Three questions for Catholic opponents of capital punishment

When one reads Pope Francis’s statements about the death penalty carefully, it turns out to be difficult to interpret them in a way that would make assent to them binding on Catholics.

October 7, 2020 Dr. Edward Feser The Dispatch 163Print

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Editor’s note: This essay was originally posted on September 15, 2019. It is reposted in light of new statements by Pope Francis, in the encyclical Fratelli tutti, that, “Today we state clearly that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible’ and the Church is firmly committed to calling for its abolition worldwide” (par 263).


Pope St. John Paul II favored the abolition of capital punishment. However, the catechism he promulgated nevertheless taught that the death penalty can be legitimate “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” Moreover, the pope’s doctrinal spokesman Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who went on to become Pope Benedict XVI, made it clear that John Paul’s call for abolition reflected a prudential judgment with which faithful Catholics need not agree. In a 2004 memorandum, the cardinal wrote that “if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment… he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion,” and that “there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about… applying the death penalty.”

Pope Francis has taken a harder line against capital punishment than his predecessors. He has vigorously and repeatedly denounced the practice in public addresses, and has altered the catechism so that it now declares the death penalty flatly “inadmissible” and calls for “its abolition worldwide.” John Paul II’s exception has been removed. Some Catholic opponents of capital punishment appeal to these developments as proof that all Catholics are now obligated to favor its abolition – that there can no longer be the “legitimate diversity of opinion” spoken of by then-Cardinal Ratzinger. They label those who still support the death penalty “dissenters” and attribute to them disreputable motives, such as bloodlust or a political agenda.

But there are serious problems with this view (apart from the obvious one that the latter accusations are just cheap ad hominem attacks). For one thing, when one reads Pope Francis’s statements about the death penalty carefully, it turns out to be difficult to interpret them in a way that would make assent to them binding on Catholics. For another, if Catholic opponents of the death penalty were consistent in their appeal to these statements, then they would have to accept some further conclusions that it seems few of them do accept – and that it would be difficult for any faithful Catholic to accept. I will explain what I have in mind by setting out three questions that any intellectually honest Catholic has to address before he can claim that all Catholics are obligated to oppose capital punishment:

1. Does Pope Francis’s teaching on capital punishment amount to a doctrinal change or merely a prudential judgment?

There are two possible interpretations of Pope Francis’s teaching on the death penalty. Either he intends to revise the relevant doctrinal principles, or he intends merely to make a prudential judgment about how best to apply existing doctrinal principles to current circumstances. But on neither interpretation can Catholics be obligated to assent to his position (as opposed to merely giving it respectful consideration).

Here’s why. Consider first the suggestion that Pope Francis means to revise the relevant doctrinal principles. Now, the Church teaches that there are limits to what any pope can do by way of such revision. For example, the First Vatican Council taught:

For the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.

Along the same lines, Pope Benedict XVI taught:

The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law.  On the contrary: the Pope’s ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word.  He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God’s Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism…

The Pope knows that in his important decisions, he is bound to the great community of faith of all times, to the binding interpretations that have developed throughout the Church’s pilgrimage.

Now, as even many Catholic opponents of the death penalty acknowledge, it is not open to the Church to teach that capital punishment is wrong intrinsically or of its very nature. The most the Church can teach is that capital punishment is wrong under certain circumstances. The reason is that Scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and the popes prior to Pope Francis have consistently taught that capital punishment can be legitimate at least in principle. Given the Church’s claims about the reliability of Scripture and of her ordinary magisterium, it is not possible for the tradition to have been wrong for over two millennia about something that fundamental. Indeed, as I have shown in another article, the traditional teaching on the legitimacy in principle of capital punishment clearly meets the criteria for being an irreformable part of the ordinary magisterium. (Joseph Bessette and I set out the evidence for this at greater length in our book By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment.) So, the most that any pope could do by way of revising the relevant doctrinal principles would be to clarify the circumstances under which capital punishment can be legitimate.

