By Father Gerald D. Coleman P.S.S., Ph.D
Adjunct professor, Graduate Department of Pastoral Ministries, Santa Clara University
The Vatican announced on August 4 that Pope Francis ordered a definitive change in Catholic teaching by amending no. 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Previous Church teaching accepted the legitimacy of the death penalty primarily as a way of protecting society against violent criminals. It now becomes the normative teaching of the Church to reject the use of capital punishment in all cases. The Church will work diligently to help persons and societies worldwide to understand no matter how grievous the crime, no one ever loses his or her human dignity.
Historically one of the rationales for the death penalty in Catholic teaching was to protect society. The state still has this obligation. The change in Catholic teaching does not take this away. Theologians and moralists over the centuries from St. Thomas Aquinas to St. Alphonsus Liguori justified the death penalty not only as a means to protect the community, but also because of its retributive character in that it restores a violated moral order.
This change in Church teaching is challenging us not to get so focused on the crime that we lose sight of the inherent human dignity of the criminal. It is understandable why we become angry and disgusted by the criminal and his or her abhorrent acts. This person’s moral likeness to God has been tarnished and perhaps lost by serious crimes. Moral likeness, however, cannot be equated with the divine image in which a person is created.
This new teaching of the Church did not come about all of a sudden. Pope Francis’ predecessors laid the groundwork. In 1992 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church promoted by St. John Paul II, the death penalty was allowed if it was “the only practical way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.” In The Gospel of Life (1995), John Paul wrote essentially the conditions that were once considered acceptable for allowing the death penalty have basically disappeared (see chapter 3). He insisted that “…the commandment “You shall not kill’ has absolute value when it refers to the innocent person.” (no. 57) The theological judgment that a person is “innocent” is not based on an individual’s moral character, but rather on a person’s fundamental dignity as created in God’s image.
In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI called on society’s leaders “to make every effort to eliminate the death penalty.” (Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation and Address to the Community of Saint’Egidio) Pope Francis has furthered these papal pleas, e.g., in his 2015 letter to the president of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty where he categorizes the death penalty as “cruel, inhumane and degrading.”
In 2015 Pope Francis summarized these papal teachings in his speech to Congress, “I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.”
For those already disenchanted with Pope Francis, this new teaching has elicited blustering attacks. He has been called “reckless, sowing confusion on a massive scale,” “openly heretical,” “immoral and sentimental,” and “a doctrinal maverick.” These vicious commentaries evidence a clear misunderstanding of recent papal teachings on the inherent dignity of all human life.
The new teaching on the inadmissibility of capital punishment poses challenges. Fifty-three percent of American Catholics favor capital punishment. It will take considerable pastoral effort to explain the credible reasons for this change. How will Catholic judges and governors be expected to act if there is a conflict between their personal beliefs and the teaching of the Church?
A major step has been taken in the moral and social teaching of the Church. Pope Francis, advancing the teachings of St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict, has brought consistency to the Church’s teachings about the dignity of all human life from its beginning to its end.
It will take time for many Catholics to assimilate this teaching and believe differently. The moral law of graduality must be the pastoral norm that no Catholic who is presently unable to adhere to this teaching should face any canonical penalty or be denied the sacraments.