Earlier this week, the Vatican announced a revision to section 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). This particular section deals with the Church’s position on capital punishment, and is situated in the part of the CCC dealing with the Fifth Commandment, “Thou shall not kill.”
The previous section 2267 reads as follows, including contextual/framing sections 2263-2266:
2263 The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. “The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor…. the one is intended, the other is not.”65
2264 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:
If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful…. Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s.
2265 Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another’s life. Preserving the common good requires rendering the unjust aggressor unable to inflict harm. To this end, those holding legitimate authority have the right to repel by armed force aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their charge.66
2266 The State’s effort to contain the spread of behaviors injurious to human rights and the fundamental rules of civil coexistence corresponds to the requirement of watching over the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime. the primary scope of the penalty is to redress the disorder caused by the offense. When his punishment is voluntarily accepted by the offender, it takes on the value of expiation. Moreover, punishment, in addition to preserving public order and the safety of persons, has a medicinal scope: as far as possible it should contribute to the correction of the offender.67
2267 The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.
“If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
“Today, in fact, given the means at the State’s disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender ‘today … are very rare, if not practically non-existent.'[John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56.]
65 St. Thomas Aquinas, STh II-II, 64, 7, corp. art.
66 St. Thomas Aquinas, STh II-II, 64, 7, corp. art.
67 Cf. ⇒ Lk 23:40-43
Per the Vatican Press Release, 2267 now reads:
The death penalty
2267. Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate 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 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.
 FRANCIS, Address to Participants in the Meeting organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, 11 October 2017: L’Osservatore Romano, 13 October 2017, 5.
To sum up the line of development of the thought extending pretty far back, most prominently from St. John Paul II, the argument goes that as we see more and more often that the judicial system doesn’t get the right person and as judicial penalties seem to be more effective at keeping the public safe, the death penalty is seen as less likely to be commensurate to punish the crime. St. JPII called cases where capital punishment would be appropriate “practically non-existent” (see above). Pope Benedict XVI sought an end to the death penalty in some of his speeches and writings. Pope Francis has declared capital punishment “inadmissible” because it is an attack on the inviolability of the human person and an assault against human dignity, incorporating this line of reasoning into the CCC. So, contrary to media reports that imply Pope Francis upended centuries of Church teaching, he really only advanced a more pointed stance on the death penalty, moving it from “exceedingly rare” to “inadmissible” for consideration as a method of judicial punishment.
My main issue with this change is that it takes out the line from St. JPII’s Evangelium vitae and replaces it with Pope Francis’ phrasing during an address. This actually weakens the case for the death penalty to be “inadmissible” because it seems to unmoor the argument from the line of theological reasoning that stretches back and was captured in the previous section 2267. Rather than a complete rewrite, taking out all of the previous language, they could have kept some of it in, most importantly the Evangelium vitae line, then added the citation from Pope Francis. That would have helped prevent some of the articles that argue this is a break from previous teaching. Probably not prevented all of them, but at least made it harder to make that argument.
My second issue is that I get very nervous when the Church wades into judicial issues. It tends to go poorly for the Church (see Medieval Clerical Courts, fights for jurisdiction over and Inquisition, The). What this does is seems to remove from moral consideration what had long been a legitimate exercise of secular penal authority, and using moral arguments about the dignity of the person (in this case, the adjudged guilty party) rather than moral arguments about justice, that is, the punishment fitting the crime.
One way to get there through the justice angle is by showing how we, as flawed humans, often convict the wrong person. For punishment to be just, we have to have a high degree of certainty that we have found the actual guilty party. The only perfect judge is God, and He isn’t telling us right now to go out and be instruments of His justice (see various groups in the Old Testament), but rather, by following Jesus, we are called to be instruments of His mercy. Out of mercy, if there are ways to ensure the safety of the general population (CCC 2263 and 2265) without depriving the guilty of life, then we should use those. Following St. JPII, capital punishment should be an absolute last recourse, and at that, exceedingly rare. Per Pope Francis, better judicial penalties exist now than in say, the days of St. Thomas Aquinas, so capital punishment is no longer admissible as a proper, fitting punishment for crimes. Because of the doubts about having the actual guilty party, the violation of the integrity and dignity of the adjudged guilty party becomes an important consideration, and should render capital punishment outside the tools in the judicial toolbox that can be considered for use. In short, the flaws in the tool, and the advantages of other, newer tools, mean we should not use it.
At least, that’s one way of getting there. I’m sure there are better theologians out there writing far better analyses and arguments. I’m still not entirely sure what “inadmissible” means–I’ve tried to explain it above the best I can, but I’m not sure I have it right.
Still, I’m a bit annoyed at how it was done. As my wife and I were discussing it, she suggested that why I was annoyed was that Pope Francis didn’t lay it out as a logical argument, which would have made the Dominicans happy, he just made it as a statement. I answered back that the Jesuit Pope really needs to hire a Dominican copyeditor and proofreader. If nothing else, that would bring some clarity to issues, or delay their publication indefinitely.