The problem is this. Pope Francis holds that the death penalty should never be used under any circumstances. He does not even concede, as Pope John Paul II did, that there may be rare circumstances where it is justifiable in order to protect others from the offender. Now, if he were saying that it is true as a matter of doctrinal principle that capital punishment must never be used, then it seems he would be contradicting the irreformable teaching of Scripture and Tradition. For how could it be the case that capital punishment ought never to be applied even in principle, not even to protect the innocent, unless it were intrinsically wrong?

Now, no Catholic can be obligated to assent to anything that contradicts Scripture and Tradition – not even if a pope says it. After all, the Church acknowledges that popes are not infallible when not speaking ex cathedra. Moreover, though there is a strong presumption that Catholics ought to assent even to the non-infallible teachings of a pope, the Church also acknowledges that there are cases in which this presumption can be overridden and deficient magisterial statements respectfully criticized. The most obvious cases would be precisely those in which a pope appears to be contradicting irreformable doctrine. There is extensive teaching on this matter both from recent ecclesiastical documents and from tradition, which I have set out at length in another article. For example, the instruction Donum Veritatis, issued under Pope John Paul II, states:

The willingness to submit loyally to the teaching of the Magisterium on matters per se not irreformable must be the rule.  It can happen, however, that a theologian may, according to the case, raise questions regarding the timeliness, the form, or even the contents of magisterial interventions…

If, despite a loyal effort on the theologian’s part, the difficulties persist, the theologian has the duty to make known to the Magisterial authorities the problems raised by the teaching in itself, in the arguments proposed to justify it, or even in the manner in which it is presented.

Note that the document teaches that it can sometimes be a duty to raise respectful criticisms. Donum Veritatis even goes on to say that a faithful theologian who feels compelled to raise such issues with the Magisterial authorities can be said to “suffer for the truth.” The document also explicitly distinguishes the raising of such difficulties from the “dissent” associated with heterodox theologians who want to reverse the Church’s traditional teachings.

This is not some novel teaching of the Church. St. Thomas Aquinas taught that though the faithful have no authority to punish a wayward prelate, there can be circumstances in which they ought to correct a wayward prelate, even publicly, as long as this is done respectfully. And he offered an example that makes it clear that this includes popes:

[F]raternal correction is a work of mercy.  Therefore even prelates ought to be corrected…

It must be observed… that if the faith were endangered, a subject ought to rebuke his prelate even publicly.  Hence Paul, who was Peter’s subject, rebuked him in public, on account of the imminent danger of scandal concerning faith, and, as the gloss of Augustine says on Galatians 2:11, “Peter gave an example to superiors, that if at any time they should happen to stray from the straight path, they should not disdain to be reproved by their subjects.”

A later example would be the case of Pope John XXII, who was rebuked by the theologians of his day for contradicting traditional teaching on the postmortem state of the soul, and who recanted this error on his deathbed. If Pope Francis were teaching that capital punishment is intrinsically wrong, then we would be in a similar situation, and would have a clear case in which the teaching of Donum Veritatis and of St. Thomas would apply. We would have a case where Catholics need not assent, indeed must not assent.

But again, there is an alternative interpretation of Pope Francis’s teaching. He can be read, not as intending to revise the doctrinal principles relevant to capital punishment, but rather as merely making a prudential judgment. Now, making a prudential judgment is a matter of applying doctrinal principles to concrete circumstances. Popes and other churchmen often lack any special expertise concerning such circumstances, which is why their prudential judgments about them are not binding on the faithful. A standard example would be the prudential application of Catholic just war doctrine. The Church teaches that for a war to be just, it must meet certain conditions. For example, the cause must be just, the harm posed by the aggressor must be grave, the military action proposed must have a good chance of succeeding, and so forth. Now, churchmen certainly have the authority to require Catholics to assent to these criteria. But they have no special knowledge of at least some of the information needed to apply the criteria. For example, they have no special expertise about military strategy and tactics. So, to the extent that applying just war doctrine to concrete circumstances requires such expertise, churchmen cannot make prudential judgments about them that are binding on the faithful. That is why the Catechism teaches that “the evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good,” namely governmental authorities. If a pope teaches that it is immoral to violate just war criteria, all Catholics are obligated to assent to that teaching. But if a pope were to make a judgement about the likelihood of success of a certain specific proposed military operation, Catholics are not obligated to assent.

