Pope Francis on the Death Penalty: Intrinsically Evil?

I have long wanted to make a long post on the subject of Pope Francis’s revision on CCC 2267, since getting into all the details would require a paper of great length. However, some people brought this question up enough for me to put a very short and brief answer to this question of whether the new revised paragraph is effectively teaching that the death penalty is intrinsically evil.

In short, no.

As a preliminary remark, I don’t pretend to know exactly what Jorge Bergoglio’s personal and private beliefs are on this whole subject. It would appear that he has far deeper views than what came out in the Catechism revision, as can be possibly deduced by his many public statements on the matter. But I’m strictly interested in observing what occurred in his revising of CCC 2267 as Pope Francis, occupant of Peter’s seat.

We know with absolute certainty that the Pope is not saying that the death penalty is intrinsically evil, because if the Pope were to have taught this, he would have also had to revise CCC 2263, 2264, and 2265. Both of these paragraphs justify killing someone if it is required to either protect oneself or protect the common good. When it is not required to kill the human being in order to either protect yourself or protect the common good, then non-lethal means are obligatory. That is the rationale behind the the old 2267 , which was aiming at excluding the death penalty when non-lethal means can secure protection of the common good, and not excluding it when lethal means are the only choice to secure the same.

The new 2267 does not revoke the logic nor the moral principle of defense which is inherent in 2263, 2264, and 2265, and therefore the revision does not invite into the Catechism the idea that killing to protect the common good is intrinsically evil. Rather, just along the same line of reasoning as the old 2267, the new revision seeks to absolutely exclude lethal means of punishing criminals in light of the fact that protection to the common good no longer requires lethal means.

So there. The revision is not saying that killing the of a dangerous human being in order to protect society (if it is necessary) is intrinsically evil, but it is saying that it can no longer be done because the conditions which make this necessary no longer exist. If it were the case that the Pope wanted to teach that the death penalty is intrinsically evil, then other paragraphs I brought up (2263, etc,etc) would have also had to be changed in order to exclude any and all killing, even if to protect.

Now, all of this is squarely dependent on whether the conditions which justify a lethal means of punishment are no longer existent, and for the life of me, I don’t see how this question enters into the realm of doctrine on faith or morals. It is , in my opinion, entirely within the realm of prudence and discretion. Since the context and situations of life are not constant, it would be bizarre to make a definitive and irreformable exclusion of lethal means of punishment to secure the protection of the common good. Situations change, and so this revision to the Catechism appears to be exterior to a doctrinal change, albeit intersecting doctrinal and moral principles.

But, as much as I hate to say it, this doesn’t mean we are out of the woods just yet. There is far more to say about this than appears on the surface.

While the new CCC 2267 may not teach that the death penalty is intrinsically evil (which would certainly contradict Church teaching and the Christian tradition), this does not mean that there are not other problems/errors possibly associated with both the new CCC227 and the old one as well. My mind gravitates toward the subject of retributive justice itself justifying a lethal-bloody consequence. This appears to be something that the Papal magisterium has since St. John Paul II, including Pope Benedict XVI Emeritus, discouraged almost completely, and now perhaps completely en toto. But, unfortunately, I’ve not the time, space, or knowledge to really address that at this precise moment.

4 thoughts on “Pope Francis on the Death Penalty: Intrinsically Evil?

  1. I have to say, I am very glad you take the reasonable position of seeing that what Francis is doing is merely a prudential judgement. Too many of a traditionalist bent sadly turn into reactionaries and literally believe Francis is an open heretic who wants to undermine Church doctrine on this poin, all because of the Catechism change.

  2. Eric,

    I am really struggling here, and I hope for your reply. Please hear my words in the spirit of charity, from someone who is terribly confused by — but desperately hoping to understand in an orthodox way — what is going on here.

