“The death penalty is a sin. You cannot employ it, but it was not so before,” Pope Francis stated, in a question-and-answer session with fellow Jesuits this past August during World Youth Day in Portugal. How did the Holy Father come to this conclusion, which, as he suggests, represents a break with the Church’s traditional teachings in this area? Although Pope Francis is known for grabbing headlines by making similar impromptu, off-the-cuff public statements, this is not an entirely new teaching for him, but one for which he had provided the basis a few years earlier.
In May 2018, Pope Francis instructed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to revise paragraph 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) to reflect his updated teaching on the death penalty. That paragraph, which had deemed the death penalty morally acceptable in principle (even if in practice it could be applied only in extremely rare cases), now unambiguously declares that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”
In an address the previous year to the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, in which he had called for the revision of the Catechism using identical language, the Holy Father added another consideration: the primacy of mercy over justice.
What are we to make of the arguments the Holy Father puts forth for repudiating the Church’s longstanding position on this issue?
The first argument the Holy Father offers is that the death penalty represents an attack on the “inviolability and dignity of the human person,” and therefore “is per se,” according to the papal address referenced above, “contrary to the Gospel.” If the life of those who are guilty of first-degree murder is indeed inviolable, that must mean, therefore, that the death penalty constitutes a gravely illicit or intrinsically evil act, like abortion and euthanasia.
The revised paragraph refers to sociological developments that have resulted in “an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.” But if the death penalty inevitably tramples on the inherent dignity of the human person, that is, if it is in fact a sin, as the pope claims, how is it possible that the Church, quite apart from any presumed progress in our modern ethical consciousness, only recently has come to this realization?
In discussing abortion in paragraph 2270, the Catechism speaks of “the inviolable right of every innocent being to life” (emphasis added). That juridical distinction between innocent and guilty human life has disappeared from the Holy Father’s discussion of the death penalty.
If we dispensed with that distinction when it comes to the morality of armed conflict, it also would undermine the Church’s longstanding teaching on just war. The Holy Father seems to have already come to that conclusion. In his March 2022 video conference discussion with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine, for example, Pope Francis commented that: “There was a time, even in our Churches, when people spoke of a holy war or a just war. Today we cannot speak in this manner.” And he concluded the conference call by stating unequivocally that “Wars are always wrong [sinful?], since it is the people of God who pay.”
This logic leads inexorably to pacificism. If so, can the revision of paragraph 2265 in the CCC – on the right and duty of civil authorities (the Ukrainian government, for example) to use arms to repel aggressors – be far behind?
The second line of argument the Holy Father puts forth for his unqualified rejection of the death penalty also raises important moral questions. In his address before the gathering organized by the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, the Holy Father commented that in the past the death penalty “appeared to be the logical consequence of the correct application of justice.” What that ignored, he went on to argue, was the “primacy of mercy over justice” by a “mentality that was more legalistic than Christian.” That mentality, he averred, resulted in “an over-estimation of the value of the law and prevented a deeper understanding of the Gospel.”
Framing the issue this way predictably leads Pope Francis to reject not only capital punishment but other judicially imposed sentences as well, including a common alternative to the death penalty, life in prison without parole, and even prolonged periods of incarceration.
In his March 2015 letter to the President of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty, the Holy Father made clear his views on that score when wrote that “life imprisonment, as well as those sentences which, due to their duration, render it impossible for the condemned to plan a future in freedom, may be considered hidden death sentences because with them the guilty party is not only deprived of his/her freedom, but insidiously deprived of hope” (emphasis added).
Though this might leave room for lesser sentences, why impose any punishment at all if mercy rather than justice should be the overriding consideration?
The insistence that civil authorities give mercy priority over justice seems to overshoot the mark. After all, acting in a consistently just manner in this fallen world appears to be challenge enough for civil authorities. The law has its limits, of course, and its value should not be overestimated. But it is no less important for that.
Martin Luther King captured this point nicely in his December 1963 speech at Western Michigan University, when, responding to those who argued that he ought to be about changing hearts and minds rather than changing laws, he declared: “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that is pretty important, also.”
The Holy Father is correct, of course, that the Gospel represents the triumph of mercy over justice, but doesn’t mercy build on – rather than diminish – the demands of justice?
Recent developments in papal teachings, especially under John Paul II, already had been trending in the direction of calling for the complete prohibition of the death penalty. But they were based on prudential grounds. Why not simply go one step further and simply declare that, given the greater effectiveness of our current penal systems, the death penalty is now “inadmissible”?
The U.S. Bishops came to that conclusion decades ago. The questions only multiply, however, when the issue is removed from the realm of prudential judgment and recast as a fundamental moral principle.