Now, if Pope Francis is making a prudential judgment when he says that the death penalty should never be used anywhere, then what he is saying is that in his estimation, the purposes that the Catechism says are served by punishment – such as redressing the disorder caused by the offense, ensuring the safety of the public, and promoting the correction of the offender – are, in every country in the world today, more likely to be secured by a criminal justice system that has abolished capital punishment altogether than by one that keeps it on the books.

But this judgment makes crucial assumptions about matters on which popes have no special expertise. For example, does the death penalty have significant deterrence value? Are some violent offenders likely to pose a significant danger to the lives of other prisoners or of prison personnel? Are some organized crime figures likely to order murders from behind prison walls? Do some undeveloped countries lack adequate means effectively to imprison the most dangerous offenders? Does keeping the death penalty on the books provide prosecutors with a valuable bargaining chip by which offenders can be encouraged to inform on other dangerous criminals? Are a significant number of offenders likely to be moved to repentance precisely by the prospect of execution? Is an understanding of the principle that a punishment ought to be proportional to the gravity of the offense likely to disappear in a society in which no one is ever executed, no matter how horrific his crimes? An affirmative answer to one or more of these questions would give reason to conclude that the purposes of punishment are not best served by abolishing the death penalty.

Again, popes and other churchmen simply have no special expertise about such matters. Rather, social scientists, prosecutors, and police are the ones who have the necessary expertise, and many of them judge that the death penalty is still essential to realizing such purposes of punishment as securing public safety. (In our book, Joseph Bessette and I provide a detailed survey of the arguments and evidence.) Of course, the experts disagree among themselves about these matters, but disagreement among experts is true of almost every area in which prudential judgments are required. Moreover, precisely because churchmen themselves lack special expertise about the matters in question, they also lack any special competence to determine who are the best experts.

Now, as the Catechism explicitly acknowledges, it is public officials rather than churchmen who ultimately have the responsibility for making prudential judgments concerning how to apply just war criteria. So how could it fail to be true that it is also public officials rather than churchmen who ultimately have the responsibility for making prudential judgments about the application of the death penalty? After all, waging war is a far graver matter than executing an offender. It involves intentional killing of aggressors on a much larger scale, and also a risk of killing the innocent on a much larger scale. If the Church nevertheless teaches that final decisions about these matters are in the hands of public officials rather than churchmen, then as a matter of logic she has to teach the same thing about capital punishment. By the same token, if faithful Catholics can legitimately disagree with papal prudential judgments about the one, then they can legitimately disagree with papal prudential judgments about the other.

Indeed, in his 2004 memorandum, then-Cardinal Ratzinger explicitly linked the two issues together, writing that “there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty.” He explicitly contrasted this with abortion and euthanasia, about which he said there can be no legitimate diversity of opinion among Catholics. The reason is that the Church teaches that abortion and euthanasia are intrinsically evil, whereas waging war and inflicting the death penalty are not intrinsically evil. No prudential judgement is required when deciding whether to perform a direct abortion or to euthanize someone. You simply must never do it, period. But prudential judgment is required where waging war and applying capital punishment are concerned, because these things may be done under certain circumstances. Nothing Pope Francis has said makes this any less true now than it was in 2004. Hence, if Pope Francis is merely making a prudential judgment when he says that capital punishment should never be used, then what then-Cardinal Ratzinger said in 2004 appears to apply today as well. And what he said, again, is that “if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment… he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion,” and that “there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about… applying the death penalty.”

