Non-Catholics and Catholics alike wonder about changes to CCC 2276 on death penalty

Non-Catholics and Catholics alike are drilling into the decision of Pope Francis to change Catechism of the Catholic Church 2267, which now says that capital punishment is “inadmissible”.  He does not say that it is intrinsically evil, which would be crystal clear.  “Inadmissible” is, however, clear enough.  It seems and more than seems to contradict what the Church has always taught about capital punishment.

Frankly, my problem lies not so much with Francis’s call that capital punishment shouldn’t be, can’t be, used.  My problem lies in the two fold problem of lack of crystal clarity in a reference source for the Faith that, by its nature, ought to resolve questions and, more importantly, if that teaching can be changed – with its millennial pedigree – then what else will certain circles claim must be changed?  There won’t be any end to it.

Jewish commentator Dennis Prager opined about Francis’ innovation.

Pope Francis Rewrites Catholicism … and the Bible

Last week, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had changed the Catholic catechism. After 2,000 years of teaching that a moral use of capital punishment for murder is consistent with Catholic teaching, the pope announced that the catechism, the church fathers and St. Thomas Aquinas, among the other great Catholic theologians, were all wrong.

And God and the Bible? They’re wrong, too.

Pope Francis, the product of Latin American liberation theology — along with many other Catholic religious and lay leaders — is remaking Catholicism in the image of leftism, just as mainstream Protestant leaders have been rendering much of mainstream Protestantism a branch of leftism, and non-Orthodox Jewish clergy and lay leaders have been rendering most non-Orthodox synagogues and lay institutions left-wing organizations.

The notion that it is immoral to execute any murderer — no matter how heinous the murder, no matter how many innocents he has murdered, no matter how incontrovertible the proof of guilt — is an expression of emotion, not of reason or natural law or Christian theology or biblical theology.


In 2015, Pope Francis wrote, “today capital punishment is unacceptable, however serious the condemned’s crime may have been.”

Unacceptable? To whom? It is acceptable to about half of American Catholics and about half of the American people. But it is unacceptable to the elites of our time, the people who have the most contempt for Catholicism and every other Bible-based religion.

The death penalty, Francis wrote, “entails cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.” These are all subjective opinions. I suspect most people do not think the death penalty as punishment for premeditated murder is necessarily cruel, inhumane or degrading. What are all of us missing? And why isn’t life imprisonment cruel, inhumane and degrading? (Indeed, opposition to life imprisonment is already the norm in many progressive countries like Norway, where someone murdered 77 people, mostly children, and received a 21-year prison sentence.)

The Pope also writes that no matter how serious the crime that has been committed, “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

Most of us think it is the murderer, by committing murder, who has attacked his dignity and inviolability, not the society that puts him to death. We also think it is the dignity of the murder victim that is attacked by rewarding the murderer with room and board, TV, books, exercise rooms and visits from family members and girlfriends.

Furthermore, why isn’t keeping a murderer in prison one day longer than is necessary to protect society an “attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”? For that matter, isn’t every punishment an attack on the dignity of the punished? Of course it is, which is why progressives ultimately oppose all punishment, equating it with vengeance.


That last point is worth thinking through. The argument from “dignity of the person” isn’t an iron-clad argument.. unless you are working more from emotion than from reason.

In the WSJ, Joseph Bessette thinks that what Pope Francis did was a mistake. Bessette co-authored with Ed Feser the great book about capital punishment. US HERE – UK HERE

The Pope Makes a Fatal Error
He says the death penalty is ‘inadmissible,’ though not intrinsically evil. He doesn’t note it saves lives.

By Joseph M. Bessette
Aug. 7, 2018 6:58 p.m. ET
When Pope Francis last week declared the death penalty “inadmissible,” politicians pounced. “The death penalty is a stain on our conscience,” tweeted New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who proclaimed that he stood “in solidarity with Pope Francis” in “advancing legislation to remove the death penalty from NY law once and for all.”

But the pope’s declaration, which contradicts two millennia of Catholic teaching, allies the church with a public policy that would undermine justice and cost innocent lives.

