In August, Pope Francis revised Catechism teachings on the death penalty, calling it “inadmissible.” The action was praised by many Catholics, while others expressed their displeasure. Questions have since arisen from both Catholics and non-Catholics. Is Pope Francis right to make the change? Is the death penalty biblical? Was the previous Catholic teaching on it infallible? IS POPE FRANCIS THE ANTICHRIST?!
The only obvious answer here is that Pope Francis is not the antichrist. The other questions require deep, theological analysis— which this piece aims to simplify. Let’s start with the Bible.
In the Old Testament, the death penalty is prescribed to the Israelites through Moses in numerous cases. However, this does not mean the death penalty is acceptable today. As E. Christian Brugger notes in Public Discourse, “Permissibility under the conditions of special divine command does not translate into permissibility outside that context.”
God permitted biblical figures to lead in ways we would consider strange and even immoral today, such as the instruction to kill women and children. (1 Samuel 15:2-3) Other Old Testament references to the death penalty fall under what St. Thomas Aquinas calls the “judicial” precept of the texts that were fulfilled by Jesus. The same goes for Genesis 9:6, perhaps the most commonly cited verse in favor of the death penalty: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” Rarely does anyone ever mention that this verse is in regards to God’s covenant with Noah, which again, is not to be applied outside of its specific context.
Rather than following the ceremonial precepts of the Old Testament, Catholics follow its authors’ moral teachings asserted by the Holy Spirit (read more on this in Vatican II).
Regarding the New Testament, Christian advocates of capital punishment cite Romans 13, where Paul writes, “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain.”
In this chapter, Paul writes of state authority in relation to God. Some say the reference to the sword is a reference to the death penalty, which is an argument to make, but far from a certain one.
While Paul has an undeniable personal support for capital punishment, there is still no clear moral authority from the Holy Spirit in regards to the death penalty. This then leads to the revision of Catechism teachings by Pope Francis, which critics claim is a sudden, heretical act.
Despite these claims, the change isn’t even sudden. Francis is simply furthering the teachings of his two previous successors, Pope Saint John Paul II and His Holiness Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus.
John Paul II, in his encyclical Evangelium vitae, wrote that cases when execution is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent,” which was quoted in the previous Catechism teaching on the death penalty. In 2011, Benedict XVI, as pope, vowed to “encourage the political and legislative initiatives being promoted in a growing number of countries to eliminate the death penalty.”
Francis isn’t all that radical now, is he?
But to critics of Francis’ decision, the issue is that Francis enforced these ideas, which wrongfully overrules infallible teachings. However, when observing the qualifications of an infallible teaching, it is clear this is untrue. For a teaching to be infallible, it must be preserved and agreed upon by the bishops and pope— then to be taught authentically and definitively. Historically, capital punishment has rarely ever been taught by bishops, and only once ever taught definitively by a pope (Pope Innocent I, Epistle VI, to Exsuperius; PL, vol. 20).
To suggest the previous Catholic teaching on the death penalty was infallible even in light of John Paul II’s criticisms is absurd; unless, of course, one was to go as far as calling the marveled saint himself a heretic.
Francis has every right to revise Catechism teachings — and his argument is spot on.
“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,” the new teaching reads.
Long gone are the days when the death penalty was the only legitimate option to ensure the safety of society — and long gone is the idea that capital punishment undoubtedly deters crime, as numerous studies show otherwise, with U.S. states serving as a textbook example of its failure to achieve its intended goal, ineffectiveness in use, and inefficiency in targeting guilty subjects.
With criminals now being effectively contained in prisons, there is no need for death. Rather than being lead by the state into an execution room, sinners can be lead by the Church into the kingdom of heaven through redemption.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.