The bottom line, then, is this. When Pope Francis says that capital punishment should never be used, then either he is making a doctrinal change that contradicts the teaching of Scripture and Tradition, or he is merely making a prudential judgment. If he is doing the first, then faithful Catholics should not agree with him. If he is doing the second, then faithful Catholics need not agree with him. Either way, they are not obligated to agree with him.

If Catholics who oppose capital punishment don’t like this conclusion and insist on claiming that Catholics are obligated to oppose capital punishment in all cases, then they need to explain exactly what is wrong with the argument I’ve just set out. Mere foot stomping and flinging of ad hominem attacks will not do.

But this is only the beginning of the grave problems facing these opponents of capital punishment. Let us move on to the other questions.

2. Do you agree with Pope Francis that life sentences should be abolished?

The standard positon of Catholic opponents of capital punishment has for decades now been that the practice is unnecessary, insofar as dangerous offenders can be incarcerated for life instead. Hence the U.S. Catholic bishops have said that “one alternative to the death penalty is life without the possibility of parole for those who continue to pose a deadly threat to society.”

However, Pope Francis has consistently condemned life sentences as well as the death penalty, and has said that they are objectionable for the same reasons. That is to say, in Pope Francis’s view, if you oppose capital punishment, then to be consistent you should also oppose life imprisonment! For some reason, those who defend the pope’s views on the death penalty rarely call attention to this aspect of his position. They have not loudly demanded that all Catholics work for the abolition of life sentences, the way they have loudly demanded that all Catholics oppose capital punishment.

But the pope himself has been clear. Here are some of his remarks on the subject. In an address on October 23, 2014, the pope said:

All Christians and men of good will are thus called today to fight not only for the abolition of the death penalty… in all its forms, but also in order to improve prison conditions, with respect for the human dignity of the people deprived of their freedom. And I link this to life imprisonment. A short time ago the life sentence was taken out of the Vatican’s Criminal Code. A life sentence is just a death penalty in disguise.

In a March 20, 2015 letter, Pope Francis said:

Life imprisonment, as well as those sentences which, due to their duration, render it impossible for the condemned to plan a future in freedom, may be considered hidden death sentences, because with them the guilty party is not only deprived of his/her freedom, but insidiously deprived of hope. But, even though the criminal justice system may appropriate the guilty parties’ time, it must never take away their hope.

In an interview in November of 2016, the pope stated that “if a penalty doesn’t have hope, it’s not a Christian penalty, it’s not human” and that life imprisonment is a “sort of hidden death penalty.” In August of 2017, the pope compared life imprisonment to “torture.” And in a December 17, 2018 address, Pope Francis stated:

The Magisteriumof the Church holds that life sentences, which take away the possibility of the moral and existential redemption of the person sentenced and in favour of the community, are a form of death penalty in disguise.

Let’s note several things about these remarks. First, again, the pope claims that life sentences are morally on a par with the death penalty, and suggests that to oppose the latter requires opposing the former as well. Second, he says that the way they are similar is that they both deprive the offender of “hope” and of the possibility of “redemption.” Third, he has raised this issue repeatedly and in formal addresses, and not merely in an off-the-cuff remark or two. Fourth, he has invoked “the Magisterium of the Church” when speaking on this issue, rather than presenting it as a mere personal opinion.

Fifth, and remarkably, the pope seems to object not only to life sentences, but to any sentences of an especially long duration. For in his March 20, 2015 letter he criticizes “life imprisonment, as well as those sentences which, due to their duration, render it impossible for the condemned to plan a future in freedom” (emphasis added). Pope Francis appears to be saying that it is wrong to inflict on any offender a sentence that is so long that it would prevent him from returning eventually to a normal life outside of prison.

