Where does the Catholic Church stand on the death penalty and war?

Where does the Catholic Church stand on the death penalty and war? October 9, 2020


Where does the Catholic Church stand on the death penalty and war?


Pope Francis’s encyclical letter Fratelli Tutti (“Brothers All”), issued October 3, reinforces his profile as a socio-political liberal and idealist. Employing this the highest vehicle for authoritative papal teaching, he addresses racism and rampant nationalism (which some say especially targets the current U.S. situation), and yokes concern for the poor with a semi-socialistic view of private property. His views perhaps reflect the culture of economically troubled Argentina as much as teaching by previous popes.

In terms of church history, Francis’s most important innovations here are total opposition to the death penalty and, regarding warfare, nudging of the church  toward full-blown pacifism. We can predict many lay parishioners will dissent, as with papal decrees on such matters as birth control. Francis wants the church to upend centuries of teaching by pontiffs and theologians. It seems probable that pressure for abortion and mercy-killing in secular culture has strengthened “pro-life” zeal on these other matters of life and death.

With the death penalty, biblical tradition reaches back to primeval times. God protects the life of the first murderer, Cain, but later gives this commandment: “Anyone who sheds the blood of a human being, by a human being shall that one’s blood be shed, for in the image of God have human beings been made”(Genesis 9:6).

This is interpreted to say that, paradoxically, death by execution upholds respect for life by making murder so abhorrent. At face value, the statement seems not only to allow but to require the death penalty. However, the Jewish Publication Society’s Genesis commentary says ancient rabbis shied away from execution and sought “every mitigating factor in the laws of evidence” to avoid imposing it for killing or other misdeeds.

Most Christians endorsed the practice across the centuries. As recently as 2018, the Catholic catechism was still saying that though government should avoid the death penalty if “bloodless means are sufficient,” a society can claim legitimacy when execution is necessary to “defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons.”

However, Pope John Paul II had stated in a 1995 encyclical that though the death penalty seems a “legitimate defense” of society, we can effectively suppress crime without killing criminals. Today, he said, “absolute necessity” for execution is “very rare, if not practically non-existent.” Did Communist abuse in Poland affect this? John Paul’s successor Pope Benedict XVI urged public officials “to make every effort to eliminate the death penalty.”

Then in a 2017 speech, Francis declared flatly that no matter how serious a crime may be, the “death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” and the church in all nations must work for full abolition.

The following year, the Vatican’s doctrinal office rewrote section 2267 in the Catechism, quoting Francis. The new version acknowledges that the church long considered capital punishment for grave crimes “an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.” But the church now teaches that “more effective systems” of imprisonment can protect citizens while providing murderers “the possibility of redemption.”

Fratelli Tutti sets this evolution in concrete: “Today we state clearly that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible’ and the Church is firmly committed to calling for its abolition worldwide.” Francis says other means of punishment are available to protect citizens, and “the possibility of judicial error” argues against the death penalty. Again, we see the probable impact of the pope’s career in Argentina as he denounces “extralegal executions” used by tyrants to suppress political dissent.

The pope then goes even further, contending that belief in human dignity, even of murderers, argues against life sentences in prison without parole, which he calls “a secret death.”  There’s sure to be intra-church debate about this development.

On warfare, the pope likewise goes against long tradition. Christianity from early times has always respected a minority belief against the bearing of arms and, inevitably, conflict brings horrid death and destruction. But as Christians began taking government responsibility in the Roman Empire, St. Augustine addressed these qualms by defining “just war” terms under which combat can be moral. Similar thinking came in the medieval classic Summa Theologiae by St. Thomas Aquinas.

The Catechism works through these complexities in sections 2303 through 2330. It says Christianity always urges action for peace. Though the Ten Commandments decry “the intentional destruction of human life,” this is conditioned by considerations explained by the Second Vatican Council in its 1965 decree on modern society Gaudium et Spes (“Joy and Hope”).

Echoing Augustine, the Council document teaches that “once all peace efforts have failed” governments “cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense” if the following “rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy” are met. The threat of damage from outside aggression “must be lasting, grave and certain.” Other means of countering aggression have proven “impractical or ineffective.” There are “serious prospects of success.” The “evil to be eliminated” outweighs the evils that war produces — regarding which the destructive power of modern armaments weighs heavily in the calculation.

Under those circumstances, legitimate public authorities ‘have the right and duty to impose on citizens the obligations necessary for national defense.” Then there are principles for the just conduct of war, including the assertion that “indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man.” (Think the obliteration of Dresden, then Hiroshima, in 1945.)

Francis quotes a 1963 encyclical from Pope John XXIII that stated “it no longer makes sense to maintain that war is a fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice.” To Francis, the development of modern nuclear, chemical and biological weapons has changed things. “We can no longer think of war as a solution, because its risks will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits.” Therefore “it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria” used centuries ago to think of any possible “just war.” Augustine’s formulation is something “we no longer uphold in our own day.” Conclusiuon: “Never again war!”

This appears to  rule out support for virtually any instance of war-making. Here again, many Catholic officials and parishioners will disagree.,

You can ponder the full text of Fratelli Tutti here: http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20201003_enciclica-fratelli-tutti.html

Browse Our Archives

error: Content is protected !!