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Pope Francis and the Death Penalty: What Catholics should understand

The change in the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding the teachings on capital punishment has been presented by the secular media, as it presents every story that involves the Catholic Church, with absolutely no context in which these changes have been made. For Catholics who, for a variety of reasons, are not as connected to their Faith as Catholics have been in the past, it can be difficult to understand the changes that occur within the Church. It is however paramount that Catholics do so, for in better understanding the Church, we better understand ourselves.

The Secular media frequently depicts the Pope as a Divine Monarch, who on high can manipulate teachings, laws and doctrines at will and whom all Catholics must follow in all regards. This is fundamentally not true.
Secular media also ignores all else in the Church except it's highest office, it's most profitable headlines, and leaves out the entirety of the tradition, history and philosophy of the Catholic Church's past. When the secular media leaves out this centerpiece of the Catholic mindset they leave their readers with an incomplete understanding of the Faith they are reporting on. This is done intentionally and unintentionally by those who seek to profit from the buzz generated from the Church as well as by those whose actions ultimately harm and slander the Faith. Though such neglect in journalistic integrity is most often done out of simple ignorance, this ignorance nevertheless requires firm correction.

The first thing, and perhaps the most important thing, to understand about Pope Francis's changing of the Catechism is that catechisms are not infallible. There can be teachings in the Catechism for which there is little to no basis in Scripture or prior Church teachings; Pope Francis's teaching on the death penalty is one such instance of this. While this problem generally does not exist for doctrines regarding spiritual matters, which are protected by numerous checks and balances which can be entirely unknown to some of the Faithful, this problem does arise with matters concerning temporal reality.
The Holy Father does not cite past Church's teaching concerning the Death penalty because the Church's teaching on the death penalty is that it has been solidly consistent for over 2000 years:

Saint Augustine in City of God Book 1 Chapter 1:

The agent who executes the killing does not commit homicide; he is an instrument as is the sword with which he cuts. Therefore, it is in no way contrary to the commandment, 'Thou shalt not kill' to wage war at God's bidding, or for the representatives of public authority to put criminals to death, according to the law, that is, the will of the most just reason

Thomas Aquinas in Summea Theologiae:

It is permissible to kill a criminal if this is necessary for the welfare of the whole community. However, this right belongs only to the one entrusted with the care of the whole community -- just as a doctor may cut off an infected limb, since he has been entrusted with the care of the health of the whole body.

The Catechism of the Council of Trent, one of the most important documents from one of the most important Church councils in Catholic history states:

Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder. The end of the Commandment- is the preservation and security of human life. Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing outrage and violence. Hence these words of David: In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land, that I might cut off all the workers of iniquity from the city of the Lord.

The teaching from this Catechism was official Church teaching from 1566-1992.

In 1952 Pope Pius XII stated in an address to the First International Congress on the Histopathology of the Nervous System

When it is a question of the execution of a condemned man, the State does not dispose of the individual's right to life. In this case it is reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned person of the enjoyment of life in expiation of his crime when, by his crime, he has already disposed himself of his right to live

It is clear to say that the Church's present position on the death penalty has only recently changed and this change is not rooted in differences of Biblical doctrine, theology or anything regarding the Faith or the law of the Church. It must also be said that these changes have taken place gradually and with the intention of preserving human life with the hope of the salvation of the condemned individual.

"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...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."

- Pope John Paul II's 1992 Catechism Article 5 2267

The Catholic Church continued to allow the death penalty according to the Catechism of the Church. The position Pope Francis is taking is therefore completely different from all of Church history.

Pope Francis, in a letter addressing the President of the International Commission against the Death Penalty in 2015 stated as new teaching that:

For a constitutional State the death penalty represents a failure, because it obliges the State to kill in the name of justice [...] Justice is never reached by killing a human being. [...] The death penalty loses all legitimacy due to the defective selectivity of the criminal justice system and in the face of the possibility of judicial error. Human justice is imperfect, and the failure to recognize its fallibility can transform it into a source of injustice

Does this mean that Pope Francis's teaching on this matter is wrong? Does this mean that a faithful Catholic should abandon the Church when a Pope takes a position seemingly contrary to the tradition of the Faith? The decisive answer to this is "No" and such an answer would be the natural conclusion for those who understand the proper role of the Church.

This teaching on the death penalty is about human political structures and human justice systems, not Divine law, Church dogmas or articles of Faith. Having a difference with your Pope about matters of politics doesn't make one a bad Catholic. It is very much akin to having a difference of political opinion with your own Parish Priest. It's good you both have your unique perspectives, but the relationship between the clergy and the laity isn't about politics.

