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”,  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.