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Pope Francis, the death penalty, and the development of doctrine

October 21, 2017
(CNS Photo: Pope Francis shakes hands with an inmate at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia, PA Sept. 27, 2015.)
“It is not that the Gospel has changed: it is that we have begun to understand it better,” ruminated Pope John XXIII on his deathbed in May 1963. That famous utterance lingered in my mind this past week as I read commentaries on Pope Francis’ recent statement that the death penalty is “inadmissible,” “contrary to the Gospel,” and must be given a “more adequate treatment” than is currently outlined in the official Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Francis was speaking at a meeting to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the promulgation of the Catechism at the Vatican.
“It must be clearly stated that the death penalty is an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity,” the Pope declared, adding that, “doctrine cannot be preserved without allowing it to develop, nor can it be tied to an interpretation that is rigid and immutable without demeaning the working of the Holy Spirit.”
In the past, the Catholic Church has taught that recourse to the death penalty is admissible in certain cases to protect other human beings and the common good. Pope John Paul II tweaked the Catechism back in the 1990s to stress that such cases are today “very rare, if not practically non-existent.”
But Francis has taken a further step by declaring the death penalty inadmissible in all cases. As might be expected, the Pope’s words set off a debate in the Catholic world about what sort of “development” in official teaching this is.
Clearly, Francis wants the Church’s teaching on capital punishment to be updated in the Catechism. Yet in his address he confidently stated he was not, “in any way contradicting past teaching,” and that his request “in no way represents a change in doctrine.”
Here are a few critical points to consider on this possible development in Church teaching:
  • Look beyond the particular teaching to the logic behind it. As important as the topic of capital punishment is, this address was more about how Francis understands development in the Catholic Church. For Francis, the Church is not a set of rules or static teachings, but rather a community on a journey. Catholics do not possess the fullness of the mystery of God, but over time we come to understand it better, as Pope John XXIII recognized. To be faithful to God, the Church’s teachings must reflect this growth or development in understanding. It seems like a paradox, but in Francis’s view development of doctrine is absolutely essential to its preservation. For example, today we think about human dignity (and all it entails) in a very different way than we did even a few centuries ago, when Popes sentenced heretics and criminals to death. But our comprehension of the demands of the Gospel relative to human dignity change over time, in light of our history, our reason, our prayer, our life experience, our historical circumstance, etc. Today it would be impossible to justify the execution of a heretic—or anyone for that matter—at the Vatican, not because our doctrine on human dignity has changed, but because we now understand it better in light of the Gospel.
  • Development of doctrine requires admitting past deficiencies. Pope Francis is keenly aware that development implies progress, which implies the possibility of past and present deficiencies, or transgressions. He knows he cannot credibly propose an update to the Church’s teaching on the death penalty without admitting our historic complicity in its practice. In the past, “concern for preserving power and material wealth led to an over-estimation of the value of the law and prevented a deeper understanding of the Gospel,” he said. “Nowadays, however, were we to remain neutral before the new demands of upholding personal dignity, we would be even more guilty.” For Francis, greater than the risk of admitting a development in teaching, is the risk of compounded culpability from denying past sins for the sake of protecting a false image of institutional immutability. Francis is not the first Catholic to admit past transgressions. In its Declaration on Religious Freedom, the Second Vatican Council admitted that Catholics have not always advanced the principle of religious freedom in the spirit of the Gospel, and at times were even opposed to it. (Dignitatis Humanae 12)
  • There are some odd irregularities in the Catechism. In the section that explains the Church’s teaching on capital punishment, you can also read its teachings on murder, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide—basically everything having to do with the fifth commandment, “You shall not kill.” Let’s examine how the Catechism addresses two particular forms of intentional murder: homicide and abortion. The Catechism states that homicide is “gravely sinful,” and “cries out to heaven for vengeance” (2268). The Catechism calls abortion a “grave offense,” and adds: “A person who procures a completed abortion incurs excommunication by the very commission of the offense” (2272). Whether or not abortion and murder warrant automatic excommunication is another matter. But a Catholic may legitimately ask why two forms of intentional murder carry vastly different consequences in the life of the Church? The Catechism offers no explanation for this seeming irregularity. But the Catechism was never intended to be a single, infallible source of all divine revelation for eternity. It is a pastoral document. As we move through history, and we grow in understanding of the unchanging truths of the Gospel, so too will expressions of those teachings need to develop. Pope John Paul II, who commissioned the Catechism back in 1985, wished for it to be a tool for catechesis—to help Catholics understand our faith better, that is, to grow. He even felt obligated to make a change to the Catechism regarding the death penalty himself, as I mentioned above.
  • The greatest sin is against the Holy Spirit. The New Testament is very clear on this (see Mt 12:31-32, Mk 3:28-30, Lk 12:8-10, Eph 4:29-32). Francis never speaks about development in the Church without referencing the Holy Spirit. In fact, the Holy Spirit is the instigator of development; He is the developer. Francis’s genuine belief in the Holy Spirit opens him to new possibilities, even with regards to Catholic teaching: “Doctrine cannot be preserved without allowing it to develop, nor can it be tied to an interpretation that is rigid and immutable without demeaning the working of the Holy Spirit.” This is a very serious matter. We’re all guilty of many sins, but perhaps we don't reflect honestly and frequently enough on how our rigidity and fear hinders the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church, who “blows where He wills” (Jn 3:8). A healthy dose of humility and docility to the Holy Spirit is needed in order to grasp the concept of “doctrinal development”, and Pope Francis’ whole ecclesial vision for that matter.
Having said relatively little about capital punishment up to this point, I’ll conclude by sharing some of my own thoughts on the topic in the life of the Church today:
I’ve always wondered why the obvious connection between Jesus’s death and capital punishment isn’t referenced more frequently in this discussion. Jesus did not leave behind a reference book with answers to every difficult moral question that would arise in future eras. We don’t know what he would have said about nuclear weapons, for example, or about the manner in which capital punishment is used in various countries today. It’s up to the Church to interpret the signs of the times in light the Gospel. But the connection here seems obvious. Capital punishment is as old as human civilization, and Christianity is in the rather curious position of worshiping a man who was sentenced to death by the state. It’s true that Jesus didn’t explicitly condemn capital punishment. It’s true that he was explicitly condemned by it.
The nature of Jesus’s death by capital punishment has always made me uncomfortable with its continued use. If there’s one thing that jumps off the pages of the passion narratives (especially in Luke’s Gospel), it is Jesus’s innocence, and by association, the guilt of the authorities who unjustly pursued and procured his state-sanctioned execution. There’s something enduring about that infamous injustice of putting an innocent man to death. Modern science and DNA testing have shown us how the trend continues. But I sometimes think the very fact that we are capable of putting an innocent person to death, as Jesus was, suggests that human beings should never use their power to do so. Jesus’s death teaches us, among so many other things, that we are not God; that when we pass our judgement or impose our will over another human being, we will probably get it wrong, and rather than achieve justice we destroy it.
The crucifixion scene with the penitent criminal at the end of Luke’s Gospel may be the most poignant pro-life statement in the New Testament. The self-admitted criminal asks Jesus to remember him when he enters his kingdom. Dying on the cross, Jesus promises him paradise that very day. What does this say about the death sentences procured by the authorities? They got it wrong twice; even when they got it right—in the case of the criminal—they got it wrong. In God’s eyes, neither the execution of the innocent man nor of the guilty man is justified. “The death penalty is contrary to the Gospel,” Francis says, “because it entails the willful suppression of a human life that never ceases to be sacred in the eyes of its Creator and of which—ultimately—only God is the true judge and guarantor.”
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