Pope Francis recites the Angelus noon prayer from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Sunday, June 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Francis kills the death penalty for Roman Catholicism

No longer does the Catholic Church allow for the possibility that the death penalty may be legitimately imposed. Under a revision of the Catechism approved by Pope Francis in May and issued Thursday by the Vatican's doctrinal office, it is now official church teaching that capital punishment is "inadmissible" in all circumstances and that the church "works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

This revision has not been welcomed in all American Catholic quarters. Indeed, tweeted EWTN's Raymond Arroyo, it has "triggered a lot of anger among Catholics on social media." As in this, from the Twitter feed of John Zmirak, author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism: "Is it ex cathedra? If not, who cares?"

Opposition to the death penalty, you understand, is one of those issues that appeals to politically correct (i.e. progressive, pro-Francis) Catholics. So even though it was strongly embraced through the conservative papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the politically incorrect have always emphasized the fact that the church provided exceptions. In contrast to abortion, they've liked to say, the church doesn't consider the death penalty to be "intrinsically evil."

But now, by their lights, capital punishment too should be considered intrinsically evil. Affirming that "the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes," the new Catechism language places the death penalty alongside abortion as a priority for the church's pro-life activities.

To be sure, Pope Francis did not pronounce this "ex cathedra," which is to say, as an infallible doctrine. Truth to tell, since the doctrine of papal infallibility was promulgated by Pius IX in 1870, only two doctrines are generally recognized as falling into ex cathedra territory: Mary's Immaculate Conception and her Assumption.

But that hasn't dissuaded the politically incorrect from acting as though other papal teachings are infallible. This year, for example, there's been a lot of writing to mark the 50th anniversary of "Humanae Vitae," the encyclical in which Paul VI, countermanding the recommendation of a special Vatican commission, upheld the church's traditional prohibition of contraception.

Responding to rumors that Francis may be contemplating a lifting of the prohibition, Lifesite News has insisted that the teaching cannot be changed. So do a bevy of scholars canvassed by the National Catholic Register. “Doctrine that has been definitively proclaimed cannot be changed either in the sense of denying or contradicting what has been taught, or by asserting what is incompatible with such truth," said one.

Last week, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houson, said in a statement on Humanae Vitae, "On this anniversary, I encourage all to read and prayerfully reflect upon this Encyclical, and be open to the gift of its timeless truths." We await a comparable statement on the death penalty.


  1. Thanks for clarifying the position about papal infallibaility. So if something isn’t “ex cathedra” that means it is just the opinion of this particular pope. How does someone determine if something is “ex-cathedra”? Does the pope have to say this is “ex-cathedra” or do something else so there will be no doubt and no arguments over what is and what isn’t?

  2. How does someone determine if something is “ex-cathedra”?

    It’s sort of like figuring out whether or not Trump’s tweets are official presidential statements. In both cases I think the answer is: it all depends….on whatever the person trying to make a case wants it to be.

  3. Designated infallible statements by the pope are almost never made. But the pope, together with the Vatican’s doctrinal office (the CDF), exercise what’s down as a magisterium–a teaching authority. They enunciate doctrine, as would a conference of the church’s bishops (like the Second Vatican Council). These are not mere opinions. They are authoritative teachings. Incidentally, the doctrine of the pope’s infallibility is not considered to have been promulgated infallibly.

  4. The actual Catholic teaching on the death penalty was briefly but thoroughly summarized by the late Avery Cardinal Dulles in a 2001 article in “First Things” entitled “Catholicism & Capital Punishment”:


    There are four reasons why the death penalty can be levied: rehabilitation, defense against the criminal, deterrence, and retribution (justice).

    The entry in the Catechism at 2267 dealt solely with “defense against the criminal”. But the entry immediately preceding it at 2266 explains retributive justice:

    “The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people’s rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people’s safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.”

    For example in the case of Timothy McVeigh the death penalty could still be levied not to defend against the criminal but to provide retributive justice – the punishment should fit the crime.

    The levying of the death penalty in any case lies with the civil authorities, not with the Church. The Church provides the definitive framework (teaching) within which the legitimate public authority ascertains facts and – considering those facts – makes a prudential judgment in the application of the teaching.

    The Church cannot substitute its prudential judgment for the civil authority’s, nor can it take upon itself the role that is properly that of the legitimate civil authority.