Consider this example that the philosopher Edward Feser and I recount in our book, “By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment”: At a professional conference, a criminologist reported that two burglars had broken into his mother’s apartment and tied her up as they searched for valuables. As they were about to leave, one said: “She has seen us and can identify us. Should we kill her?” “No,” answered the other, “we don’t want to risk the death penalty.” They let her live. One can hardly imagine a clearer example of deterrence.

Another example comes from Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California. In the 1960s she served on the California Women’s Parole Board. At one hearing, Mrs. Feinstein asked an armed robber seeking release from prison why she never used a loaded gun. “So I would not panic, kill somebody, and get the death penalty,” she answered. That convinced Mrs. Feinstein that (in her words) “the death penalty in place in California in the ’60s was in fact a deterrent.”

A third example is recounted by law professor Robert Blecker, who had spent years interviewing prisoners. A veteran criminal told Mr. Blecker that the reason he spared the life of a drug dealer in Virginia whom he had tied up and robbed was because the state had the electric chair. In a similar situation in the District of Columbia, which had abolished the death penalty, the criminal had killed his victim. “I just couldn’t tolerate what they had waiting for me in Virginia,” he said.

These examples are powerful illustrations that the death penalty can and does deter some would-be murderers. Like the rest of us, criminals want to live, and, as the these examples show, they will often adjust their behavior accordingly. Without the death penalty, what incentive would a “lifer” have not to kill while in prison or, if he escaped, while on the run?

There is also a deeper kind of deterrence, largely overlooked in discussions of the death penalty, which doesn’t require rational calculation. When society imposes the ultimate punishment for the most heinous murders, it powerfully teaches that murder is a great wrong. Children growing up in such a society internalize this message, with the result that most people wouldn’t even consider killing another human being.

Here the principle of justice, which demands that malefactors receive a punishment proportionate to their offense, and deterrence of this deeper sort meet. If we abolish the death penalty for even the most heinous and coldblooded murderers, we fatally undermine the idea of justice as the cornerstone of our criminal-justice system. Over time justice will be replaced by a therapeutic or technocratic model that treats human beings as cases to be managed and socially engineered rather than as morally responsible persons.

Apparently, Pope Francis has decided that the death penalty doesn’t save lives. He gives no reasons for reaching this conclusion. We would hardly expect Catholic priests, whatever their rank, to be experts in criminal justice. Unless the death penalty is intrinsically evil—and the pope has made no such claim—then its advisability is a matter for citizens and legitimate public authority. This is what the church has always taught. By falsely claiming that the principles of Catholicism call for rejecting the death penalty in all circumstances, the pope undermines the authority of the Magisterium, pre-empts the proper authority of public officials, and jeopardizes public safety and the common good.

Mr. Bessette is a professor of government and ethics at Claremont McKenna College. He served as acting director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics in the Reagan administration.

Appeared in the August 8, 2018, print edition.

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  1. The more I think about it, the more I think that this death penalty thing was a trial balloon, an experiment in carrying forward one more step in the great project of transforming the Church into something unrecognizable from what she was before. Earlier generations of liberal foot soldiers tinkered with the liturgy, previously thought to be inviolable; then the practice of the faith and the spirit of the law; now we are seeing attempts on the very letter of the law. It seems the boundaries beyond which men will not be suffered to pass are not where we thought they were. When will an end be put to these assaults?

  2. Shonkin says:

    The Holy Father doesn’t seem to have thought this through. What do you do when a murderer has been sentenced to life without parole, and then kills another prisoner or a jailer, or escapes prison and kills someone else? Do you sentence him to another life term? There has to be some deterrent.
    In theory the repeat murderer could surgically be blinded and rendered paraplegic. That would never pass the Eighth Amendment test in this country, and I don’t think that’s what Francis had in mind anyway.

  3. Chuck Ludd says:

    I am still hung up on the term “inadmissible.” What in the world does that term mean? I think it does not mean intrinsically evil otherwise the Holy Father would have used the term “intrinsically evil” since it is an important ethical category. I think “inadmissible” means something like “always wrong at least on a going-forward basis.” But where does such a term fit in the language of ethics and moral theology? I have never heard of it in this context.

