Let’s Be Careful in Our Charges Regarding the New Wording of the Catechism on the Death Penalty

As most of you know, the Pope has directed that the wording of the Catechism of the Catholic Church about capital punishment be changed. The new wording is as follows:

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” [1], and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.

[1] FRANCIS, Address to Participants in the Meeting organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, 11 October 2017: L’Osservatore Romano, 13 October 2017, 5.

I have concerns that the reactions I have seen in the Catholic “blogosphere” have been too extreme. There are accusations of error, heresy, violations of Natural Law, and unauthorized changes to an unchangeable doctrine. There are calls to resist the Pope, to reject the teaching, and even to bring charges of heresy.

I think we need to be careful, slow down, and look more carefully at the wording. While I understand that there are legitimate concerns, I hope for a more respectful discussion among Catholics than I am currently seeing, at least here in the U.S.

My own reading of the new wording is more sanguine than that of my usual allies. I would like to make three points:

  1. I do not think the Pope or the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has changed doctrine or teaching. The new wording addresses a change in the circumstances of our times. While acknowledging the past assessments that permitted the use of the death penalty, the new wording uses an important interpretive phrase: “Today, however, …” What this means is that given the circumstances of our times, the current stance of the Church is that the use of the death penalty is both unnecessary and unwarranted. This is not the same as saying that previous Church teaching was wrong. The emphasis is on current circumstances, in which the need for this penalty is less than demonstrable, and there is an uneven application of “penal sanctions imposed by the state.” These circumstances make the use of the death penalty inadmissible because it does not meet the standards upon which the teaching insists: that it is necessary for the common good and that it is justly and consistently applied. You may disagree with these conclusions, but the point is that the teaching has not been changed; rather, current circumstances do not accord with what is necessary for legitimate recourse to the death penalty.
  2. The circumstances of our times are such that there is a need for a pastoral strategy that speaks to the dignity of every human person. While I realize that an innocent child in the womb is not to be equated with a convicted criminal, we should be careful about affording increasingly secular states the right to end any human life that does not immediately threaten the common good or the safety of innocent people. The new wording speaks to this.
  3. Some have said that the use of the word “inadmissible” is the same as calling the death penalty intrinsically evil. This seems a reckless charge meant to inflame. Had the Pope or the CDF meant to call it such (and it is not) they would have used the words “intrinsic evil”—but that is not the case. A more benign understanding is that the use of the death penalty is inadmissible due to the current circumstances. The context for the word “inadmissible” is supplied by the prior sentences and should be used in understanding it.

I realize that there will be ongoing discussion. I only ask that we calm down a bit and try to listen to what is actually being said (even if we find it somewhat ambiguous). Perhaps we should exhibit a little more care than I have seen exhibited in some of the commentaries I have read.

My central point is that it is not necessary to read this new wording in radical contrast to what has been taught in the past. The stance of the Church for at least the last fifty years has been that the conditions that require the death penalty are rarely if ever present today. This new wording of a moral teaching about a matter rarely encountered in the average person’s lifetime does not amount to a collapse of the Church’s entire moral doctrine. The heated responses on the blogs are out of proportion to a change that, while significant, is worded in a way that permits a contextual no rather than an absolute no that overthrows previous Church teaching. I do not think it does reverse Church teaching and we should be far more careful in making such claims.

In the interest of disclosure, I will say that I have not supported the use of the death penalty for years. I do not hold that it is intrinsically evil, but I cannot see why it is necessary. I do think that we must be more serious about keeping dangerous criminals locked up. First, there should be “truth in sentencing” (i.e., twenty years means twenty years). Second, these convicts should be strictly confined in ways that respect the common good and the need for public safety.

In closing, we should resist the vision of the culture of death, which insists that the killing of human beings is a legitimate solution to human problems.

The Death Penalty in Our Times

John Allen Muhammad is scheduled to die today by lethal injection. Muhammad terrorized the Washington D.C. area back in October 2002 when he and Lee Malvo, the DC Snipers randomly shot 13 people, killing ten of them. It was a time of great terror. It was especially frightening since it seemed so random and unpredictable. They covered almost the entire DC area and struck at odd intervals of time. No place or time seemed safe. The simple act of pumping gas or coming out of a store might get you killed. Few of us are emotionally sympathetic to John Allen Muhammad’s fate. He caused great harm and terror.

But what of the use of the death penalty? What, if anything, should a Catholic consider as John Allen Muhammad likely dies today by the hand of the State?

