Pope Francis Has Not Reversed Pope Pius XII on the Death Penalty

Pope Francis Has Not Reversed Pope Pius XII on the Death Penalty August 5, 2018

The Catholic social media sphere has been abuzz this past week due to Pope Francis approving a edit to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, per the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, that articulates development of doctrine regarding Catholic teaching on capital punishment.

Unsurprisingly, although sadly, this change has wrought much angst and anger among some Catholics. They claim that the prior teaching on the death penalty was infallible (not true), that the Pope is changing infallible teaching (not true), and that the new teaching contradicts past teaching (not true).

And some are spreading memes that allegedly “prove” that Pope Francis has reversed the Church’s teaching on the death penalty, such as this one (as seen on Twitter, here):

pope pius xii quote

The quote from Pope Pius XII comes from an address (not an encyclical or apostolic letter or other “official” teaching document) given September 14, 1952 to the First International Congress on the Histopathology of the Nervous System.

The quote as found in the original document is as follows:

33. Even when it is a question of the execution of a condemned man, the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. In this case it is reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned person of the <enjoyment> of life in expiation of his crime when, by his crime, he has already disposed himself of his right to live.

Compare the quote above to the quote in the meme:

Even in the case of the death penalty, the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. Rather, public authority limits itself to depriving the offender of the good of life in expiation for his guilt, after he, through his crime, deprived himself of his own right to life.

The two quotes are similar, but they aren’t the same. It is possible that the meme quote is a translation done by an unknown person from the Spanish or French of the original source at the Vatican, but I would prefer to trust the translations as found on EWTN as well as the National Catholic Bioethics Center (they are identical).

If you read the entire address in context, Pope Pius XII is not discussing capital punishment or the death penalty, but rather medical ethics — specifically, the importance of doctors obtaining informed consent from patients being treated for disease or participating in medical experiments. His comment about execution of a condemned man is said almost in passing, and he did not intend it to be a definitive or infallible pronouncement on the absolute good and necessity of capital punishment.

The Church has never taught that the the death penalty is a moral good. She has never given governments a quota for how many prisoners they must kill per year. Pope Pius XII even acknowledges in this quote that the State does not have the authority to dispose of an individual’s right to life — rather, he says that the individual has forfeited his own life by the act of murder.

The reformulated teaching of the Catechism says that since non-lethal means are sufficient to protect society, charity and our greater understanding of human dignity obliges the state to use them. Even if a murderer has forfeited his right to live by his actions does not mean that the State is therefore obligated to take his life from him. As G.K. Chesterton said, “To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.”

Even a murderer has not and can not lose his personal dignity. This teaching is important because the easier it is to dehumanize human beings, the easier it is to oppress them and treat them cruelly. Proponents of legal abortion, for example, demonstrate this concept in their attempt to dehumanize unborn human beings in order to oppress them and deny them the right to life.

In terms of prisoners, the Church teaches that they must be treated fairly and humanely while receiving just punishment for their crimes, and their human dignity must always be respected. Part of respecting that human dignity is preferring the correction and repentance of sinners, instead of desiring their deaths. As Pope John Paul II said in Evangelium Vitae (quoted in the CDF’s letter to bishops),

And yet God, who is always merciful even when he punishes, “put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him” (Gen 4:15). He thus gave him a distinctive sign, not to condemn him to the hatred of others, but to protect and defend him from those wishing to kill him, even out of a desire to avenge Abel’s death. Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this. And it is precisely here that the paradoxical mystery of the merciful justice of God is shown forth. As Saint Ambrose writes: “Once the crime is admitted at the very inception of this sinful act of parricide, then the divine law of God’s mercy should be immediately extended. If punishment is forthwith inflicted on the accused, then men in the exercise of justice would in no way observe patience and moderation, but would straightaway condemn the defendant to punishment. … God drove Cain out of his presence and sent him into exile far away from his native land, so that he passed from a life of human kindness to one which was more akin to the rude existence of a wild beast. God, who preferred the correction rather than the death of a sinner, did not desire that a homicide be punished by the exaction of another act of homicide. (emphasis mine)

So if you see this meme floating around the Internet, please be assured that the teaching of Pope Pius XII and Pope Francis are not in opposition, but are in fact in perfect consistency.

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  • Adam

    One cannot deny nor forbid the use of capital punishment by the state because to do so would contradict Holy Scripture. St Paul in Romans 13 explains that the state has authority granted by God to do so. St Peter says the same. It has also been taught by the early Church Fathers , the Doctors of the Church, St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas, St Alphonsus Liguori, Pope Innocent I. Pope Innocent III, St Pius V, The Council of Trent, and many many more. This has been the belief from the very beginning. According to the First Vatican Council, this consensus throughout Church history cannot be overturned by a single pontiff. Because to do so would be to say that Holy Scripture is in error and that the entire Church was in error for over 2,000 years. So you can see how this creates some problems.

  • Just not seeing the personal dignity of John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, Tim McVeigh, Tojo, the Nuremberg Nazis, etc.

    And since the recent remarks don’t change anything, I will maintain my position that the death penalty should remain legal, but Catholics sitting on juries should apply the analysis in the catechism during the sentencing phase.

