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Los Angeles auxiliary bishop Robert Barron chaired the revision of the U.S. Bishops’ teaching on the death penalty in Baltimore, Md., June 2019.Lisa Bourne / LifeSiteNews

BALTIMORE, Maryland, June 21, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – The U.S. Bishops, following Pope Francis’ lead, voted last week to change what the U.S. Church teaches about the death penalty. They made the move despite an admission from the prelate presenting the revision to the bishops that he doesn't know what the pope actually means by calling the death penalty “inadmissible.” That bishop defended the Pope's language as “eloquent ambiguity.”

Adhering to Pope Francis’ declaration last August that the death penalty is “inadmissible,” the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops approved a revision to its U.S. Catechism for Adults last Thursday at its spring General Assembly in Baltimore, creating a quandary for Catholics in regard to adherence to Church teaching.

The bishops voted 194 to 8 to revise their position on the issue, with three bishops abstaining. In contrast to almost all matters to come before the bishops, the item passed without need for discussion. The revision needed a two-thirds vote from the Conference and must also receive the Vatican’s approval, or “recognitio.”

The decision to take Pope Francis’ lead toward a full ban on the death penalty is a move away from Church teaching established over two millennia. 

While the proposed revision was presented at the US Bishops’ meeting as being in alignment with prior teaching, it further demonstrated the confusion put forth in the Francis pontificate.

The US Bishops’ revision pulls directly from Francis’ recent change to the 1992 Catechism promulgated by Pope St. John Paul II.

Francis’ decree released last August says Catholic teaching is now that the death penalty is “inadmissible,” and that the Church “works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

The controversial declaration has stirred much debate for its contradiction of the established body of prior Church teaching, for questions surrounding the term “inadmissible,” and for Francis’ apparent undercutting of some of his predecessors – and thus the Chair of Peter.

Francis had said in the months following the date of the decree that that in using the death penalty popes “in past centuries” ignored “the primacy of mercy over justice.”

The U.S. Bishops’ U.S. Catechism for Adults had previously quoted from the JPII Catechism prior to Francis’ “reformulation” of the death penalty portion of it. 

The USCCB change replicating Francis’ declaration is not set to go into effect until after the changes to the JPII, or universal, Catechism have been approved.

Evangelization and Catechesis

The revision of the US Bishops’ teaching on the death penalty was processed through the Conference’s Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis, chaired by Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron.

LifeSiteNews inquired with Barron after the vote via his USCCB office and with the Los Angeles archdiocese’s media office, asking how the change reconciles with the body of prior Church doctrine on the death penalty, which holds the death penalty is acceptable and just in some instances, and that it can also possibly foster repentance in the accused.

LifeSite asked as well that whether the development of doctrine as described in the USCCB revision poses a risk of undercutting the validity of Church doctrine across the board, and thus diminish the Church’s moral standing, and if Catholics can support use of the death penalty in instances that meet the standards held in Church teaching prior to the USCCB vote.

LifeSiteNews did not hear back from the bishop.

Learn more about Bishop Barron’s views and past actions by visiting Click here.

Context, justification and continuity

“The goal of the proposed revision is to keep our treatment of the death penalty in the U.S. Catechism for Adults in alignment with the revised (by Francis) universal Catechism,” Barron had told the Bishops when presenting the issue for initial consideration on the Assembly’s first day. “This proposed revision quotes extensively, as you know, from Pope Francis’ new paragraph 2267.”

The USCCB revision emphasizes along with Francis the irreducible dignity of all people even when they are accused of terrible crimes, he said, along with the practical “non-necessity” of capital punishment in modern times and the danger of its misapplication.

Barron then told the bishops this was not the time to debate the death penalty, that the revision text provided “context and justification” for the change, and that the change in fact “emphasizes the continuity of our teaching.”

“I think it’s important to note that we’re not debating here the change to the universal catechism in itself,” Barron said, “this really is not the occasion to debate the issue of capital punishment as it’s been formulated. But rather the issue is, is this proposal an adequate reflection of what we find in the most recent revisions.” 

“So the proposed draft provides, I think, a context and justification for the development of this teaching on the dignity of the human person, but also emphasizes the continuity of our teaching,” Barron said, “by citing John Paul II’s encyclical The Gospel of Life as well as previous statements of our own Bishops’ Conference.”

