Insight: The political implications of the change of the Church’s position on Death Penalty

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Based on reports from CNN and the Catholic News and Catholic News Agency

The Vatican changed on Thursday the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s teaching on the permissibility of the death penalty, which the Church has taught is legitimate in limited cases, stating the penalty is ‘inadmissible,’ and its elimination should be sought.

Until now, the Church has consistently taught that the state has the authority to use the death penalty, in cases of “absolute necessity,” though with the qualification that the Church considered such situations to be extremely rare.

A new draft of paragraph 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church was issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Aug. 2, after Pope Francis approved it in May.

Quoting Pope Francis’ words in a speech of Oct. 11, 2017, the new paragraph states, in part, that “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.”

Reasons for changing the teaching, the paragraph says, include: the increasing effectiveness of detention systems, growing understanding of the unchanging dignity of the person, and leaving open the possibility of conversion.

The Change

“Evangelium Vitae” (“The Gospel of Life”) was St. John Paul’s 1995 encyclical on the dignity and sacredness of all human life. The encyclical led to an updating of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which he originally promulgated in 1992 and which recognized “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.”

At the same time, the original version of the catechism still urged the use of “bloodless means” when possible to punish criminals and protect citizens.

The catechism now will read: “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 new section continues.

Pope Francis’ change to the text concludes: “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.”

In his statement, Cardinal Ladaria noted how St. John Paul, retired Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis had all spoken out against capital punishment and appealed for clemency for death-row inmates on numerous occasions.

The development of church doctrine away from seeing the death penalty as a possibly legitimate punishment for the most serious crimes, the cardinal said, “centers principally on the clearer awareness of the church for the respect due to every human life. Along this line, John Paul II affirmed: ‘Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this.'”

Pope Francis specifically requested the change to the catechism in October during a speech at the Vatican commemorating the 25th anniversary of the text’s promulgation.

The death penalty, no matter how it is carried out, he had said, “is, in itself, contrary to the Gospel, because a decision is voluntarily made to suppress a human life, which is always sacred in the eyes of the Creator and of whom, in the last analysis, only God can be the true judge and guarantor.”

Cardinal Ladaria also noted that the popes were not the only Catholics to become increasingly aware of how the modern use of the death penalty conflicted with church teaching on the dignity of human life; the same position, he said, has been “expressed ever more widely in the teaching of pastors and in the sensibility of the people of God.”

In particular, he said, Catholic opposition to the death penalty is based on an “understanding that the dignity of a person is not lost even after committing the most serious crimes,” a deeper understanding that criminal penalties should aim at the rehabilitation of the criminal and a recognition that governments have the ability to detain criminals effectively, thereby protecting their citizens.

The cardinal’s note also cited a letter Pope Francis wrote in 2015 to the International Commission Against the Death Penalty. In the letter, the pope called capital punishment “cruel, inhumane and degrading” and said it “does not bring justice to the victims, but only foments revenge.”

Furthermore, in a modern “state of law, the death penalty represents a failure” because it obliges the state to kill in the name of justice, the pope had written. On the other hand, he said, it is a method frequently used by “totalitarian regimes and fanatical groups” to do away with “political dissidents, minorities” and any other person deemed a threat to their power and to their goals.

In addition, Pope Francis noted that “human justice is imperfect” and said the death penalty loses all legitimacy in penal systems where judicial error is possible.

“The new formulation of number 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church,” Cardinal Ladaria said, “desires to give energy to a movement toward 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.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church had stated: “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.”

The new teaching will be included in all the editions of the Catechism going forward, a Vatican communique stated Aug. 2.

In the US Pope Francis earned a standing ovation when he told Congress in 2015 that he supports protecting human life “at every stage of its development.” When he added that “this conviction” includes working to end the death penalty, the response was far more subdued.

“You didn’t see people jumping up and clapping,” said John Carr, who was in the room, and is director of Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life

For decades, Catholic politicians who support capital punishment, including the senators and representatives in the chamber that day, had an “out” when it comes to church teaching: The Catholic Catechism, the church’s book of moral and religious teachings, had allowed the use of capital punishment in certain cases. Any other opinions, even the Pope’s, were just that, opinions, and not necessarily binding on Catholic consciences.

At the Pope’s direction, the Catholic Catechism has been revised, and now calls the death penalty “inadmissible.” While years in coming, the shift raises new questions about how politicians, particularly conservative Catholics in red states, will navigate the church’s revised stance.

“Pope Francis has said several times that he considers the death penalty inadmissible,” said John Thavis, former Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service. “Now, however, he has enshrined it in official Catholic teaching. That’s going to make it much more difficult for politicians to dismiss this teaching as ‘the Pope’s opinion.'”

The church’s shifting position on capital punishment may even arise later this year when the Senate holds confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, a federal judge and faithful Catholic whom President Donald Trump has nominated for a seat on the Supreme Court.

“It’s hard to side-step this issue now that it’s definitive church teaching,” said John Gehring, a Catholic writer and Catholic Program Director at the liberal-leaning group Faith in Public Life.

“I think there is a proper and respectful way to ask Kavanaugh how his understanding of faith and morality intersects with his judicial views.”

“I suspect that the matter will come up,” agreed Richard Garnett, a professor at the University of Notre Dame’s law school. “I’m not optimistic that any senator’s question will reflect any serious engagement with, or understanding of, what Pope Francis actually did, but … I expect it will come up.”

If confirmed, Kavanaugh would be the fifth Catholic on the Supreme Court, which regularly opines on death penalty cases and hears requests for stays of execution. (It is unclear whether Neil Gorsuch, who was raised a Catholic but has worshiped in Episcopal Churches, identifies with either tradition.)

 

 

 

 

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