Francis rebuked his predecessors: “Let us take responsibility for the past and recognize that the imposition of the death penalty was dictated by a mentality more legalistic than Christian.”
In recent years, however, the Church has been steadily moving toward a rejection of the practice. In 1995, Pope John Paul II welcomed efforts to oppose the death penalty in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, affirming that “modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime … without definitively denying [criminals] the chance to reform.” Some local groups of bishops have prioritized this issue: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, for example, has frequently urged legislatures and governors to reject the procedure and put this issue at the center of its advocacy efforts.
But the Church never quite declared its full opposition to the death penalty. John Paul II wrote that cases in which the death penalty is an “absolute necessity” are “very rare, if not practically non-existent,” but allowed for those exceptions. Until this week, the Catechism had taught that “traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty” if it’s the only way to protect human lives.
Now Francis has moved to make the Church’s position on the death penalty absolute. “The death penalty is an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity,” he said last fall. He called for an official change to the Catechism, which was formalized this week.
A Cassandra cry against Pope Francis
For all of Francis’s moral resolution, changing Church teachings is a big step, and can be controversial. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican body that oversees Church teachings, justified the update based on “new” context: “increasing awareness” of the dignity of human beings, a “new understanding” of the consequences of state punishment, and the development of “more effective systems of detention” that still allow for the “possibility of redemption.” Because of this, the Church has concluded that the death penalty is “inadmissible.” The Church’s new position doesn’t actually contradict past teachings, they claimed; the context is what has changed.
In general, this posture toward change has been one of Francis’s legacies: He believes Church teachings should be updated to reflect contemporary moral understandings. As he said in his 2017 address on the death penalty, “The word of God cannot be mothballed like some old blanket in an attempt to keep insects at bay!”
This is a controversial position within an institution that has often declared itself a bulwark against the moral relativism of modern times. Even when Francis has clearly desired to change Church teachings on various subjects, he has framed these changes as continuous with past teachings, and has had to navigate dramatic internal Church politics along the way.
The new Catholic teaching on the death penalty underscores the Church’s commitment to the preservation of life. But it’s also a case study in how the Church can choose to change to meet the moral demands of modern times.