Legislative Update

Pope revises Catechism on death penalty

By Tom Venzor  

It’s not every Thursday morning that I wake up, check my e-mail, news, and blogs, only to discover that Pope Francis has revised the Catechism of the Catholic Church (“CCC”)—but such was the case on the morning of Aug. 2. As with some other of Pope Francis’ public acts, this revision has caused theologians, commentators, secular journalists, and Catholic laity alike to ask the question: what exactly does this mean? My hope is that this column will help answer this question and a few others related to Pope Francis’ revision of paragraph 2267.   

What was the previous version of paragraph 2267? From 1997 until Aug. 2, paragraph 2267 stated: “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.’”

What is the revised version of paragraph 2267? Pope Francis’ revision states: “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’, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

What is the major difference between the two versions? The key difference between the two paragraphs largely resides in the conclusion about when the death penalty may be used. In the previous version, written under Saint Pope John Paul II, the CCC concludes that our modern circumstances rarely, if ever, necessitate the use of the death penalty to protect public safety. In the new version, Pope Francis takes the conclusion one step further by stating that capital punishment is “inadmissible” given our modern circumstances. As Father Thomas Petri, OP, remarked in a Catholic News Agency article, Pope Francis’ revision “further absolutizes the pastoral conclusion reached by John Paul II.”

Does the revision mean the state lacks the power to use the death penalty? No. In commenting on the revision, Father Matthew Schneider, LC, provides a distinction that sheds light on the Church’s perennial teaching on the death penalty. The distinction is between “affirming that an entity has a power and affirming they can morally exercise it.” Both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition recognize that, in principle, the state has the power to use the death penalty. Father Schneider notes, however, that having the power of capital punishment does not mean that using capital punishment is always justified.

Notably, concluding that the need to use the death penalty is “rare, if practically non-existent” (previous version of paragraph 2267) or “inadmissible” (revised version of paragraph 2267) does not negate or overturn the principle that the state has the authority to use capital punishment. Instead, these statements are judgments about whether the death penalty can be morally exercised under current circumstances.

If the death penalty is ‘inadmissible’, is that the same thing as saying it is an ‘intrinsic evil’? No. The concept of inadmissibility and intrinsic evil are very different. An intrinsic evil is an action that fundamentally contradicts the moral law. Intrinsically evil acts are always and everywhere wrong. For example, there is never a circumstance under which it is morally right or permissible to blaspheme the Lord or to commit adultery. Likewise, there are never circumstances under which it would be justified to directly take the life of an innocent human being (e.g., abortion, euthanasia).

The concept of inadmissibility has the connotation that the action cannot be granted or permitted, under the circumstances—but that, under other circumstances, the action could be granted or permitted. As Father Schneider notes: “This shows that there is not a universal moral judgment that this act is evil, simply a judgment it cannot be done now and for the foreseeable future.”

The concept of inadmissibility, then, is very much in keeping with the traditional teaching of the Catholic faith on the death penalty. It recognizes that there have been prior circumstances under which the death penalty could have been justified, but that, under modern circumstances, the death penalty should not be permitted.

Is Pope Francis’ conclusion in the revision a prudential judgment? Yes, it is a prudential judgment.

In order to understand what is meant by a ‘prudential judgment,’ Father Dwight Longenecker provides a general framework for thinking about the different hierarchy of truths within Catholicism. He identifies the hierarchy of truths as dogmas, doctrines, disciplines, and prudential judgments. Dogmas are “divinely revealed truth of the first order that a Catholic must hold to” such as the Virgin Birth, Incarnation, and Resurrection. A doctrine is a “worthy teaching of the church that is not of the first order of revelation” but that Catholics must accept “with good will and in a spirit of faith[.]” Disciplines are the “ordinary moral teaching of the church which we are to ‘receive with religious assent’” as they are “given directly from the Lord.” Prudential judgments are “applications of the moral teachings” which Catholics should receive “with an open heart and mind, but they are not binding.”

For example, the positions that the Nebraska Catholic Conference takes on legislative bills constitute prudential judgments, as they are applications of moral teachings to particular pieces of legislation. Other examples of prudential judgments are the pope’s teachings on economics or environmentalism.

In their document on faithful citizenship, the Bishops of the United States have provided instruction for understanding the weight of prudential judgments: “[T]he Church’s guidance on [policy] matters is an essential resource for Catholics as they determine whether their own moral judgments are consistent with the Gospel and with Catholic teaching.”

Applying the concept of prudential judgment to the pope’s revision of paragraph 2267, Father Petri said that the pope’s “teaching authority demands a certain submission of intellect and will from the faithful. At the very least, this means that Catholic faithful must give the Holy Father’s pastoral teaching significant weight in the formation of their conscience on this matter.”

Yet, because the Holy Father’s conclusion is a prudential judgment, it is possible that a Catholic could—in good faith and in good standing—disagree with the Holy Father about whether there are, for example, more effective prison systems in place today that can adequately protect public safety and, thereby, rule out the need for the death penalty to protect public safety.

Importantly, though, such a disagreement should be rooted in serious study, prayer, and reflection on the matter. Such a disagreement should also be based on the same principles that are binding for all people of good will, especially Catholics. In the particular context of capital punishment, one would need to make the argument for why a particular person ought to receive the death penalty, in order that his execution might better protect the public safety and preserve the common good. Without such an argument, the conclusion that the death penalty is needed would be unjustified—and to use the death penalty, under such unjustified circumstances, would result in an attack on the dignity of human life and the common good—a moral evil, an offense against both God and man.

What next? By revising paragraph 2267, Pope Francis continues the work of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. This work is, as Pope Benedict XVI stated, to draw “the attention of society’s leaders to the need to make every effort to eliminate the death penalty.”

This work continues in a special way here in Nebraska. For over 20 years, the three Bishops in Nebraska have urged all people—especially Catholics—to work toward abolition of the death penalty. Such a charge is no small task and requires any number of efforts that help restore our criminal justice system, so that it can be clearly seen by many that our society can do justice and maintain public safety without recourse to the death penalty. As we take up these efforts, let us do so in an authentic and tireless spirit of prayer and work.

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