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The Pope’s Death Penalty Position

Pope Francis prays in the crypt of the Basilica of St Nicholas during a meeting with the heads of Christian churches in the Middle East in Bari, Italy, July 7. The pope has ordered a revision to the catechism to state that the death penalty is inadmissible and he committed the church to its abolition. (CNS photo/Ciro Fusco, EPA)

Q: Archbishop J, can the pope really change the teaching on the death penalty?

This is a complicated question that needs an appreciation of paradox. The Canon Law of the Church 331, states: “The bishop of the Roman Church, in whom continues the office given by the Lord uniquely to Peter, the first of the Apostles, and to be transmitted to his successors, is the head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ, and the pastor of the universal Church on earth. By virtue of his office he possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely.”

The pope’s power is supreme because there is no one to whom he answers, neither a person nor a body of persons. Nor could anyone override it. His power is full for he shares it with no one. His power is immediate because he can exercise it at any time without consultation with any one. It is universal because it is exercised over the whole Church, regardless of where he is at the time. It is ordinary because it was not delegated but given to him by virtue of his office.

This understanding of the authority of the pope comes directly from Jesus when he gives the Keys of the Kingdom of heaven to Peter in a singular way. He was given the power to bind and loose on earth and in heaven (Mt 16:17–19).

Jesus placed Peter as supreme shepherd over the whole flock (Jn 21:15) after establishing the criterion of love. It is a unique power for what is bound on earth, is considered bound in heaven. The action of a mere mortal, without consultation with anyone, has implications for what happens in heaven. 

In the Gospel of John, Jesus gives a similar power to the eleven assembled in the Upper Room. They have the power to forgive or retain sin (Jn 20:23). Vatican Council II thus describes the nature of the Church as both a hierarchy and a collegiality.

“The order of bishops, which succeeds to the college of apostles … is also the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church, provided we understand this body together with its head the Roman Pontiff, and never without this head” (Lumen Gentium,22).

This is not a check on the power of the pope: it is a paradox at the heart of the Church, which is both hierarchical and collegial. Thus the pope acting either singly or in communion with the bishops has the authority to define matters of doctrine and faith.

Capital Punishment

 The teaching on capital punishment has been developing in depth and clarity for several years. The text of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on capital punishment was changed twice: the first time by Pope St John Paul II in 1997, and now by Pope Francis. This is precisely because the Church’s reflection on the issue came to greater clarity and maturity. 

Pope St John Paul II, in the apostolic letter promulgating the Catechism says: The Church now has at her disposal this new, authoritative exposition of the one and perennial apostolic faith, and it will serve as a “valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion” and as a “sure norm for teaching the faith,” as well as a “sure and authentic reference text” for preparing local catechisms.

This is where a Catholic goes to find authoritative Church teaching. The original text from 1992 says: “the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty”. This first text gave the death penalty as a clear option to states.

In 1997 when Pope St John Paul II first revised the teaching he said: “…the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”

He went on to say: “If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.”He concluded that the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically non-existent”.

The teaching on the death penalty being used was now restricted and one could even say it was now very difficult for a State to justify its use on moral grounds. In Evangelium Vitae, the Gospel of Life, 1995, Pope St John Paul II went further proposing the end of the death penalty as a good thing, when he said: “Modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform” (27).

Pope Francis, in his turn, goes to the next step calling for the end of capital punishment. He gives three reasons: (1) the increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after serious offence; (2) new understanding of penal sanctions; and (3) more effective ways to protect citizens and at the same time to offer the guilty the possibility of redemption.

What we have is a growing consciousness of the implications of the duty of the State to protect its citizens on the one hand, and the dignity of the person, on the other, which is not lost even if that person did the most heinous crime.

If we believe in a Gospel of Life and protect life from conception to natural death, then the appeal and use of the death penalty becomes more difficult to justify. The last three popes have held that the common good is best served by reforming criminals and ensuring they cannot do harm, while leaving the opportunity for the person to repent.

Key Message:The pope has full authority over the Church but exercises it with great prudence for the maturation of the faith and its clarity in our time.

Action Step:Read the AEC Bishops pastoral letter on Capital Punishment: Grapple with this teaching.

Scripture Reading:Mt 5:38–48; Mt 16:17–19