'Last Remaining Loophole in Catholic Teaching on the Death Penalty' Closed with Catechism Change

Pope Francis and cardinals at the Vatican on July 19, 2018. (Abaca/Sipa USA via AP Images)

Pope Francis approved a change to the Catechism that removed exceptional circumstances under which the death penalty would be permissible, and appealed to the Church to work to abolish capital punishment.

The change was announced today by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in a letter to bishops.

The previous text said, “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 more in conformity to the dignity of the human person,” paragraph 2267 added. “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 nonexistent.'”

The new revision says that “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,” the text continues.

“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,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote to bishops that the change “expresses an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium” and follows Pope Benedict XVI’s appeal for “the attention of society’s leaders to the need to make every effort to eliminate the death penalty.” Pope John Paul II also decried the death penalty as “cruel and unnecessary.”

“These teachings, in fact, can be explained in the light of the primary responsibility of the public authority to protect the common good in a social context in which the penal sanctions were understood differently, and had developed in an environment in which it was more difficult to guarantee that the criminal could not repeat his crime,” Ladaria wrote.

The Spanish cardinal said the new teaching “desires to give energy to a movement towards a decisive commitment to favor a mentality that recognizes the dignity of every human life and, in respectful dialogue with civil authorities, to encourage the creation of conditions that allow for the elimination of the death penalty where it is still in effect.”

Sister Helen Prejean, a longtime activist against the death penalty, said she was “overjoyed and deeply grateful to hear that Pope Francis has closed the last remaining loophole in Catholic teaching on the death penalty.”

“The moral ground zero of this issue in the Catholic context has been the question of self-defense and the inviolable dignity of every human being,” Prejean said in a statement. “There’s nothing dignified about rendering a person defenseless, strapping them down to a gurney, and killing them. That’s not self-defense, either. The moral tectonic plates have shifted and the very nature of the act of executing a person can no longer be justified.”

The nun called it “striking” that the Church was advocating for abolition of the death penalty. “Words must be followed by action,” Prejean added. “It’s time to abolish state-sponsored killing forever.”