Now, the implications of all this are quite remarkable, indeed shocking. Consider, to take just one out of innumerable possible examples, a serial murderer like Dennis Rader, who styled himself the BTK killer (for “Bind, Torture, Kill”). He is currently in prison for life for murdering ten people, including two children, in a manner as horrific as you might expect from his chosen nickname. If Pope Francis is right, then it is wrong to have put Rader in prison for life. Indeed, if Pope Francis is right, then Rader should not be in prison for any length of time that might prevent him from being able to “plan a future in freedom.” Rader is 74 years old, so that would imply that Rader should be let out fairly soon so that he can plan how to live out the few years remaining to him. And if the pope is right, the same thing is true of other aging serial killers. Perhaps the pope would put conditions on their release, such as realistic assurances that they are not likely to kill again. But his words certainly entail that it would be wrong to deny at least the possibility of parole to any of them, no matter how heinous or numerous their crimes.

But even this doesn’t really capture the enormity of what Pope Francis is saying. Consider the Nuremberg trials, at which many Nazi war criminals were sentenced to death or life imprisonment. Pope Francis’s view would imply that all of these sentences were unjust! Indeed, Pope Francis’s position seems to entail that, had Hitler survived the war, it would have been wrong to sentence him to more than about twenty years in prison! For Hitler was in his fifties when he died, so that if he had been sentenced to more than that, he could not “plan a future in freedom” – as a greengrocer or crossing guard, perhaps. Pope Francis’s views imply that the Nuremberg judges should have been at least open to the possibility of letting Hitler off with such a light sentence and letting him return to a normal life – despite being guilty of the Holocaust and of fomenting World War II! Perhaps Pope Francis would shrink from these implications of his views. One hopes so. But they are the implications of his views.

Now, are Catholics obligated to agree with Pope Francis that life sentences should be abolished? I would argue they are not obligated, and for the same reasons they are not obligated to agree with Pope Francis about capital punishment. For once again, the pope is either making a claim about doctrinal principle or he is merely making a prudential judgment, and once again, in neither case can Catholics be obligated to agree with him.

Consider first the suggestion that Pope Francis is claiming that life sentences are intrinsically wrong, wrong as a matter of doctrinal principle. Such a claim would be seriously theologically problematic. The first problem is that it would clearly conflict with traditional Catholic teaching. For as I have already noted, the traditional teaching of the Church is that it is not intrinsically wrong to inflict a penalty of death. But if it is not intrinsically wrong to inflict a penalty of death, then it can hardly be intrinsically wrong to inflict a lesser penalty, such as life imprisonment.

A second problem is that to claim that it is intrinsically wrong to inflict a penalty of life imprisonment, or even a very long imprisonment, would also conflict with the traditional teaching of the Church that “legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense” (as the Catechism states). Now, certain crimes are manifestly so grave that nothing short of life imprisonment would be proportionate to their gravity – for example, serial killing and genocide. To say that not only the death penalty, but life imprisonment or even long imprisonments, must never in principle be inflicted, would be to strip the principle of proportionality of all meaning.

A third problem is that the pope’s claim that the death penalty and long imprisonments deprive the offender of hope seems to presuppose a secular rather than Catholic understanding of hope. In Catholic theology, hope is a theological virtue. It has nothing to do with looking forward to pleasant circumstances in this life. As St. Paul wrote, “if in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” (I Corinthians 15:19). Rather, hope has to do with the desire for eternal life and trust in God to provide the graces needed to attain it. Now, neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment are contrary to hope in this sense. On the contrary, as the Catechism teaches, “when [punishment] is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation.” And the possibility of expiation for sin is precisely a reason for hope. Accepting the penalty of death or life imprisonment as one’s just deserts can mitigate the temporal punishment one would otherwise have to suffer in purgatory.

Once again, then, reading Pope Francis as introducing a doctrinal novelty would have implications that no Catholic can accept. It is better, then, to interpret his remarks about life imprisonment as merely a prudential judgement which Catholics need only respectfully consider but need not agree with.

