Vatican City, Oct 12, 2017 / 08:37 am
On Wednesday, Pope Francis told a gathering in Rome that the Catechism of the Catholic Church should significantly revise its treatment of the death penalty.
It's no surprise that Francis proposed a stronger theological condemnation of capital punishment. He's criticized the practice throughout his papacy, as did his most immediate predecessors, Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. All three popes have pled for clemency when the execution of condemned prisoners is imminent, and all three have linked capital punishment to the “culture of death” and the “throwaway culture” they've criticized. All three have called for nations to abolish the death penalty.
The Church's official position on the death penalty is nuanced. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that the “Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty,” assuming a criminal's guilt is sufficiently established, and only when execution seems to be the only just way of protecting public safety.
In his landmark encyclical Evangelium Vitae, issued in 1995, John Paul wrote that the punishment of criminals should focus on rehabilitation, while also ensuring the common good – public order and safety. He opposed capital punishment “except in cases of absolute necessity,” when a community would have no other means to protect itself.
Because of the resources available for modern and secure penal systems, John Paul said that today, “such cases are very rare, if practically non-existent.”
In fact, the Catechism was formally revised in 1997 to reflect the teaching of Evangelium Vitae.
The gist of the Church's current teaching on the death penalty is this: the state has the right to execute criminals, if there is no doubt about that the crime was grave and the offender is guilty. The state cannot justly execute a criminal if it can protect the common good and public safety equally well through non-lethal means. It is the job of the state to judge its own civil conditions and capacity for punishment, in order to determine how to apply those principles, but, when doing so, it should take seriously the moral direction of popes and bishops who have repeatedly said that the death penalty seems unnecessary in the context of developed nations.
On Wednesday, Francis proposed a strikingly different vision. He said that the death penalty “is in itself contrary to the Gospel.” For many theologians, this language, and the idea that the death penalty “in itself” is contrary to the Gospel, has evoked the theological concept of “intrinsically evil acts,” a group which includes torture, rape, lying, abortion, and sexual immorality.