No Death to the Doctrinal Crisis

August 27, 2018
Pope Francis lights the uniflamma lamp at the tomb of Saint Nicholas in Pontifical Basilica of St Nicholas in Bari, Italy, on July 7, 2018. Alberto Pizzoli—AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this month, on August 2, 2018, an amendment to the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) was published. The text, which purports to represent a “development” of the Church’s doctrine on the death penalty (capital punishment), was approved by Pope Francis on May 18, 2018.

Although liberal and some conservative Catholic commentators, theologians, and clerics have leapt at the opportunity to defend this “clarification” or “development,” the hard truth is that this new catechetical text appears to represent another in a series of ruptures with Tradition that has been a hallmark of Francis’s pontificate.

The New Text

The English-language translation of CCC No. 2267 now reads as follows:

The Death Penalty

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.

A Closer Look

The first thing that will strike any reader of CCC No. 2267 is its apodictic decree “that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible’” and that the only support for this statement is from an address given by Pope Francis himself. This is not surprising since neither Francis nor the theologians housed at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would be able to find firm magisterial support for this bold new position anywhere else. Even Francis’s near-immediate predecessor, John Paul II, who was an outspoken critic of the death penalty, never altered the CCC to teach that this form of punishment is “inadmissible.”

Second, the integration of the contestable concept of the “dignity of the person” (human dignity) is once again being used as an excuse to change doctrinal course. Less than a century ago, Pius XII declared that, “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” (Address to the First International Congress of Histopathology of the Nervous System (September 12, 1952). It is the individual who committed the crime, not the State, who has forfeited his “right to life”; now, under the guise of “human dignity,” apparently no man may do so, even of his own free volition.

Last, the next of CCC No. 2267 disrupts the continuity of the Church’s magisterium, as can be seen from two startling examples. Take first, for instance, the Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent, pt. III, 5, n. 4:

Far from being guilty of breaking this commandment [Thou shall not kill], such an execution of justice is precisely an act of obedience to it. For the purpose of the law is to protect and foster human life. This purpose is fulfilled when the legitimate authority of the State is exercised by taking the guilty lives of those who have taken innocent lives.

Next, look to the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, for his well-reasoned teaching on the admissibility of the death penalty in Summa Thelogiae, II, II, q. 64, art. 2:

Now every individual person is related to the entire society as a part to the whole. Therefore if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and healthful that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since ‘a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump’ (1 Cor. 5:6).

Indeed, the death penalty may ultimately be for the good of the criminal’s soul (Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, ch. 146):

They…have at that critical point of death the opportunity to be converted to God through repentance. And if they are so obstinate that even at the point of death their heart does not draw back from malice, it is possible to make a quite probable judgment that they would never come away from evil.

Implications beyond the Death Penalty Debate

Without ignoring the fact that there exists in the United States and throughout the world serious concerns over how the death penalty is administered and under which circumstances, the next text of CCC No. 2267 has larger implications. If the authorities in Rome can so boldly reverse what, for nearly two millennia, was a settled teaching, what else is subject to “development”? Is there a single statement contained in the CCC that cannot be revised in the “light of the Gospel,” a light now refracted through the prism of Modernism?

Equally crucial is the sense now given to the People of God that little which the Church teaches can be considered indefectible. Rather than being the “pillar and ground of the Truth,” the Church now appears for many to be a social organ whose promulgations and positions shift with the political winds. Not wishing to be out of step with the world, Catholicism comes across as increasingly mutable and her doctrines time-bound. Prior to the last century, did any Catholic prelate ever teach such a thing? Did anyone except the Church’s most virulent critics ever presume to hold that she is a historically contingent institution that self-consciously pronounces doctrines that can be gutted and revised so carelessly?

The doctrinal crisis in the Church continues and once again Pope Francis recklessly perpetuates it.  

  • 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.