The Church’s teaching on the death penalty Print E-mail
Knowing Your Faith
Written by Dr. John Joy   
Thursday, Sep. 06, 2018 -- 12:00 AM
Knowing Your Faith column

John Joy

When it was announced on August 2 that Pope Francis had approved a change to the text of the Catechism, it was widely reported in the news media that the Church had changed her teaching on the death penalty.

Cardinal Luis Ladaria, on the other hand, in the letter to the bishops that accompanied the new text of the Catechism, described it as a "development" of the Church's teaching. What's the difference?

Development  of teaching

Basically, a change in teaching implies a contradiction of past teaching: what was formerly believed to be true is now believed to be false.

A development of doctrine, on the other hand, does not involve any contradiction of past teaching, but only a new insight or a new clarification about the same teaching.

Take, for example, the development of the Church's teaching on Jesus Christ. An early statement of this teaching could be as simple as: "Jesus Christ is God and man," whereas a more developed statement could say that: "Jesus Christ is truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body, consubstantial with the Father according to his divinity, and consubstantial with us according to his humanity, the two natures existing in one person without confusion, change, division, or separation."

This later statement is certainly more developed, but the earlier, less developed statement remains perfectly true. This is one of the essential characteristics of a genuine development of doctrine. A contradiction is not a development but a corruption of doctrine. That is why the letter that accompanied the new text of the Catechism emphasized that this is "an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the magisterium."

Prior teaching

What is the prior teaching of the magisterium on the death penalty? At the most fundamental level, the Church's teaching is the teaching of Scripture. For the Church has always taught and still teaches that Scripture is the divinely inspired word of God, which is therefore necessarily free from all error.

As Pope Leo XIII explained: "All the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Ghost; and so far is it from being possible that any error can co-exist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true" (Prov. Deus, 20).

And Scripture teaches that the death penalty is in principle morally legitimate. For God says in Genesis 9:6 that, "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image" -- that is, because of human dignity.

Jesus Christ himself affirms that Pilate has received from God the authority to execute criminals (John 19:10-11). St. Peter issues a sentence of death on Sapphira, who immediately falls down dead, thus showing that God endorsed his sentence (Acts 5:9).

St. Paul explains that Jesus was put to death "even though they could charge him with nothing deserving death," thereby implying that some things do deserve death (Acts 13:28). Again, St. Paul says to the authorities, "If I am a wrongdoer, and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death," thus implying that there are some crimes that deserve death (Acts 25:11).

And finally, St. Paul also teaches that the civil ruler "does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer" (Rom 13:4).

On the basis of such testimonies as these, the Fathers of the Church unanimously interpret Sacred Scripture as affirming the legitimacy of the death penalty in principle as a matter of retributive justice. And as Trent and Vatican I both declared, it is never permitted for anyone to interpret Sacred Scripture contrary to the unanimous interpretation of the Fathers of the Church.

If, therefore, the new text of the Catechism is, as the accompanying letter says, "an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium," then it must still be true to say that the death penalty is in principle a morally legitimate option for governments to use, even if Pope Francis -- like Pope John Paul II -- would encourage them not to make use of it any more than absolutely necessary. Indeed, to deny this would be contrary to Scripture.

So let us by all means work for "the creation of conditions that allow for the elimination of the death penalty," as the letter accompanying the new text of the Catechism says, but let us also hold fast to our faith in the divinely inspired word of Sacred Scripture and not deny that the death penalty remains in principle morally legitimate.


John Joy, STL, is marriage and family coordinator for the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis, Diocese of Madison.