August 2, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – A certain degree of consternation has greeted the decision of Pope Francis to amend the section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that deals with the death penalty. It is widely assumed that the revised text is intended to exclude in principle recourse to the death penalty by the civil power. This would be alarming as the legitimacy of the death penalty in principle is the teaching of scripture, the unanimous doctrine of the fathers and the teaching of all of Pope Francis’s predecessors.
It is probably the case that the impression that this is indeed what Pope Francis has done, is, as they say, ‘past the point of correction.’ However, for what it’s worth, while this is a distressingly ambiguous text which will certainly tend to create an impression of rupture, it need not be read that way.
The new section cites three reasons for the inadmissibility of the death penalty “today”:
- “increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes”
- “a new understanding … of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the State”
- “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”
If the assertion here is merely that the death penalty, while legitimate in principle, is inadmissible in the concrete circumstances of 2018, and if the third consideration cited by the text — “the development of more efficacious detention systems that guarantee the due protection of citizens” — is being held up as necessary and sufficient by itself for the conclusion that in present circumstances the death penalty is illegitimate, then the assertion is not irreconcilable with the divinely revealed doctrine, definitively taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium, that the death penalty is admissible in principle. However, this would mean the assertion is merely a prudential judgment.
What do we mean by ‘a prudential judgment’? Some things are questions of right and wrong, true and false, but other questions are matters of expediency. Such questions of expedience are proper to the clergy (e.g. what topic to preach on today) while others are proper to the laity (e.g. should we use daylight saving time in this country). Vatican II teaches that “the effort to infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws, and structures of the community in which one lives, is so much the duty and responsibility of the laity that it can never be performed properly by others.” It is the task of the magisterium to lay out the principles of faith and morals and the task of the laity to conform the civil order to those principles and so to judge their application in various concrete circumstances. The judgment that we now possess “more efficacious detention systems that guarantee the due protection of citizens” is thus one that is “so much the duty and responsibility of the laity that it can never be performed properly by others.”
If, on the other hand, it is being asserted that “an increasing awareness [of] the dignity of the person” and “a new understanding … of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state” have caused ‘the Church’ to teach the inadmissibility of the death penalty in principle, then this assertion is contrary to the dogmatic teaching of the ordinary and universal magisterium and the defined doctrine of Vatican I that it can never be the case that given the advancement of knowledge, a sense may be assigned to the dogmas propounded by the Church which is different from that which the Church has understood and understands.
It should also be pointed out (as Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette do in their recent study “By Man Shall His Blood be Shed”) that the reason God gives for the death penalty in Genesis is precisely human dignity: “Whosoever shall shed man’s blood, his blood shall be shed: for man was made to the image of God” (Genesis 9:6).
For these reasons, i.e. the fact that such prudential judgment is proper to the laity; the moral certitude that this passage will be understood as overthrowing definitive teaching (whatever the intention in this case); and the difficulty (though not impossibility) of reconciling this text with the dogma that the death penalty is legitimate in principle and with the defined doctrine that “the progress of knowledge” may never alter the sense of such a dogma, one cannot help feeling that this new section of the Catechism is deeply unfortunate.
Dr. Alan Fimister is Assistant Professor of Theology at St John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado and the Director of the Dialogos Institute. He is the author of “Robert Schuman: Neo-Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe” and specializes in Church History and Catholic Political Philosophy.