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Francis kills the death penalty for Roman Catholicism

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)

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.

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

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