While in the past, civil governments have deployed capital punishment with the clear support of the Church, in modern times this support has become much more muted. Discussion within the Church of its continued use has focused on identifying the legitimate ends the death penalty could serve, and articulating what circumstances condition the state's right to execute criminals.
"St. John Paul II's teaching introduced a prudential judgment into the Catechism, making it clear that the circumstances in which the death penalty is legitimate are rare, if not practically non-existent," Petri told CNA.
"I think Pope Francis' change further absolutizes the pastoral conclusion made by John Paul II."
Key to understanding the Church's teaching on the death penalty are the complementary ends of legitimate punishment; restorative or punitive justice towards the offender, and the protection of society from future offences. In the light of the change to Catechism, many have been left wondering how these two interrelate.
Some theologians have argued that the need to impose a "just punishment" on those who commit very serious crimes is reason enough for the death penalty, pointing out that, in the past, the Church would seem to have explicitly supported that idea.
Dr. Kevin Miller, Assistant Professor of Theology at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, told CNA the debate is not new.
"There has been a lively debate among some Catholic thinkers as to whether the teaching that the death penalty can be morally licit even in cases in which it isn't needed to prevent, say, a convicted murderer from murdering again – is a definitive one. My reading of Scripture and subsequent Magisterial teaching is that it's unlikely to be definitive."
"Capital punishment can be just, in the sense that it fits the crime, but, in his encyclical letter Dives in misericordia, St. John Paul II poses the question 'Is justice enough?' – and the answer is no."
So does the Catechism represent a clear break with past teaching?
Dr. Edward Feser has written extensively on the death penalty in Christian thought. Responding to Pope Francis' change to the Catechism, he wrote that the new wording suggests an absolute prohibition of capital punishment.
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."
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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."