    That’s why in 2004 when the Catholic bishops were debating censuring pro-abortion politicians then head of the CDF Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger pointed out that Catholics could morally and without censure disagree with the advice in CCC 2267. The new version carries no more weight.

    So, the Catholic Church has no choice but to allow for the possibility that the death penalty may be legitimately imposed.

    The National Catholic Reporter incorrectly stated today that the Church had changed its teaching. On the other hand the BBC correctly reported that it had revised that entry in the Catechism.

  5. It’s actually fairly simple and easy.

    What clouds the issue is folks who want justify sodomy, abortion, and so on with too-clever arguments, folks like the late Richard McBrien or Charles Curran.

  6. As of today, the actual Catholic teaching is what is now in the Catechism. Roma locuta est, no?

  7. No.

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a compendium of teaching, discipline, and advice (e.g., 2267) with varying degrees of authority.

    Some (disciplines) are changeable.

    Others (ex cathedra and certain others) are unchangeable (e.g., the Resurrection).

    That why the Catechism of the Catholic Church is heavily footnoted so that the reader can find the source of the entry and thereby determine its authority.

    The advice in 2267 involves prudential judgment.

  8. Actually says the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, among others.

    That’s why then Joseph Cardinal Ratiznger in his letter to then Theodore Cardinal McCarrick in 2004 wrote:


    “Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”

    That abortion and euthanasia are intrinsically immoral is a teaching.

    That the death penalty should not be imposed is not.

  9. But that position, with respect to capital punishment, is precisely what’s been altered. It’s now not a question of being at odds with the Holy Father on the “application” of capital punishment but being at odds with the Holy Father on capital punishment per se.

  10. That position, which was not binding, under the new interpretation of the Holy Father is also not binding.

    The Holy Father is entitled to opinions, and to put them into the Catechism, but that does not raise them to a teaching, let alone to binding Catholics in conscience.

    The very same reason why St. John Paul II’s opinion/advice could not bind Catholics in conscience applies to this revision.

    Avery Cardinal Dulles, who agreed with St. John Paul II, agreed also that the existing teaching could not be changed.

    Until you read the 2001 article I cited, you have not familiarized yourself with the actual teaching of the Church.

    BBC correctly reported it: the Catechism was revised.

  11. The author is confused. He’s ignoring the distinction between the Extraordinary Magisterium of the Church i.e. dogmatic statements from Ecumenical Councils and Papal ex-cathedra pronouncements which are infallible, having been revealed by the Holy Spirit) and the teachings of the Ordinary Magisterium (which are indefectible, and thus infallible, if constantly taught by the Church and, where need be, confirmed by a pope to resolve doubt).

    The teachings on contraception, abortion, homosexuality and the male only priesthood are all infallible teachings as they have always been taught by the Church. The traditional teaching on capital punishment has always been viewed in this light b previous popes. One need not agree with capital punishment in this day and age, this is a prudential judgement, but the right of the state to have recourse to it is scripturally mandated.

    Arguments from the progress of ethical consciousness have been used to promote a number of alleged human rights that the Catholic Church consistently rejects in the name of Scripture and tradition. The magisterium appeals to these authorities as grounds for repudiating divorce, abortion, homosexual relations, and the ordination of women to the priesthood. If the Church feels herself bound by Scripture and tradition in these other areas, it seems inconsistent for Catholics to proclaim a “moral revolution” on the issue of capital punishment.


    Pope Francis appears to have crossed a line and introduced his personal opinion as doctrine. The question arises: will the Church under Francis now continue to consider herself bound by Scripture and tradition and hold to her position on other settled matters – divorce, contraception, abortion, homosexual relations, and the ordination of women to the priesthood?

  12. All dogmatic statements from an Ecumenical Council are infallible teachings of the Extraordinary Magisterium, revealed by the Holy Spirit. The infallibility of the Pope was dogmatically stated by Vatican I. Authoritative teachings of the Ordinary Magisterium, if universally held and constantly taught by the Church, are indefectible and therefore infallible, particularly if confirmed by a Pope as such – e.g. contraception and a male only priesthood.

  13. And Pope Francis’ “opinion” places him outside of the constant (and therefore indefectible) teaching of 2000 years of the Ordinary Magisterium. Doctrines do not always have to be stated dogmatically by the Extraordinary Magisterium (Councils and ex-cathedra statements) to be infallible.

    Pope Francis appears to have crossed a line.