In any event, the question we should ask any Catholic who appeals to Pope Francis’s teaching as proof that all Catholics must favor the abolition of capital punishment is this: Do you also believe that all Catholics must favor the abolition of life imprisonment? Because Pope Francis teaches that they are morally on a par. Hence, to be consistent, any Catholic who concludes that the pope’s views on life imprisonment are merely a prudential judgment with which Catholics may disagree ought also to admit that the same thing is true of the pope’s views about the death penalty.

3. Do you agree with Pope Francis that executing a murderer is worse than what the murderer himself did?

Though it might be hard to believe, Pope Francis has said things that are even stranger than his remarks about life imprisonment. In the 2015 public letter quoted above, he wrote:

For a constitutional state the death penalty represents a failure, because it obliges the State to kill in the name of justice. Dostoyevsky wrote: “To kill a murderer is a punishment incomparably worse than the crime itself. Murder by legal sentence is immeasurably more terrible than murder by a criminal”. Justice is never reached by killing a human being.

Now, the most startling words here are the ones the pope attributes to Dostoyevsky. But he quotes them approvingly, and he does so in a formal letter that he had time to think through rather than in impromptu remarks. The quoted sentences are also followed by a sentence of the pope’s own that flatly states that justice is “never” achieved by capital punishment, and the letter also contains other remarks that seem to imply that capital punishment is intrinsically wrong. Nor does the pope say anything to qualify or correct the view he attributes to Dostoyevsky. So it is hardly unreasonable to think that the pope might agree with that view.

But the view in question is extremely problematic. For one thing, its implications are absurd. Someone who seriously believed that capital punishment is worse than what was done by the murderer who is executed would have to say, for example, that the quick death by electrocution inflicted on Ted Bundy was worse than the acts of murder, rape, torture, and necrophilia of which Bundy was guilty. He would have to say that what the Allies did in hanging Nazi war criminals was worse than the sorts of things the Nazi war criminals did. And so on. Such conclusions are not only absurd, they are obscene. Now, surely Pope Francis himself would not want to draw these conclusions. But they do follow from the view he appears to endorse in the letter, even if he does not realize it.

For another thing, since murder is intrinsically wrong, then if capital punishment is “incomparably worse” and “immeasurably more terrible” than murder – as the quote from Dostoyevsky claims – then it would follow that capital punishment must be intrinsically wrong too. But again, the claim that capital punishment is intrinsically wrong is incompatible with Catholic orthodoxy.

A defender of Pope Francis might respond that the pope was here speaking merely rhetorically and imprecisely, and that we cannot take such extreme remarks to have any doctrinal significance. I think that is exactly right. But it is also precisely the problem. The pope’s various statements over the years about capital punishment are in general extremely imprecise. When he speaks on the subject, he tends both to say things that imply that capital punishment is intrinsically wrong, but also to say things that might be taken to imply that it is wrong only under modern circumstances. Yet he gives no indication about exactly how these sets of remarks are supposed to be reconciled with one another, or exactly how the more extreme remarks are to be understood if they are not meant to imply that capital punishment is intrinsically wrong.

For example, take the remarks Pope Francis made in his Angelus address of February 21, 2016, where he said that “a spreading opposition to the death penalty, even as an instrument of legitimate social defence, has developed in public opinion, and this is a sign of hope” (emphasis added). He went on in the same address to say that the commandment against killing “has absolute value and pertains to the innocent as well as the guilty” and that “even a criminal has the inviolable right to life” (emphasis added). Now, John Paul II used some similar phrases in Evangelium Vitae, which evidently influenced Francis. However, Francis made some crucial changes to his predecessor’s wording. John Paul wrote that the commandment against killing “has absolute value when it refers to the innocent person,” and spoke of the “inviolable right to life of every innocent human being” (emphasis added). Francis has altered these phrases to include “the guilty” and the “criminal” within their scope, alongside the innocent. It is hard to square all this with St. John Paul II’s view that execution of the guilty can be legitimate at least in rare cases as an instrument to defend society. On a natural reading, Francis’s remarks in his Angelus address imply that execution of the guilty is always and intrinsically wrong, even when there is no other way to protect society against the offender.

