The new Catechism text on the death penalty

While I have not blogged in a long time, I have been reading and thinking.  I never did finish my series on the death penalty, because I reached a point where I needed to complete my own ethical philosophical formation.  But in light of the recent news that Pope Francis updated the Catechism to oppose the death penalty more clearly, I thought I should toss up a few comments.

Apparent continuity

First of all, there is some reason to think that Pope Francis did not choose to teach that the death penalty is wrong in every situation.  Granted that the closing line of the new Catechism text reads that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” the reasons given for this teaching include the development of more effective prison systems.  This suggests that Pope Francis’s teaching is a mixed doctrine that takes into account both eternal truths and their application to the concrete situation of our times.

The CDF’s letter to bishops about the change suggests the same thing.  A sentence that repeats the reasons for opposition to the death penalty—including the improved detention systems—begins this way:  “If, in fact, the political and social situation of the past made the death penalty an acceptable means for the protection of the common good, today….”  That seems explicitly to leave open the idea that the death penalty was acceptable in times past, that is, in different circumstances.

Again, the CDF’s letter quotes Pope Francis as saying that “today capital punishment is unacceptable, however serious the condemned’s crime may have been” (emphasis mine).

There is nothing strange in the idea that the same externally visible deed can be two different kinds of moral action depending on circumstances.  Something that might be entirely called for in one situation might be entirely out of line in another.  And, as Pope Francis seems to say, what is not an attack on the dignity of the person in one situation might in fact be an attack on the dignity of the person in another.  So whether or not one agrees with the Pope’s judgment here, it is not a strange kind of ethical reasoning.

Apparent discontinuity

However, the CDF’s letter hints at something odd a few lines later.  Recounting how Evangelium vitae is cited in the editio typica of the Catechism, the letter says:

In it, the death penalty is not presented as a proportionate penalty for the gravity of the crime, but it can be justified if it is “the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor,” even if in reality “cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender today are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

This does not say but suggests that the death penalty was never proportionate to the crime, but was justified by the state’s practical need to defend itself.  In other words, there were in the past criminals who did not deserve to die but whose execution was justified because their death was needed for the common good.  This is a disturbing way to reason:  if the punishment was not proportionate to the crime, then it was an unjust punishment.  No further good intention or practical aim can change that.  Even in self-defense, one is not supposed to intend the death of the aggressor.

Since I cannot believe that the CDF intended to say that the state can punish beyond guilt levels if it is expedient to do so, I am left thinking that Ladaria (the letter’s author) in fact thinks that the death penalty is inherently wrong but does not want to badmouth past Catholics (including popes) who inflicted the death penalty.

All these points and one more emerge when we put the three points made in explaining the Church’s past teaching in parallel with the three reasons given for the Church’s present teaching:

Past TeachingsPresent Teaching
These teachings, in fact, can be explained in the light of the primary responsibility of the public authority to protect the common good …the increasing understanding that the dignity of a person is not lost even after committing the most serious crimes,
in a social context in which the penal sanctions were understood differently,the deepened understanding of the significance of penal sanctions applied by the State,
and had developed in an environment in which it was more difficult to guarantee that the criminal could not repeat his crime.and the development of more efficacious detention systems that guarantee the due protection of citizens have given rise to a new awareness that recognizes the inadmissibility of the death penalty

First, the fact that a person does not lose his dignity even after committing crimes is counterbalanced by the public authority’s responsibility for protecting the common good—this is the troublesome use of practical expediency to excuse inherently unjust punishment.  Third, the growth of more efficacious detention systems is set over against the past situation in which it was more difficult to keep criminals from repeating their crimes.

Between these, as a second point, a “deepened understanding” of the purpose of government-imposed penalties is set over against “a social context in which the penal sanctions were understood differently.”  In paragraph 7, the letter describes this “new understanding of penal sanctions applied by the Modern State,” saying that such sanctions “should be oriented above all to the rehabilitation and social reintegration of the criminal.”  In other words, our new understanding of penal sanctions downplays the establishment of justice and emphasizes instead the curing of the criminal.

As readers of this blog know, the medieval understanding of state-imposed sanctions included the goal of curing the criminal, and according to St. Thomas one simply could not inflict a punishment that was not aimed at preventing further evils.  At the same time, they thought that a punishment had to serve justice:  one could not punish someone who did not deserve punishment, even if the punishment would have a wonderful medicinal effect on his character and behavior.  The CDF’s letter seems to claim that the goal of serving justice was more emphasized in the past than the goal of preventing further evils (which includes curing the sinner), and it seems to say that this emphasis was wrong.  Presumably, the claim that there was a wrong emphasis in the Church’s past understanding implies that there were also at least sometimes wrong actions that were in line with the Church’s teaching at the time.

The central thread appears to be the role of justice in punishment.  At one point, the CDF’s letter seems to imply that a punishment need not be just so long as it brings about other goods.  And at another point, the letter seems to say that a proper understanding of the purposes of punishment will not emphasize justice.

Concluding thoughts

In my reading, I find that both proponents and opponents of the death penalty find it difficult to give a coherent moral account of any punishment at all.  This bi-lateral confusion about punishment itself tends to vitiate their conversations about death-as-punishment.

Summary: Pope Francis’s teaching does not seem necessarily to contradict past teaching, although the arguments given to support it may contradict the traditional understanding of moral reasoning at some points.  The key issue is the role of justice in punishment: whether it must be present and, when present, whether it can be emphasized.

[Reminder: According to the usual understanding, magisterial authority inheres primarily in a teaching rather than in the arguments given to support the teaching. So questioning the arguments in support of a papal teaching does not get us into elaborate conversations about submission to the magisterium.]

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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Domink Dubravec
Domink Dubravec
5 years ago

I just want to ask about the point of Francis applying the eternal truths to our concrete realities. I do find it hard to believe that Pope Francis did not take into account that not all societies in the world have the means to effectively detain people without endangering not just the common good of justice but also the safety of the community. And I think it is safe to assume that since he is speaking with the CDF and the Catechism, he knows his audience is not just industrialized countries that have the means to detain people without putting… Read more »

Owen Sweeney
Owen Sweeney
5 years ago

But not even industrialized countries have the means to detain people without putting the safety of the community at risk. Here in the U.S. prisons are overcrowded, and the judicial system regularly releases dangerous criminals back out onto the streets to commit more crimes. But let’s say, for the sake of the argument, that governments could effectively detain criminals with a view toward their rehabilitation. Well, the environment inside most modern prisons is depraved and inhumane (pornography, drug abuse, assault, rape, murder, et al.), hardly the environment to foster rehabilitation, never mind repentance and spiritual conversion. These two ideas appear… Read more »