By Father Gerald D. Coleman P.S.S.
Graduate Department of Pastoral Ministries, Santa Clara University
When Pope Francis recently revised that Catechism of the Catholic Church making the death penalty morally inadmissible (no. 2267), I preached a homily on this subject and wrote a column supporting the revision. It was not surprised, although saddened, that I received many negative responses which held that the Bible and the Church’s tradition have always supported the death penalty. Critics said that the revision is another example of the Pope’s extremism.
A number of academics have written to the College of Cardinals refuting the revision and calling on them to “correct” the Pope.
I then read the insightful article on the history of the death penalty by St. Louis University Professor Tobias Winright (soon to be published in America magazine).
Winright and other scholars reflecting on the Church’s teaching on capital punishment point out a number of salient points that call for our serious and prayerful reflection.
The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council reminds us that in properly interpreting Sacred Scripture we must take into account the historical and cultural perspectives of the writers, e.g., their views about slavery.
The first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch) justify death for twenty different offenses, e.g., Ex 31:14, 21:15-15, Deut 22:22, Lev 24:16. The most cited example is Lev 24:14-23 and Deut 19:19-21, the “lex talionis,” an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. It must not be forgotten that this teaching was directly meant to assure that punishment fit the crime. It was morally necessary to establish limits on punishment.
Gen 9:6 carefully addresses the shedding of human blood as blood is sacred and should not be easily or lightly taken. God gives us a critical example of this trust when God forgives Cain for killing his brother, the first recorded murder in the Bible. God sends Cain into exile but marks him permanently as a sign of protection. This biblical example highlights what St. John Paul II later taught in The Gospel of Life: “Not even the murderer loses his dignity.”
In Romans 13:4, St. Paul acknowledges the government’s authority to maintain law and order, and this responsibility still remains. However, it must be tempered by the central directive of Jesus on the cross when he forgave the repentant thief and everyone who had a hand in his death. Life belongs to God alone.
While the first edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1995) left open the possibility of the death penalty, the 1997 revision narrowed this possibility to cases where it was the only way of protecting society. Even then, the Catechism believed these cases are “very rare and practically non-existent.”
Pope Francis has furthered this developing teaching by emphasizing two critical and interlocking points: the indelible dignity of all human persons as created in God’s image, and the ever-present possibility of redemption.
Jesus forgave his enemies unconditionally. The abolishment of the death penalty mirrors this reality.