Pope Francis is changing the Catechism of the Catholic Church in order to declare that the death penalty is “inadmissible” – in other words, always wrong. It may never be used. The Catechism was already opposed to capital punishment: in 1997 St John Paul II amended its most recent version to declare that the cases in which it was permissible were “very rare, if not practically non-existent”. Now Pope Francis has said that these cases are, in fact, non-existent. He accepts that this is a change to Church teaching, citing it as an example of the “development of doctrine”.
The Holy Father’s initiative has won the support of the vast majority of commentators in the media – and, we suspect, most Catholics. It underlines and expands that central concept of John Paul II, “the inviolability of the person”. And it does so in harmony with evolving concepts of human rights: never before has revulsion at the death penalty been so widespread – even in the United States, where a younger generation of Americans are appalled by the clinical (yet sometimes botched) process of lethal injections.
The support for the Pope’s initiative by orthodox American bishops is significant. Perhaps the most eloquent response has come from Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, whose reflections take into account the teaching of previous popes – including Pius XII – that the death penalty is consistent with natural law and the Gospel.
“The Scriptures, along with saints and teachers in the Church’s tradition, justify the death penalty as a fitting punishment for those who commit evil or take another person’s life,” writes Archbishop Gomez. But recently the Church “has come to understand that governments now have the ability to protect society and punish criminals without executing violent offenders”. In an era when “governments now have the ability to protect society and punish criminals without executing violent offenders”, this means that the death penalty is inadmissible.
The archbishop adds that the Catechism is not equating capital punishment with the greater evils of abortion and euthanasia. He also acknowledges that “good people” will disagree with Pope Francis.
It is important to note that these same people already disagreed with John Paul II’s previous amendment of the Catechism, which also represented a development of doctrine. As the then Cardinal Ratzinger noted in 2004, this disagreement did not place them seriously at odds with Christian teaching.
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