Pope Francis has significantly revised the teaching on the death penalty in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, declaring that “in the light of the Gospel” the death penalty “is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”, and stating that the church works “for its abolition worldwide.”
The Vatican announced this today when it released the new revised formulation of the Catechism teaching on the death penalty found at number 2267 of that text, in six different languages. It said this new formulation of the church’s teaching will replace the earlier one in the Catechism approved by St. John Paul II.
When the Catechism was initially published in 1992, much to the dismay of many in the church, it still admitted the use of the death penalty. But strong reaction from bishops and the faithful in many countries led him to revise the text in 1997, with the help of Cardinal Ratzinger. The revised text, however, still did not exclude the death penalty on moral grounds as Pope Francis did today. Instead, it said that given the possibilities the modern state has of rendering the criminal incapable of doing harm again, then “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically non-existent.’”
Along with the revised text for the Catechism, the Vatican also released a letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the Catholic bishops of the world which explains and emphasizes at some length that the newly formulated teaching is “an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium.” It states that “this development centers principally on the clearer awareness of the church for the respect due to every human life” and recalls that St. John Paul II declared that “not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this.”
In full, the new text in the Catechism reads as follows:
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.
In the accompanying letter to bishops, the prefect and secretary of the C.D.F., Cardinal Luis Ladaria and Archbishop Giacomo Morandi, said that Pope Francis “asked that the teaching on the death penalty be reformulated so as to better reflect the development of the doctrine on this point that has taken place in recent times” and emphasized that “this development centers principally on the clearer awareness of the church for the respect due to every human life.”
Significantly, the letter goes at some length to underline how this revision is a “development” of the teaching of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and also reflects “the attitude towards the death penalty that is expressed ever more widely in the teaching of pastors and in the sensibility of the people of God.”
It says that while the political and social situation in the past may have made the death penalty acceptable, today, however, “the increasing understanding that the dignity of a person is not lost even after committing the most serious crimes, the deepened understanding of the significance of penal sanctions applied by the state, and the development of more efficacious detention systems that guarantee the due protection of citizens have given rise to a new awareness that recognizes the inadmissibility of the death penalty and, therefore, calling for its abolition.”
In addition to the 1997 revision to the Catechism pointing out that cases of necessity for the death penalty were “practically non-existent,” St. John Paul II also intervened on other occasions against the death penalty, the letter says, “appealing both to respect for the dignity of the person as well as to the means that today’s society possesses to defend itself from criminals.” And when he visited the United States in January 1999, he said, “A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform” and called “for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.”
In its letter, the C.D.F. pointed out that Benedict XVI, too, continued the push against the death penalty, when for instance, in November 2011, in his exhortation after the synod on Africa he called “the attention of society’s leaders to the need to make every effort to eliminate the death penalty.”
No matter how serious the crime that has been committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.
Pope Francis has repeatedly taken a stance against the death penalty, culminating in his call in on Oct. 11, 2017, for a revision of the formulation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the death penalty in a manner that affirms that “no matter how serious the crime that has been committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.”
The C.D.F. letter concludes saying this development of doctrine “grew ‘in the light of the Gospel,’” and that “the Gospel invites us to the mercy and patience of the Lord that gives to each person the time to convert oneself.”
Finally, the letter says that with this new formulation, the church “desires to give energy to a movement towards a decisive commitment to favor a mentality that recognizes the dignity of every human life and, in respectful dialogue with civil authorities, to encourage the creation of conditions that allow for the elimination of the death penalty where it is still in effect.”