While the USCCB death penalty revision cites John Paul II in its justification and to claim continuity, other documents from the late pontiff, including both versions of his Catechism, uphold that the death penalty as consistent with the Gospel.

Expressive vagueness

Asked in the Q&A session of his presentation on revision to elaborate on the term “inadmissible,” Barron steered clear of explaining what the pope meant by it, in favor of a curious admission of the pope’s ambiguity, and diverted to the emphasis of his committee having been on imitating the pope’s decree.

“To my mind, the pope maintains and our version imitates a certain, if you want, eloquent ambiguity on that point,” Barron said.

“Where it doesn’t use the language of intrinsic evil for example,” he continued. “But it uses language like that, inadmissible, morally unacceptable, etc.” 

“So we’re just trying to imitate as much as we can what’s found in the way the pope revised this teaching,” said Barron. “But I wouldn’t dare speak to what the mind on the pope on that is, but that’s just my assessment of why that language is used. We just tried for the most part to imitate it.”

The new language on the death penalty does not explicitly state that the death penalty is intrinsically contrary to the Gospel.

However, similar to the pope’s problematic exhortation Amoris Laetitia – which does not explicitly state that it’s permissible to allow Holy Communion for Catholics living in objectively sinful situations, but has produced precisely that result due to the document’s ambiguity – complete prohibition of capital punishment is the implication of the revision. 

And further, the pope has moved closer toward calling death penalty intrinsically evil in remarks since releasing his decree last August. 

Implications for Catholics

The revision to the USCCB catechism throws into question whether U.S. Catholics can support the death penalty, with practical considerations beyond the concept of simply taking a stance. 

One question that arises is whether a Catholic can serve jury duty in a case involving the death penalty and the specter of having to desist from civic duty in that instance. 

The position of working toward an all-out prohibition of the death penalty raises the issue of notably diminished safety for corrections workers, Catholic and not, whose job entails controlling serious offending populations, by removing the death penalty as deterrent against committing violence corrections staff.

An additional question of concern is the fact that life in prison has always been the standard alternative presented in arguments against capital punishment – yet Francis has argued against life imprisonment as well.

The death penalty is in principle consistent with both natural law and the Gospel

Prominent Catholic philosopher Edward Feser, associate professor of Philosophy at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California, wrote in the Catholic Herald of Francis’ new death penalty language that, “this apparent rupture with Scripture and tradition damages the credibility of the Church and the papacy.” 

“The Church has always taught, clearly and consistently, that the death penalty is in principle consistent with both natural law and the Gospel,” Feser said at First Things.

The new wording appears logically to imply that Scripture, the Church’s previous catechisms, and previous popes including St John Paul II all led the faithful into grave moral error, Feser had said, that it “appears to reject traditional teaching about the purposes of punishment,” and that the assertions behind the revision were “dubious at best.”

A number of renowned theological minds in Church history have weighed in on the legitimacy of capital punishment.

The Catholic Church’s foremost intellect, St. Thomas Aquinas, gave two chief purposes for the use of capital punishment. 

First, an argument regarding the common good of a social community (Summa Theologiae, II, II, q. 64, art. 2):

“Now every individual person is related to the entire society as a part to the whole. Therefore if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and healthful that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since ‘a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump’ (1 Cor. 5:6).”

And second, an arugment based on the good of the offender (Summa contra gentiles, Book III, chapter 146).

“They…have at that critical point of death the opportunity to be converted to God through repentance. And if they are so obstinate that even at the point of death their heart does not draw back from malice, it is possible to make a quite probable judgment that they would never come away from evil.”

Feser details the other popes and thinkers in Church history on the teaching in both of his Catholic Herald and First Things columns.

Benedict XVI: Catholics may be at odds with the pope on the death penalty

Pope Benedict XVI, as prefect of the Congregation for the Faith (CDF), in the 2004 CDF document, “Worthiness to Receive Communion,” said there could be a legitimate diversity of opinion among Catholics about applying the death penalty.

“If a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment,” Ratzinger wrote, “… he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion.” 

He said further, “While the Church exhorts civil authorities … to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible … to have recourse to capital punishment.”