  14. Unfortunately Pope Francis never seems to tire of demonstrating that he has a thin grasp of his role and his theological capacity.

    Fortunately for Catholics his role is very clearly defined, so for those familiar with it all of this hoopla is an annoyance rather than a scandal.

  15. Then it’s past the time when the Cardinals and Bishops defended the Church and her teachings.

  16. Exactly. Thanks for making the point. If a pronouncement agrees with a persons ideology than it is infallible (ex-cathedra). If a pronouncement doesn’t agree with a persons ideology than it is just the popes opinion!

  17. Hi, Jack! It’s been a while. Nice to cross paths with you again.

    I find this development truly interesting. I’m not insensitive to the fact that this it represents a shift from traditional Catholic teaching and, while I’m staunchly opposed to the death penalty, such a shift does make me uncomfortable. I don’t want to set a precedent for popes and bishops forming doctrine based on personal opinions and passions.

    Still, the Catechism’s case against capital punishment is sound, and supporting statements by popes John Paul, Benedict and Francis make it clear that the logic of moving away from the death penalty is consistent with traditional Catholic teaching on self defense.

    Society does evolve. We no longer own slaves, we no longer intentionally maim enemies and we understand that It is acceptable to kill only when it is the only means possible to protect the innocent. In situations where capital punishment is a possibility, that issue has already been resolved because the perpetrator has been apprehended. So, in practical terms, there is no need today for the death penalty.

    I’m forming no quick opinions on this, but I do recognize its import. This may be remembered as a watershed moment in the development of Catholic moral theology.

  18. Hi Chalkie Wombat.

    Jack is also opposed to capital punishment for the reasons given by Saint Pope John Paul. However, this does not mean capital punishment, in and of itself, is illegitimate, inadmissible (what does this mean?), or intrinsically evil.

    This isn’t about “traditional Catholic teaching” but about the infallibility and indefectibility of the Ordinary Magisterium. To declare capital punishment now to be “inadmissible” and “against the Gospel” on the basis of a “new understanding” of human dignity, is a step too far. Does it mean scripture, Christ and the great doctors, saints and popes of the Church are wrong?! That they didn’t understand the Gospel or the nature of man?

    With both usury and slave ownership there was a true development of teaching consistent with previous principles that reflected new social realties. This change by Francis breaches continuity with the principles of previous teaching and makes no attempt to address this. He can’t cite himself an authority! A pope can’t simply insert his personal opinion in the catechism and impose it on the faithful.

    In Jack’s view this is a dangerous time for the Church. Yes, a “watershed” moment; all crises are turning points. This could turn out to be Pope Francis’ “Waterloo”.

  19. Does historic teaching on capital punishment reflect the nature of man or the realities of the times? Even the Scripture writers and doctors of the Church were influenced by the cultural contexts in which they lived. They were brutal times in which the legitimacy of the death penalty was never challenged.

    I’m not convinced your distinction about slavery and usury doesn’t apply to capital punishment as well. It too could be said to be “a true development of teaching consistent with previous principles that reflected new social realities.” The argument that any human person, not matter how sinful, is redeemable is, to me, compelling.

    Still, I’ve yet formed no conclusions here. Moving on for now. Nice conversing with you again.

  20. The Catholic teaching on capital punishment stems primarily from the natural law, which provides for the rights and duty of the state (legitimate civil authority), the concept of justice (CCC 2266), and the reasons why ANY punishment can be levied.

    The argument that any human person, no matter how sinful, is redeemable actually supports the death penalty.

    One example would be Timothy McVeigh who accepted his punishment, confessed his sins to a priest (he was Catholic), and received the last rites prior to his execution.

    Another would be the “Good Thief” who acknowledged the justice of his punishment, accepted it thus expiating his punishment, and was assured by Jesus he would be with him in paradise.

  21. Not all loaning with interest was usury and not all that was called slavery was immoral.

    The same things that made either immoral are still with us and still immoral: exploitation, loan sharking, human trafficking, exploiting workers, and so on.

    The notion that the Church changed its teaching is a common one, but it is based on equivocations.

  22. More likely it will remembered as another faux paus in the papacy of Pope the Francis the Not Theologian.

  23. He is attempting to present his personal opinion – technically his prudential judgment – as a teaching.

    It is not.

    Because he lacks the theological chops of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, it is more obvious.

  24. The ‘plan’ is to keep telling us that he knows better than the Pope.
    On this matter, as on most others.

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