In an Aug. 3 essay published in First Things, Feser wrote: “Pope Francis wants the Catechism to teach that capital punishment ought never to be used (rather than ‘very rarely’ used), and he justifies this change not on prudential grounds, but ‘so as to better reflect the development of the doctrine on this point.’ The implication is that Pope Francis thinks that considerations of doctrine or principle rule out the use of capital punishment in an absolute way.”
The extent to which doctrine can develop to absolutely prohibit what was once permitted, or even encouraged, is a critical question, theologians told CNA. Fr. Petri said this question has caused confusion in the current situation:
“The introduction of the development of doctrine concept blurs things a bit, because it’s not quite clear which doctrine has developed. Is it the doctrine on just punishment and the fact that the primary purpose of punishment is redressing wrong for the sake of the common good? This is still emphasized in the previous paragraph of the catechism, no. 2266. Or is the doctrine of the state’s authority to protect the common good and its citizens what has developed?”
Petri suggested that rather changing one particular church teaching changing, Pope Francis is a reordering of several complimentary teachings.
“I would say that what’s happened here is a different balance in the relationship of doctrines rather than the development of a doctrine: the doctrine of state authority, the doctrine of punishment, the doctrine of the dignity of man and the doctrine of mercy.”
“In that relationship, Pope Francis places mercy and patience as the guiding principle.”
Miller agreed, noting that Pope Francis does not always express his teachings with the perfect clarity of an academic theologian. “At a minimum, this can create situations open to misinterpretation, which we are already seeing here.”
“This confusion is unnecessary, and harmful to people of good will,” he added.
Miller and Petri both argued that the new text does not call capital punishment absolutely wrong, without qualifications.
“Compared to his previous, more spontaneous statements on the subject last year, the current language from Pope Francis is much more geared towards a prudential judgment that the death penalty is no longer necessary and therefore ‘inadmissible,’ though more certainly could be done to underscore that Catholics must still exercise this judgment in the light of circumstances,” Miller said.
Petri agreed: “Nothing in the new wording of paragraph 2267 suggests the death penalty is intrinsically evil. Indeed, nothing could suggest that because it would contradict the firm teaching of the Church.”
Both theologians said that the new wording of the Catechism on capital punishment differs substantially from clear, absolute prohibitions on the taking of life in other circumstances, like abortion.
Edward Feser disagreed. “To say, as the pope does, that the death penalty conflicts with ‘the inviolability and dignity of the person’ insinuates that the practice is intrinsically contrary to natural law. And to say, as the pope does, that ‘the light of the Gospel’ rules out capital punishment insinuates that it is intrinsically contrary to Christian morality,” he wrote.
Fr. Petri pointed out that to CNA that social circumstances impact judgments on the death penalty. He said that while it might be true in most places that the death penalty is not necessary to protect society, it is not yet universally true.
“There undoubtedly exist places where imprisonment may not be enough to keep the citizenry safe. It seems to me that even under this changed wording, we would have to prudentially judge that recourse to the death penalty may be necessary yet.”
Cardinal Larardia’s explanatory letter also concedes that the elimination of the death penalty depends on changes in social circumstances.
“The new formulation of number 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic 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,” he wrote.
Miller said that this shows the continuing need for a prudential judgment by Catholics and state authorities, even if there is a clear direction the Church wishes them to pursue.
To Petri, Ladaria’s letter shows a clear “awareness that the conditions necessary to abolish the death penalty are not yet present everywhere.”
So what should Catholics make of the changes?
While the pope seems to be sending a clear message to Catholics that, in the modern age, state reliance on the death penalty should be a thing of the past, there is still room for individual conscience to play a part, Petri said.
“His teaching authority demands a certain submission of intellect and will from the faithful. At the very least, this means that Catholic faithful must give the Holy Father’s pastoral teaching significant weight in the formation of their conscience on this matter.”