  • Elijah fan

    Not to mention that the UN murder rates for every country on earth show two things.
    Mild affluence prevents murder in affluent dominant countries ( Europe/ second safest region on earth) and execution prevents murder where the poor are a large sector of society ( Asia/ #1 safest region vis a vis criminal murder and death penalty dominant). China with a non delayed death penalty e.g. has c.11,000 murders a year with 1.4 billion people. Brazil, the largest Catholic population and non death penalty, has 50,000+ to 61,000 murders a year with 1/7 the population of China. China’s murder rate is point 67 per 100,000 and Brazil’s is 26 ( no decimal prior) per 100,000. Brazil would save c. 50,000+ murder victims a year if it had China’s murder rate. Japan has both mild affluence and the death penalty and therefore point 28 per 100,000 murder rate. Three Popes seem to have not known any of this and their assertion on the safety of modern prisons is rooted in St.JPII’s knowledge of Euro prisons only which he apparently projected out onto the third world where the opposite is true in the two largest Catholic countries…Brazil and Mexico. Brazil had 80 inmates murdered by other inmates in January of 2017 during a prison riot over insufficient water. For Mexico the prisons are also often controlled by cartels per one of Mexico’s Justice ministers. At youtube…type in… Mexican prison murder. Those are cartel men in the white athletic suits scareing the guards into leaving as they machine gun a cell full of rival cartel people. The prison praise of both versions of ccc 2267 is what happens when you guess at all the prisons of the world when only thinking of Europe where there are low murder rates. Austria has c 45 murders a year…Brazil has c 50,000 to 60,000.

  • Good thing that hasn’t been denied, then, isn’t it?

  • and guess what? you have something in common with them — they didn’t see the personal dignity in any of their murdered victims.

    They have (had) dignity, whether or not you see it.

  • Elijah fan

    Then the entire Old Testament is false because it literally rains killings sanctioned by God and was a promise of God to the Jews that they would defeat their enemies if they kept the covenant commands…presuming a just war. And Christ is false and totally wrong in Mark 7:10 wherein He praises the command and penalty of death of Leviticus 20:9 as being “ the commandment of God”.

    Jeremiah was speaking to the Chaldeans in 48:10 telling them God wanted them to kill the Moabites. Was God through Jeremiah forcing the Chaldeans to sin in not recognizing the dignity of the Moabites?
    Jeremiah 48:10 “Cursed be he that doeth the work of Jehovah negligently; and cursed be he that keepeth back his sword from blood.”

  • Elijah fan

    PS Were Christ trying to dissuade from the penalty of execution in this evolutionary way of two Popes, He could have in Mark 7:10 cited instead…
    Deuteronomy 27:16
    16 Cursed be he that honoureth not his father and mother: and all the people shall say: Amen.
    Curse carries gradations of punishment in scripture as in Gen.9:25
    “He said: Cursed be Chanaan, a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.“
    But Christ chose instead the verse with the death penalty.

  • Oh, BS. Their victims didn’t slaughter 6,000,000 people, conduct experiments on them, or murder coeds, rape their corpses, and then keep their severed heads as trophies. Please show me the inherent dignity in such activities.

  • Indeed. My Catholic bible still contains the old testament.

  • Hibernia sugit

    I assume you haven’t read Ed Feser’s book because he spent a whole lot of time providing evidence to the contrary concerning the Catholic argument in favour of capital punishment. However I don’t want to appeal to authority so I will instead challenge what you wrote. You quote JPII citing St Ambrose “God, who preferred the correction rather than the death of a sinner, did not desire that a homicide be punished by the exaction of another act of homicide”. I would remind you that “Prefer” and “Desire” are not imperatives. Moreover, on the issue of ” Part of respecting that human dignity is preferring the correction and repentance of sinners, instead of desiring their deaths” …again the word “prefers” is used not an imperative such as ‘forbids’ or other such peremptory language. A preference is a liking of one alternative over another, presupposing the legitimate existence of the other alternative choice. Furthermoe, dignity is not conditioned upon sustaining life and anyone who has worked in a hospice knows that the dignity of the patient exists knowing that death is inevitable and that dignity subsists post death. In fact our culture bestows dignity in burial rites which is why a Christian burial connotes a respectful interment. You state “Even if a murderer has forfeited his right to live by his actions does not mean that the State is therefore obligated to take his life from him”. Again but there is no compulsion or obligation on any State to kill, it can decide to render such a sentence or not by law. Moreover, if such a sentence exists and before an offender can be sentenced to death, there are protections such as the Eighth Amendment in the US which requires an individualized sentencing process not only prescribing but describing the means to which the State recognises the dignity of a human being—meaning a law cannot impose a mandatory or automatic death sentence upon conviction without due consideration to certain mitigating or in reality, aggravating factors de facto recognising the inherent dignity of the offender. Death is not a condition attached to the veracity of dignity. A baby mutilated on an abortion table retains his or her dignity regardless because dignity is a value ascribed by his or inherent nature as a child of God NOT his solely his physical condition. A woman brutally raped, murdered her corpse abandoned by a serial killer retains her dignity in the eyes of God even if she is treated in an undignified manner by the killer. We don’t define what is dignified or when it attaches no more than we can posit what is true according to a cultural whim. It simply is. If I die in a hospital room surrounded by nursing staff attending me, within a clean cotton bed sheet or at the side of the road dumped by a murderer, I still retain my dignity in the eyes of God.

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