    I only know of “inadmissible” as a legal term related to evidence. Rules of evidence are based on justice and due process (both civil and canon rules of evidence) but they can also legitimately be changed be fiat. There are very few rules of evidence that deal with something intrinsically evil. They are mostly prudential rules. Is this “ban” on supporting evidence merely a prudential fiat?

    Does anyone have a searchable version of the catechism to see if this term is used anywhere else in the English edition?

  4. Ultrarunner says:

    Church teaching has changed.
    Irregular communion is admissible
    The death penalty is inadmissible.
    In a hundred years, we’ll all be dead and everyone will believe church teaching never changes again until it does. Rinse, lather and repeat.

  5. Shonkin says: The Holy Father doesn’t seem to have thought this through.

    Remember that in his encyclical on modernism, Pope St. Pius X pointed out that one of the hallmarks of modernism is its apparent incoherence.

  6. PTK_70 says:

    First of all, I accept the change. Nowadays no one thinks of government as deriving its powers from divine authority. Government is “of the people, by the people, for the people”. But (human) life is God’s. The exercise of capital punishment thus becomes a false usurpation of a divine authority the government does not have. “The Death Penalty and the Nature of Human Government” at NCRegister provides food for thought in this vein.

    Second, in one fell swoop, the pope both asserted the Church’s teaching authority in matters regarding human life, AND he asserted his own authority to speak on behalf of the Church. So far as I can tell, he more or less dispensed with the niceties of collegiality. He just up and spoke as pope on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church. Did he call up the metropolitan in Moscow? Did he take the pulse of the U.S. Catholic voter? Did he check out the latest poll at America magazine?

    On the face of it, this ostensibly un-collegial act might make traddies downright giddy.

  7. JonPatrick says:

    @PTK_70, if government does not have the authority to take human life, then I suppose we need to disband all of our armies, or at least take away any lethal weapons.

    As for Pope Francis asserting his authority unilaterally, the Pope’s job is not supposed to be the invention of new dogmas, but the maintenance of what has already been handed down to the Church. Even though he holds the keys to the kingdom, he is merely managing things while the King is away on other business, until His return, and is supposed to uphold those statutes the King already left us before His departure.

  8. JPD says:

    I have worked in a prison for the last 3 years and I am perplexed as to why people think prison now makes the death penalty inadmissible. Surely life in prison is worse than life in prison where their is violence, murder, rape, and even slavery. US prisons are full of gangs who follow their own societal code. Go to a USP and tell me a prison term is better than the death penalty. Inmates in the US kill other inmates, sodomize them, and fight on a regular basis. I have seen necks slashed; people stomped to death; so don’t tell me the death penalty is wrong. Prison guards are murdered by every year. What is to be done with an inmate that kills in prison? We do have in the federal system the ADX where men who are so dangerous to society, staff, and inmates are locked up with zero human contact. It is better for society and the inmate to be put to death. People want the warm knowledge of feeling safe but don’t want to face the realities of prison. Thankfully I just left the prison but only after being attacked and threatened on numerous occasions.

  9. LarryW2LJ says:

    Please, God, forgive if I am sinning by stating this; but sometimes I feel like this whole papacy is a case of “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?”

  10. ServusChristi says:

    If I can recall, during Pope Francis’ visit to the US, in his speech to congress, he stated his opposition to the death penalty (to which the Democratic congresswomen stood up in full applause) and even made public his opposition to lifetime incarceration, even the left don’t go that far.

    Forgive me Father, but I don’t think anything fruitful will come of this. In fact, I think the question has to be asked: where does this end? We’ve had changes for half a century now and it’s frankly getting ridiculous. My local Bishop is even making a public statement saying that this is another pro-life decision. Frankly, does that make Pope Pius XII, St Pius X, St Pius V who executed a cardinal, oversaw executions and turned guilty clergy over to secular authorities not pro-life?

