Pope Francis and the Death Penalty: Has the Church's Teaching Changed?

By Andrew M. Haines
August 3, 2018

The Catholic faith is the great synthesizer. The champion of a "both/and" that brings harmony and fidelity out of seeming tension and change. God is fully human and fully divine; the Sacraments are divine life mediated through ordinary matter; the Church is a divine institution with human organs and persons; He who knew no sin became sin for our sake.

This paradoxical nature of the faith is concretized in our day by Pope Francis, who so often expresses it in ways that make westerners scratch their heads. The pope's latest move—a redaction to the Catechism on the morality of the death penalty—is just such a case. Many will ask (rightly): Is capital punishment no longer permitted? Didn't Francis change the Church's teaching on the death penalty?

It's not comfortable to have to answer these questions. But we can. In fact, they're part and parcel of claiming a faith that's open to the fullness of truth.

Practical change, but theological continuity

Historically, the death penalty was a practical necessity for the common good and was defended as such theologically. Nevertheless, Saint John Paul II called emphatically for its practical elimination in the encyclical letter Evangelium vitae. Pope Benedict XVI, in his turn, called for worldwide abolition of the death penalty in his social encyclical Caritas in veritate. Pope Francis advances the same impetus as his predecessors. He calls the death penalty "inadmissible" based on the practical circumstances of our day. The Catechism cites "an increasing awareness" about the dignity of human life, "new understanding" about "the significance of penal sanctions," and "more effective systems of detention."

This appears, however, to present a theological discontinuity. In 2005, Pope Benedict (the author of the Catechism) addressed the Roman Curia on the topic of a "hermeneutic of reform." He stated that in the development of doctrine there are simultaneously elements of continuity and discontinuity. The essential foundation and substance of the faith perdures (continuity) while the circumstances, understanding of the faith, and application of the faith in concrete historical moments change (discontinuity).

Man finds dignity in the image of God

By this sense, it becomes clear that Pope Francis is drawing from the same deep roots of the Church's theological tradition, which emphasizes the axiom creatio in imago Dei. The deepest source of our dignity as human beings is that we are created in the image of God. This truth is explicitly found in the first pages of Sacred Scripture, and is constant in the early patristic witnesses to the faith. Most definitively, it is confirmed in the dogma by which we believe and know that Jesus shed His most precious blood for every human person who has ever existed. This is the foundation of human dignity par excellence.

On the face of things, Francis's teaching on capital punishment represents a discontinuity in the life of the Church. But it's one that highlights a deeper continuity with the sources of our faith by means of a radical reaffirmation of man's dignity as created in God's image and as redeemed by the inestimable merit and value of Christ's blood shed on the Cross.

So, did Pope Francis change the Church's teaching? Well, yes and no.

Andrew M. Haines is editor and founder of Ethika Politika, and co-founder and chief operating officer at Fiat Insight.