A Catholic is no longer free to support recourse to the death penalty. In revising number 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has left no doubt about the magisterial earnestness of the remarks he delivered last October on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the promulgation of the Catechism, which provide the basis for this revision of the Catechism: “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.”
Structure and Motion: Grace Measures Natural Law
Of course, the Pope has not changed natural law (nor can he!) The death penalty has not suddenly become an intrinsic evil. The preceding numbers of the Catechism remain as they are. The whole discussion falls under the section on “Legitimate Defense.” In 2266, we find what has always been the fundamental warrant for capital punishment: “Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense.”
None of this has changed. It cannot change. Instead, Pope Francis is making a bigger play: to shift our perspective from static analysis of immutable natural law to dynamic embodiment of the providential motion of grace in history. I have written about this before in describing the pro-life directionality of providence as entailing a Christian withdrawal from killing. It is not that self-defense or war or capital punishment is intrinsically evil. No, it is that even the most basic natural-law imperative (self-preservation) falls under a higher and more comprehensive measure: the purposes of limitless divine love abroad in history.
There is law, and then there is the life that law means to foster.
Natural law is not the last word. The Gospel makes the skeleton of law move according to the canons of grace and mercy. Justice is not abrogated, but it is radically transfigured by the law of the Cross. Pope Francis wants us to measure the world within the providential motion of all-transforming love.
Development of Doctrine within the Ever-Greater and Life-Dealing God
My interpretation finds deep confirmation in the letter addressed to the bishops of the world from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith regarding this revision: “The new formulation of number 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church desires to give energy to a movement towards a decisive commitment to favor a mentality that recognizes the dignity of every human life…”
“The dignity of every human life”: here is the crux of the matter. Here is the principle somewhat accessible to natural reason (“all men are created equal”), but only finally secured within God the Father’s entire plan of loving goodness.
In calling for this change in the Catechism last October, Pope Francis argued in terms of the development of doctrine, and placed that whole concept of development within a shift from law to Gospel:
“It must be clearly stated that the death penalty is an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity. It is per se contrary to the Gospel, because it entails the willful suppression of a human life that never ceases to be sacred in the eyes of its Creator and of which – ultimately – only God is the true judge and guarantor.”
“Per se contrary to the Gospel” is not “per se evil.” No. Pope Francis is not changing natural law. He is setting natural law within its native habitat, which is grace—relation to and within the ever-greater Trinitarian God:
“Tradition is a living reality and only a partial vision regards the ‘deposit of faith’ as something static. The Word of God cannot be moth-balled like some old blanket in an attempt to keep insects at bay! No. The Word of God is a dynamic and living reality that develops and grows because it is aimed at a fulfilment that none can halt. This law of progress, in the happy formulation of Saint Vincent of Lérins, ‘consolidated by years, enlarged by time, refined by age’ (Commonitorium, 23.9: PL 50), is a distinguishing mark of revealed truth as it is handed down by the Church, and in no way represents a change in doctrine.”
A Gracious Kingdom, the Reason for Natural Law
I will quote my previous article: “Grace perfects nature often by setting it within a context so vast, it will look to unevangelized eyes as if everything is upside down and backwards, even unto the Cross: loving and forgiving your enemy, though he be killing you.”
The great paradox of Christian action: to be agents of law and justice as nothing other than agents of grace and mercy. It means so much in us has to die: our old ways of measuring justice, our old political alliances, our old habits of turning natural-law into a shield against the extravagant claims of grace and its Kingdom.
My next post will focus on why this development is very good news for those of us who are committed to restoring the right to life of the innocent in law. As John Paul II argued in Evangelium vitae, if even the dignity of the guilty must be bowed to, then how much more must the dignity of the innocent be safeguarded in law. For law must always serve grace, and a gracious society will not legally condone killing the least of these. If according to our laws the guilty should live, then how much more the innocent?