Or take the statements Pope Francis made in the October 11, 2017 address wherein he first announced his intention to alter the Catechism. He said there that “no matter how serious the crime that has been committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.” Notice that he did not say that the death penalty is inadmissible because there are other ways to protect the innocent. He said that it is inadmissible because “it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.” The natural interpretation of this is that capital punishment is intrinsically or of its nature contrary to human dignity, not contrary to human dignity merely if there are other ways to protect the innocent. This is reinforced by a further statement in the address, to the effect that capital punishment is “per se contrary to the Gospel” – which means that it is as such or of its very nature contrary to the Gospel.

On the other hand, in the very same address the pope claims that “here we are not in any way contradicting past teaching.” That sounds reassuring – until you read the rest of the sentence, which says that the reason the pope’s statements are consistent with past teaching is that “the defence of the dignity of human life from the first moment of conception to natural death has been taught by the Church consistently and authoritatively.” The trouble with this is that it cites only part of past teaching. It completely ignores all the statements from Scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and previous popes that explicitly affirm that capital punishment is not intrinsically wrong. What needs to be explained is how Pope Francis’s statements about capital punishment can be reconciled with that part of past teaching, and on that question the pope is silent.

The same problem afflicts the pope’s change to the Catechism. On the one hand, the text of the change refers to “more effective systems of detention” that are available in modern societies, and to what is called for “today” by way of criminal justice. That part makes it sound as if the death penalty is not intrinsically wrong, but merely unnecessary in modern times. On the other hand, the text also says that what makes a change necessary “today” is, specifically, that “there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes,” and that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” That part makes it sound instead like capital punishment has always been wrong, and that we are only now coming to realize it. It gives the impression that it is not merely that “systems of detention” have improved. It is that the Church’s traditional understanding of human dignity was defective and needs to be revised. To be sure, the cover letter from Cardinal Ladaria which announced the change insists that the revision to the Catechism “is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium.” But it never explains how it can be reconciled with prior teaching. Exactly how can capital punishment fail to be intrinsically wrong if it is “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”? For if it is at least in principle legitimate to execute an offender under certain circumstances, then he cannot be inviolable in that respect.

What all of these examples illustrate is this. The problem with the claim that Catholics are obligated to assent to the pope’s teaching on capital punishment is that it is never made clear exactly what we are expected to assent to. Yes, Pope Francis clearly says that capital punishment should be abolished. But when his critics say that his teaching is unclear, they don’t mean that that part is unclear. What they mean is that it is unclear whether the pope’s opposition to capital punishment reflects a doctrinal change or merely a prudential judgment. Like the remarks he quotes approvingly from Dostoyevsky, Pope Francis’s statements about capital punishment are often so extreme that, if taken at face value, they seem to contradict traditional teaching – in which case no Catholic should accept them. Whereas if the pope’s statements are not taken at face value, but instead as merely overheated rhetoric that is not meant to conflict with traditional teaching, then it is hard to see in them anything more than a reiteration of Pope John Paul II’s merely prudential judgement that capital punishment is legitimate in principle but better avoided in practice – a judgment with which, as then-Cardinal Ratzinger taught, Catholics are not obligated to agree.

Either way, as I have argued, Catholics are not obligated to agree. Those who insist otherwise have failed to see the dilemma that Pope Francis’s imprecision poses for them. On their side they have only muddled thinking and ad hominem attacks. Arrayed against them are Scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, all the popes prior to Pope Francis, and basic logic.

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About Dr. Edward Feser 12 ArticlesEdward Feser is the author of Five Proofs of the Existence of God and co-author of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, both published by Ignatius Press.

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