The relationship that exists between the Clergy and the Laity of the Church exists for the purpose of the execution of the mission of Jesus Christ to make disciples of all men, to set aside a portion of our lives, for clerics their entire life, to the salvation of the souls of our fellow man out of love and devotion to God.  Political differences are absolutely tolerated in the Catholic Church so long as it doesn't conflict with the Faith and it's mission. Politics was never something that was meant to divide those within the Church, this was the purpose of the Christian separation of Church and State.  

This was perhaps best explained by Cardinal Ratzinger in a memorandum sent one year prior to his election as Pope Benedict XVI:

if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia

What's also important to bear in mind is the massively reduced function the Catholic Church once served in society. It is not in the public consciousness that the Catholic Church used to enforce the moral law of society. In the separate power structures of Church and State, the Church had it's own court systems that dealt with moral and societal problems while the State dealt with laws which were concerning to the State.  Those in the Catholic Church who are deeply opposed to the death penalty should be quick to point out that the Church has always maintained the position of not applying the death penalty itself. The Church, whenever it convicted an individual of being guilty of a capital crime, would hand the convicted criminal over to the State authorities for execution. The Catholic Church itself has never issued the death penalty for those convicted by its courts. Catholic leaders, such as Bishops and Pope, executed capital criminals as temporal sovereigns, but they did not do so while acting as functionaries of the Church.

There being the potential for choice between two separate court systems in the High Middle Ages was an interesting benefit that the Faithful of the Age enjoyed, as generally Church courts offered lighter sentences, often being intense periods of prayer and fasting as a kind of spiritual probation which could be seen by modern eyes as an early form of rehabilitation. Today citizens of a country only have one choice in court systems and that system is generally more concerned with generating revenue for the State than seeking justice. For this reason alone many Catholics might be inclined to agree with the Holy Father on the basis that modern States can't be trusted with the power of life and death and thus in this time. Pope Francis frequently cited abuses of the death penalty by authoritarian and unjust regimes as a reason for his position on capital punishment. The restriction of the death penalty may be a prudent teaching at this point in our history given the level of persecution Christians face at this time in history.
In the times where these Church courts were maintained, the death penalty was often misused and over applied. The Catholic Church has always sought to reduce the amount of innocents killed by unjust States.  

There are significant and powerful arguments from some of the most important figures in the Catholic Church that speaks in support of the death penalty, about the necessity of capital punishment and the evil it contains, but nowhere in the wisdom of the Church will you find outright moral support for the killing of other human beings. That is important to remember when one defends the death penalty, it has always been seen as an unpleasant and sorrowful duty. It's just as important to remember that in opposing the death penalty comes the burden of creating definitive solutions to keeping the evil that the death penalty once guaranteed to keep at bay away from a society that leaves its capital criminals alive.

The Holy Father has some valid point regarding his teaching on the death penalty, but does that mean he should change the Catechism to establish his own personal teaching in it? The answer perhaps can be found in the division such an action brought to the Catholic faithful amidst a time of extreme lack of confidence in the convictions of it's leadership.  
Many Catholics are asking themselves if they can remain loyal to a Church which teaches political trends in its Catechism, by its Head and from its pulpits. To those Catholics it must be said: Faithful Catholics leaving the Catholic Church is not going to make it more Catholic. This is a conflict that the faithful must wrestle with because it will make the next generation of Faithful stronger to fight such politicization of the Church. Catechisms can be changed, but no one can erase the history of the Church and its teachings. The history of the Church's teachings is just as important as it's current leadership's. The Church does not exist only in the Present, the best of it exists in the Past through it's tradition and in the future by its youth.

But instead of these interesting and incredibly important questions within the Church, it's complex history and great minds, what has the secular media portrayed these changes as? The Pope's actions, like many of his actions, have been presented to us in the narrative of a sweeping, progressive change for the better by the Catholic Church in line with the zeitgeist of Liberal compassions. This is a tremendous falsehood. It is a falsehood because it requires the ignorance of all context from the Church's history to be true. It requires the misunderstanding of what the infallibility means in the Catholic Church and it requires that one believes that Tradition doesn't guide the Church. This portrayal by the secular media of the Pope's changes to the Catechism plays into historic misunderstandings of Catholics and the media profits from this misunderstanding as well as from the divisions such confusion sows. This is sensationalism, not journalism. I encourage all Catholics to look first to the tradition and wisdom of the Church before believing the opinions of those who do not understand the first thing about you, your history and your Faith.

Saint Peter - Anton Raphael Mengs, 1767


Augustine of Hippo. The City of God, 426

Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theogiae, 1485

Catechism of the Council of Trent, 1566

Pope Pius XII to the First International Congress on the Histopathology of the Nervous, 1952

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1992

Pope Francis. Letter of His Holiness Pope Francis to the President of the International Commission against the Death Penalty, 2015

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion General Principles, 2004