It is not my purpose here reconsider Catholic teaching on the death penalty. That has been done by far greater scholars than I. I would like to recommend to your attention one of the best articles I have ever read on the subject. It is by Cardinal Avery Dulles who published on the topic in the journal First Things. The article is fair and quite thorough and you can read it here: Catholicism and Capital Punishment. After carefully setting forth the traditional Catholic teaching Cardinal Dulles concludes by appealing to concept of pastoral judgement:

In coming to this prudential conclusion [of negatively assessing Capital Punishment], the magisterium is not changing the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine remains what it has been: that the State, in principle, has the right to impose the death penalty on persons convicted of very serious crimes. But the classical tradition held that the State should not exercise this right when the evil effects outweigh the good effects. Thus the principle still leaves open the question whether and when the death penalty ought to be applied. The pope and the bishops, using their prudential judgment, have concluded that in contemporary society, at least in countries like our own, the death penalty ought not to be invoked, because, on balance, it does more harm than good. I personally support this position.

It seems that the key phrase is “prudential judgment.” Catholics often like to get in protracted discussions and debates about whether or not the death penalty is allowed. Acutally the answer to that question is not unclear. It is allowed, but strongly discouraged by the Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.  If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person. Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” (CCC 2267)

So, in the end we are dealing with a prudential judgment by recent Popes and most of the worlds bishops who conclude that the Death Penalty is allowable under certain circumstances but it is not expedient since it does more harm than good. It is not a question of orthodoxy per se but of pastoral judgment. Catholics are not absolutely bound to follow prudential judgments of the bishops or even the pope. But let me ask you to ponder why we ought to follow such a judgment.

  1. Addressing the Culture of Death effectively – We are living in what Pope John Paul called a “culture of death.” In this culture,  the death or non existence of another human being is increasingly proposed as the “solution” to problems. Is the baby inconvenient, unhealthy or conceived in adverse economic conditions? Well then, abort (kill) the baby. Is a person suffering a poor quality of life at the end of their days? Well then, euthanize (kill) the patient. Are children difficult to raise and costly too? Well then, contracept (veto the life) of such children. The death penalty too manifests and promotes death as a solution to problems. One of the ways to contravene the culture of death is to live prophetically and to consistently call for an end to such thinking across the board. While it is possible for us to make distinctions between the death penalty and other forms of killing, the world may not always understand our message and its nuance. What if the Pope and bishops are asking us to accept this fact and, as a pastoral strategy, to battle the culture of death across the board? It is a pastoral strategy that seems reasonable given the fact that we live in a culture of death.
  2. So instead of debating what is doctrinal or not, what if we considered what is most effective? What if we allowed our shepherds (the Pope and bishops) to establish a pastoral strategy? What we we trusted their charism to lead us in this matter? Some Catholics have doubted the pastoral judgements of bishops in recent decades. But consider this is not just one bishop, not just one bishops conference, it is recent Popes and the vast majority of bishops worldwide in a collective pastoral judgment, a judgment that is written right in the Catechism. What if we trusted them and the charism they have received to lead us not just in absolute doctrinal matters but also in significant pastoral matters?
  3. Unity is essential in war – We are in time of war culturally speaking, and in such times strategies are necessary. It is also necessary to stand together. What if we set aside all the debates about the Church’s teaching on the death penalty and simply accepted our Pope’s strategy and that of the bishops? In war the troops may sometimes wonder as to the strategy at the top but in the end teamwork and obedience to the chain of command wins the day a lot more effectively than 10,000 soldiers all doing their own thing. Unity around a reasonable strategy seems best. Our Pope and the bishops have asked us to stand unified, strong and consistently against the culture of death.
  4. Religious submission extends beyond defined dogma– Hence it seems that the pastoral judgment of the Pope and bishops in this matter should not simply be considered as one opinion among many. We ought to give special emphasis to what they teach in this matter and other moral issues of our day. There is a lot of legalism among Catholics today about what we “have to believe.” There may well be technical distinctions worthy of discussion but there is also a general teachability (docility) we ought to manifest as well. Lumen Gentium # 25 encourages a submission and docility of the faithful that extends beyond merely defined dogma: Bishops who teach in communion with the Roman Pontiff  are to be respected by all as witnesses of divine and catholic truth; the faithful, for their part, should concur with their bishop’s judgment, made in the name of Christ, in matters of faith and morals, and adhere to it with a religious docility of spirit. This religious docility of the will and intellect must be extended, in a special way, to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra, in such wise, indeed, that his supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect, and that one sincerely adhere to decisions made by him conformably with his manifest mind and intention

In the end we are invited to stand together with the Pope and Bishops in their prudential judgment on the matter of captial punishment. We may be emotionally glad to see the likes of John Allen Muhammad ushered out but in the end we should have serious questions about what we are really doing here. Our Pope and bishops ask us to ponder such things and to stand with them against such death oriented solutions. Why not, in time of war, stand with them in their strategy?