A closer look at the Catechism’s revised teaching on capital punishment

A strong focus on human dignity

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In August 2018 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith announced Pope Francis’ approved revision to the Catechism of the Catholic Church with regard to paragraph 2267 on the use of the death penalty. This revision declares that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

It reflects the Church’s enormous emphasis on respecting all human life. It also fosters the deep hope that no one is beyond God’s mercy, and there is always a chance for repentance, even for those convicted of capital crimes. Indeed, it states that “the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.” 

This revision by Francis builds on the prior magisterial teaching of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. (Learn more about this history by reading this letter to bishops from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at CDmag.net/2BtXfmG.) 

Revision to a previous revision

Pope Francis’ update is not the first that this particular text has received. Let’s review its history. 

The paragraph in question — paragraph 2267 — is found under the article that deals with the Fifth Commandment: “You shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13). The Catechism discusses three areas that must be held in tension when considering the practical implications of this commandment: respect for human life, respect for human dignity, and respect for safeguarding the peace.

Paragraph 2267 is a qualification under the section that describes the legitimate defense of persons and societies for the sake of the common good. In other words, it addresses the state’s authority to take the life of a guilty person by administering the death penalty. 

When the English version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church was first presented in 1994, the text of 2267 read as follows: 

If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person. (CCC, 2267, First Edition, 1994)

This text shows that while the death penalty was permissible, it should mostly be used as a last resort, if at all. 

When the second edition of the Catechism came out in 1997, John Paul II amended and expanded this text. While acknowledging that previous teaching did not exclude the death penalty, the legitimacy of capital punishment as a necessity was further decried as “practically non-existent.” Here is the text from 1997, held until most recently:

Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. 

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person. 

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm — without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself — the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically non-existent” (John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 56). (CCC, 2267, Second Edition, 1997)

The call for mercy

We can see momentum building in recent years, calling for the elimination of the death penalty. Both Pope Francis and the U.S. bishops have preached against its continued use. Readying for the Jubilee of Mercy, Pope Francis gave voice to this sentiment: 

Today capital punishment is unacceptable, however serious the condemned’s crime may have been. It is an offense to the inviolability of life and to the dignity of the human person which contradicts God’s plan for man and for society and his merciful justice, and it fails to conform to any just purpose of punishment. It does not render justice to the victims, but rather foments revenge. (Letter of His Holiness Pope Francis to the President of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty, March 20, 2015) 

The latest update to 2267 now reads:

The death penalty

Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.  

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.

Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,”[1] and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.  

[1] FRANCIS, Address to Participants in the Meeting organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, Oct. 11, 2017

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Catholic Digest under the headline “Death penalty teaching revised.”

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