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”, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.
People are freaking out because the media are calling it a “change” (which conservatives take to mean “reversal”).
Time for a quick refresher. Catholic theology develops. It evolves over time as the revelation of who Christ is and what he has wrought penetrates our hearts and minds more deeply. The paradox is that Catholic teaching does indeed change. But the nature of the change is to become more deeply and profoundly what it is, not to mutate into what it is not. So a baby changes into a man, but he does not mutate into an octopus or a pine tree. The man does not look like the baby, but remains the person he was.
A comparison of the Apostles Creed with the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed furnishes a typical illustration. Of Jesus’ relationship to God the Father, the Apostles Creed (dating from the second century) says only:
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
But the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (first formulated some two centuries later in 325 AD) says:
I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made.
Oh noes! It changed!
Correct. It developed. Why? Because the circumstances in which the Church lived changed and living things have to adapt to meet new circumstances. In this case, the Tradition developed to meet the challenges of the Arian heresy. The mustard seed did what Jesus said it would and put out roots and branches, becoming more mustardy, not less.
The tradition did the same thing under the lash of the violence of nation states in the 20th century. The Church came to face the fact that its tolerance of violence could no longer be reconciled with its far more fundamental belief in the dignity of the human person. It came to face that fact that if we do not absolutely have to kill, we must strive to avoid killing.
Most American conservatives still approach the question of violence legalistically, asking, “When do we get to kill? When do we get to execute? When do we get to go to war? When do we get to torture? If we get to kill in war, why don’t we get to torture?” The whole mindset is ordered toward the idea that inflicting harm is a special privilege the Church denies us until we jump through the correct hoops in the correct order. The apotheosis of this, for me, were the arguments from Iraq war zealots who seriously said that when Ratzinger declared that pre-emptive war is not in the Catechism, that meant pre-emptive war was AOK! They seriously believed that all forms of mass killing not specifically forbidden by the Church were fine because it never occurred to them that mass killing was wrong and would need to be justified by the advocate of mass murder.
But in fact the Church begins with the idea that people, made in the image and likeness of God, are so precious that we must focus on trying to prevent harm to them unless no other way can be found to save lives. The idea is “When do we have to kill and how can we possibly avoid it?” What the Church has done today is close up the tiny loophole left by JPII which said that there might be some tiny excuse for the death penalty in some rarefied circumstance. Francis basically said, “You know what? There’s not. So let’s face the fact that in the modern world we can do without the death penalty. Let’s stop killing people when we don’t need to.”
Liesite News is, of course, doing its thing of making war on the Holy Father and the Magisterium by declaring this contrary to natural law and the tradition. No. It’s just not. If it was part of natural law that those guilty of capital crimes *must* die, then
God himself broke natural law when he failed to put Cain, Moses, and David to death for committing murder. Jesus too was, by this dumb reckoning, guilty of breaking natural law when he did not call for the execution of the adulterous woman (a capital crime under Mosaic law). The Church has never insisted that all those guilty of capital crimes (including murder) must die. That’s why the ancient Church had penances for those guilty of murder (some of them lasting years).
The Church has, in fact, returned to its roots here in being suspicious of giving a pagan state the power to kill its citizens since the Church knows that power has historically been used by pagan states to kill us Catholics. Given the history of the 20th century, I think that’s not only perfectly in line with the Tradition, but just smart.
Church teaching regarding the power of the state to kill has always existed on a continuum. It’s never been the case that the Church said, “The state has an absolute obligation to kill all capital criminals.” There has always been room for sparing life. Now the Church has said, “What the state has sometimes done in the past it should always do in the future.” That’s a development and a real change from the past. What it is not is a reversal of anything essential in Catholic teaching. What is essential–and what will not be reversed but only more profoundly refined in the future–is the Church’s teaching that each human being is made in the image and likeness of God and that each human person is the only thing in the universe God has made for their own sake and not as a means to some other end. The Church has changed in the traditional way: She has become more what she always was.
For my money, that is the most significant doctrinal development of the Second Vatican Council and it will drive the Church’s thinking on all matters of life and death from here on in–including the death penalty.
Meanwhile, for all those still clinging to the death penalty as somehow essential to the Catholic faith: