses an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium.” It is the Church’s social doctrine that has developed, and its prior moral teachings have not been contradicted.

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