Interpreting the Catechism change on the death penalty from Tradition

Pope Francis’ change of n. 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on death penalty has already sparked controversy among Catholics with regards to its interpretation. Some are praising the change because they say it reinforces the Church’s view of the dignity of the human person and others are calling it “heresy” because they say it contradicts the Church’s traditional teaching on the topic.

Yet, it can be interpreted in two ways: in continuity or discontinuity with the Church’s teaching. In a way, the old version of this paragraph already contained what the new version says, except that the focus is different (whether the change was necessary is a different question). The wording, however, is what is tripping people, as it can certainly be interpreted in discontinuity with Tradition.

To interpret the passage in continuity with Tradition, we must read n. 2267 of the CCC in the context of all its paragraphs.

Comparing both statements

The original n. 2267 of the 1992 Catechism read:

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.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

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.” (John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56. 69 Cf. Gen 4:10.)

The new n. 2267 approved by Pope Francis reads:

Recourse to the death penalty on the part of authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common legitimate good. 

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, 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. 

Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”, [1] and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.

Analyzing and presenting the problem

The 1992 version states that the traditional teaching of the Church has always accepted the recourse to death penalty only when it is “the only possible way” of defending the members of society against the aggressor.

In other words, the Church has always seen this measure as an “extreme” solution (as the new version states) when the authority doesn’t have the means to contain the aggressor from hurting the members of society. Thus, authority should not recur to the death penalty if the society can be protected from the aggressor through other means, such as imprisonment. This would protect the aggressor’s human dignity and give him “the possibility of redeeming himself.”

The 1992 version also says that in our time, the cases of death penalty “as an absolutely necessary means ‘are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.’” It includes this part to emphasize that the truth of the Church’s teaching transcends time, while clarifying that, in our time, such measure seems to be no longer necessary.

This is where the blurriness begins regarding the new version, which, in the last paragraph, contains the phrase, “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

The Church has never said that the death penalty is bad in and of itself, and many think Francis is changing this very point.

Interpreting from Tradition

We must make a distinction between principle and practice to interpret the new version correctly: The fact that the death penalty may no longer be a necessary measure in today’s world does not mean that it is bad in principle – that it never was or never will be a necessary measure.

In other words, there is a difference between saying it is “inadmissible” in today’s world – due to the technological and security advances of the states and authorities – and saying that it is “inadmissible” in and of itself.

If the new revision claims the latter – that it’s inadmissible in and of itself – then there is a clear discontinuity with Church Tradition. If it says the former, and simply emphasizes it more, there is a continuity.

Thus, authority should not recur to the death penalty if the society can be protected from the aggressor through other means, such as imprisonment. This would protect the aggressor’s human dignity and give him “the possibility of redeeming himself.”

The big debate is: What does the new n. 2267 of the CCC actually say?

The problem is that the revision can be interpreted both ways. If we consider Pope Francis’ statement – “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” – in isolation, then it sounds a lot like he’s changing Church teaching because he seems to be saying that the death penalty is bad in and of itself.

Nonetheless, if the statement is seen in the light of the previous two paragraphs, it can be interpreted as saying that although the death penalty is a legitimate means of defense in extreme cases and in principle, such action would violate the aggressor’s dignity in today’s context because authorities now have the means to keep the aggressor from presenting a danger to society.

The saving word that supports this second interpretation, and thus a continuity with Church teaching, is the “Consequently” of the last paragraph, which states that the “controversial” citation that follows is said in light of the reasons presented in today’s context.

Deeper debates: Isn’t killing bad in principle?

Aside from the discussion regarding the wording of the updated number of the Catechism, a deeper debate has taken place among Catholics for years that touches this topic very closely — mainly, the questions of whether killing is ever justified, regardless of whether the target is innocent or guilty.

Many Christians would say that taking a life is bad in principle and thus, actions such as war or the death penalty are bad in principle – they violate the Gospel teachings.

But the Church does not understand a just death penalty as an act of killing, but as an act of self-defense, that may result in a death.

The CCC states that “no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being” (2258). It even says: “Christ asks his disciples to tun the other check, to love their enemies.” (2262).