    First, I unfortunately find your argument with respect to the surrounding context of the Catechism unconvincing. By “capital punishment” is meant “a government-sanctioned practice whereby a person is killed by the state as a punishment for a crime” (or, as the Catechism of the Council of Trent puts it, a “kind of lawful slaying [that] belongs to the civil authorities”). It refers, in other words, to the state-administered death penalty. Now, none of 2263, 2264, or 2265 clearly says that *this* is permissible. 2263 entails only that *some* kinds of defense of persons, e.g., self-defense when being attacked, is not murder. 2264 entails only that one who defends one’s own life by dealing a lethal blow is not guilty of murder. 2265 entails only that the civil authority has the “right to use arms” to repel aggressors. This could mean only that civil authorities such as police have the right to use arms, and even lethal force (although 2265 itself does not explicitly say that lethal force is allowed), during the time at which they are trying to defend someone from imminent danger; it need not mean that the state at large has the right to administer the death penalty as a punishment for a crime (indeed, this section does not mention “the death penalty” per se, and even the older catechism does not mention it until 2267 itself). Finally, 2266 (which you didn’t explicitly mention, but which could also be relevant) says only that the state — and note that this is the first mention of the state itself using punishment in the overarching section — can inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense, but leaves open the question of whether the death penalty itself is proportionate (in fact, the newly revised 2267 could be read as answering that very question and saying, “No, it is not”). So, it doesn’t seem true to me that the Pope would have had to revise other sections of the CCC in order to say that the death penalty is intrinsically evil. None of the other sections seem to say that the state at large can legitimately administer the death penalty as punishment for a crime. 2267 was the crucial paragraph, and 2267 has been changed.

    Second, in light of the Pope’s public address that is cited by the newly revised 2267, it seems strikingly clear that the Pope _is_ saying that the death penalty is intrinsically evil. In the address, he says these words:

    “I am speaking of the *death penalty* [NOTE: he emphasizes the words “the death penalty” in the original]. . . . It must be clearly stated that the death penalty is an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity. It is per se contrary to the Gospel . . .

    “In past centuries . . . recourse to the death penalty appeared to be the logical consequence of the correct application of justice. Sadly, even in the Papal States recourse was had to this extreme and inhumane remedy that ignored the primacy of mercy over justice. Let us take responsibility for the past and recognize that the imposition of the death penalty was dictated by a mentality more legalistic than Christian. . . .

    “[T]he harmonious development of doctrine demands that we cease to defend arguments that now appear clearly contrary to the new understanding of Christian truth.”

    I do not know yet what to do with all this. I wish it were as clear to me as it seems to be to you in this post. I have not yet found a way to square this with other things that I have been taught, though I do hope that we can find a way.

    • Jason,

      Thanks for your reply. I should say at the outset that I’m not intending on trying to loop Pope Francis into orthodoxy here, as my last paragraph shows. I am simply trying to interpret *what is there*, regardless if it registers as orthodox or heterodox.

      Yes, “capital punishment” is the State putting a criminal to death as a punishment for the commission of a crime. What did I say that detracts from that?

      You should take note that the prior version of 2267 justified the infliction of capital punishment on the very same logic of self-defense and common-good-protection (see CCC prior paragraphs to 2267). For example, St. John Paul II, who promulgated the Catechism in 1992, states the following in his “Gospel of Life” (Evangelium Vitae):

      “Moreover, ‘legitimate defence can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another’s life, the common good of the family or of the State’. Unfortunately it happens that the need to render the aggressor incapable of causing harm sometimes involves taking his life. In this case, the fatal outcome is attributable to the aggressor whose action brought it about, even though he may not be morally responsible because of a lack of the use of reason. This is the context in which to place the problem of the death penalty.” (Paragraph 55-56)

      So where you saw a different context between the CCC paragraphs prior to 2267, St. John Paul II puts the older 2267 in the same context as self-defense and state-protection.

      Moreover, St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and even many Thomistic scholars were already in support for the abolition of the death penalty. And this, many many years prior to Jorge Bergoglio. Why were they for its abolition? Because they saw it as sinful. They saw it as a needless spilling of blood which belongs to human beings created in the image and likeness of almighty God. Since protection to the common good could be accomplished in a blood-less manner, the death penalty was *reasoned* as an immoral act (i.e. the needless act of killing). Of course, you can see how this charge of immorality contra the death penalty is not a statement to its *intrinsic* evil.

      God bless!

  3. Posting this here, in case you’re not notified of new comments on older posts. It’s about Pope Celestine and his unijury during the Council against Nestorianism:

    Couldn’t an Orthodox say that, since the Bishop of Rome had a primacy of honor, his provisional governance of Councils and his decision for excommunications were respected due to that primacy? For example, the Pope is given the position of being the president of Councils in general and even could disagree with some canons (as could others apparently – Truglia said once in a debate with you about Leo I that Alexandria managed to veto a canon of a Council), so the Council respecting the Pope’s sentence and literally carrying it out as an instrument don’t necessarily entail Papal unijury.

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