My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
On Aug. 2, the Holy See announced that Pope Francis has revised the Catechism of the Catholic Church with regard to capital punishment. In a rescript, or decree, the pope has replaced the previous version of paragraph 2267 of the Catechism, now concluding that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”
Since that announcement, theologians and canonists have been debating the significance of this change, with some arguing that this is a change in doctrine, and therefore those who do not accept this teaching should be subject to canonical penalties. Others argue that the pope cannot change a teaching found in sacred Scripture or tradition. This is not merely an academic debate, as Catholic judges, prosecutors, lawyers and other government officials are questioning what the implications are for them in their professional responsibilities.
The key question in the debate is whether this change in the Catechism has overturned the doctrine that the church has taught for centuries, whereby it is justifiable for legitimate governmental authorities to impose the death penalty under certain specified conditions. Indeed, paragraph 2266 of the Catechism as originally promulgated in 1992 stated that “the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty.”
The issue, then, is whether the revision in the Catechism is a change in doctrine. I would argue that the revision in the Catechism with regard to capital punishment is a not a change in doctrine, but a change in prudential judgment, which allows more latitude for the faithful in their interpretation and application of this new passage than would be the case if an actual change in doctrine were being proposed.
The confusion on this question seems to stem from an assumption that everything in the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a binding doctrine. It must be recognized, however, that there are various types of statements in the Catechism. Some are divinely revealed truths contained in sacred Scripture, such as the resurrection of Jesus; others are infallible dogmas pronounced by the pope, such as the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary; while others are prudential judgments based on theological principles, such as the just war theory and the teaching on capital punishment.
Pope St. John Paul II recognized these distinctions when he amended paragraphs 2266 and 2267 of the Catechism in 1997 to read: “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.” But then he went on to say that “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” In this way, Pope St. John Paul II affirmed the longstanding doctrine but introduced his prudential judgment that the cases where the death penalty is absolutely necessary are “practically nonexistent.”
In the most recent change, Pope Francis introduces his own prudential judgment, stating that “the death penalty is inadmissible.” It is noteworthy that he does not say the death penalty is “immoral” or “intrinsically evil” or “gravely sinful.” The word “inadmissible” implies, I think, a prudential judgment, not a doctrinal pronouncement on faith and morals. A further indication that the change in the text of the Catechism represents a statement of Pope Francis’ prudential judgment is that the only reference given for the change is another text of Pope Francis.
In announcing the change introduced by Pope Francis, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, SJ, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, described the revision as a “development of Catholic doctrine.” I would say that it is not so much a development of doctrine, as a development of the application of the doctrine. Indeed in 2004, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope St. John Paul II, and who later became Pope Benedict XVI, stated, “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 … . There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about … applying the death penalty.”
In Illinois, the death penalty has not been applied since 1999. Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation in 2011 abolishing the death penalty. On the other hand, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health, in the 18-year period from 1999 to 2016, while there have been zero executions, there have been 783,878 abortions performed in Illinois, for an average of 43,549 every year. Abortion is clearly the more pressing pro-life issue demanding our attention. Let us work and pray for the day when the number of annual abortions in this state is also zero.
May God give us this grace. Amen.