But it adds that the “legitimate self-defense of persons or societies is not an exception to this prohibition [of killing].” Rather, it should be interpreted as an act meant to protect one’s life that can have further consequences:

although the death penalty is a legitimate means of defense in extreme cases and in principle, such action would violate the aggressor’s dignity in today’s context because authorities now have the means to keep the aggressor from presenting a danger to society.”

Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore, it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow. (CCC 2264)

This right turns into “a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others”: “The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility” (CCC 2265).

Interpreting Pope Francis’ citation (“the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”) alone – as if it the death penalty was bad in and of itself – would then imply that if a death came about because of self-defense, the person defending himself would be culpable, which contradicts the Church’s teaching and natural law.

COMING UP: Meeting Christ in the Mass and sacraments

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As Catholics, we recognize Jesus’ Eucharistic presence to be the source and summit of our faith. Nonetheless, we can take His presence at Mass and in the tabernacle for granted. We pray through our liturgical rituals, but our words and gestures can lack meaning when we simply go through the motions. When we use the beautiful ritual of the Mass and sacraments to guide our prayer, however, they can lead us into a deeper encounter with Christ.

Two recent books can help us to understand the Mass and sacraments better and to approach them with fresh eyes: Christopher Carstens’ A Devotional Journey into the Mass: How the Mass Can Become a Time of Grace, Nourishment, and Devotion (Sophia, 2017) and Msgr. Nicola Bux’s No Trifling Matter: Taking the Sacraments Seriously Again (Angelico, 2018).

Carstens takes us on a “devotional journey into the Mass” to approach it in “a more profoundly spiritual way” (29).   He writes with a broad sacramental vision which embraces not only the Mass but also the symbols surrounding it. A great example of this comes from the first chapter, “how to enter a church building,” which reflects upon how to approach the physical building of the church itself. “So the door to the parish church, which stands before us now — is no ordinary entrance. It appears different because it is different: it is a mark of God’s house and a sign protecting those within, as at that first Passover. It is an entrance into the Great King’s city and His Temple . . . where we touch God, as in Jerusalem” (13-14). Carstens uses a “sacramental principle” to help us recognize “how God communicates with us through sensible signs” (9).

This devotional journey takes the reader through the stages of the Mass to perceive the deeper reality that we access through faith. In order to reap the fruit that God wants to give us at Mass, Carstens teaches us that “proper disposition . . . is paramount” (88). Through all of the outward actions, signs, and rituals, God aims at “something deeper:  . . . the heart of man. . . . the undivided love of man” (60; 61). For this reason, in the need for intimacy with God, “silence is an essential ingredient for both individual and corporate prayer” (35). The participation and prayers we offer at Mass should foster our relationship with God. The “conversation should take the form of prayer — a prayer of surrender” (92). Taking a devotional journey through the Mass, with Carstens’ help, should prepare us to enter into this conversation of surrender more fully each week.

Msgr. Bux, an Italian priest and professor, takes us deeper into the sometimes-forgotten history, theology, and liturgy surrounding the Mass and the sacraments. He walks us through each of the sacraments, building upon the teachings of the saints (especially St. Ambrose and Padre Pio), but also the difficulty of experiencing the spiritual reality of the sacraments in the modern world. He also leads us deeper into the Mass, “the greatest and most complete act of adoration,” noting the “interdependence between the Eucharist and the other sacraments: . . . they flow forth from the Eucharist and flow together into it as to their source” (86). The centrality of the Eucharist comes from the fact that through it we enter the heart of God.

The other sacraments reinforce this contact, as “we touch Christ” through them. This entry into the divine life begins at baptism and deepens in confirmation. Bux supports restored order confirmation, speaking of the need for strengthening and equipping for battle at an earlier age, rather than giving into the flight that usually occurs after it is received in the teenage years. When it comes to confession, Bux speaks of how “Christ pardons everyone who recognizes himself to be a sinner,” though the sacrament aims at “sincere, overwhelming interior repentance that brings the soul to be reconciled with the Creator” (103; 104). He also speaks beautifully of how through the sacrament of marriage, “spouses participate in the power of [Christ’s] love” in their love for each other. “Their love, responsible fecundity, and humility, their attitude of mutual service and their mutual fidelity, are signs of Christ’s love, present in them and in the Church” (166).

Both authors teach how to appreciate and enter into the Mass and sacraments more fruitfully, so that, in Bux’s words, we can experience “a prolongation of the liturgical life of the Church” in our own lives (196).