  11. tho says:

    On a happy note, after our 11;00am Saturday Traditional Mass, father performed a Traditional Baptism, the little baby was named Athanasius. I thought of him being named after the great saint who triumphed over Arianism. We are in dire need of men like St. Athanasius.
    On a less happy note, maybe it would be a good idea to insist on an IQ test for all Bishops, and or Popes. Just kidding.

  12. Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda says:

    This papacy has cured me of papalotry.

  13. GHP says:

    Rope, tree, convicted murderer.

    Some assembly required.

  14. Malta says:

    In the FBI I saw a case where a young man raped, murdered and cut a little girl into tiny pieces, placed her body parts in her freezer. This pope should be completely ignored on the topic of the death penalty, and I guarantee the Conservative US Catholic Supreme Court Justices will entirely dismiss him on this topic. The prospect of death IS a deterrent to someone wanting to murder. So, this pope will have blood on his hands.

  15. Elizabeth D says:

    I think in the office of readings 2nd reading I read yesterday St Catherine of Siena talked about people losing the dignity God had given them. That is also a good example of a person devoid of papolatry while still showing much love and respect toward the Pope (“sweet Christ on earth”) and his office.

  16. Vincent1967 says:

    Re Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda’s comment, ‘This papacy has cured me of papalotry’.
    This pontificate certainly heralds the end of ultramontanism

  17. Prayerful says:

    ‘Inadmissable’ is a Jesuit trick to avoid an heretical statement, given how it patently contradicts scripture and Church Teaching. Cathar heretics denied the admissibility of the death penalty and one condition was they admit it was not wrong, that it was permitted. Like many radical leftists he rejects life imprisonment. There is a relevant line in Psalm 108. How much longer?

  18. Malta says:

    “Whoever sheds man’s blood,
    his blood will be shed by man,
    for God made man
    in His image.” — Genesis 9:6

    “Then said he [Jesus] unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one.”–Luke 22:36

    Spin masters like this current pope may argue otherwise, but God is clearly not against the death penalty.

  19. Glennonite says:

    I think imminent death is a mercy if the condemned has access to a priestly confessor. It focuses the soul upon The Judgement which comes within one minute after it leaves the body. THAT’S treating the condemned with dignity.

  20. Malta says:

    In Esther 7, again, God shows his approval of the death penalty. Maybe Francis is above God; although there have been 23 anti-popes in the history of the Church. Who knows?

  21. JesusFreak84 says:

    As I understand it, the death penalty wasn’t JUST about deterring the criminal, traditionally. His own pending execution was also supposed to bring him to repentance, (think of the scene where a criminal is invited to kiss a crucifix before being executed.) Some people won’t repent of their wrongs until the actual chance of going to Hell is RIGHT before them; in these cases, 30+ years unrepentant in prison actually does the soul a DISSERVICE, but this isn’t the first time the Holy Father seems to have chosen temporal “goods” over the spiritual and eternal, and I sadly doubt that it will be the last…

  22. Antonin says:

    I think you are correct Jesus Freak but the change came about under St. JP II who wrote that if bloodless means are sufficient to protect society then the state must limit itself to that. So it was JPII who framed the death penalty not as deterence but as societal safety.

    There is a larger issue raised by JPD above and that is prison reform. Prison reform is not a particularly compelling political issue but I think it is a Catholic one. There are many issues to unpack around that but reform of our system is important and we can’t forget the importance of rehabilitation. That is why state paid for chaplaincy services, they saw the value of religion in reform of life.

    I think that clearly it is impossible, even as a practical matter to say there is no place for the death penalty – JP II left the door open but severely limited its use

    There is wisdom to that. There was a documentary in the history of lynching and just over 100 years ago it was commonplace in some states for black men to literally be dragged out and lunched following a guilty verdict. This is clearly unjust but there really is something to bloodlust and we need due process.

    I am opposed (mostly) to the death penalty but don’t see how it is even practical or theologically correct to have an outright ban

    That the Pope made this change is very concerning …..very

  23. PTK_70 says:

    @JonPatrick….We’re talking about a contingent teaching, not a dogma or statute. In today’s day and age when no government even makes the pretense of having its authority derive from the Lord of Hosts (and here I am talking about the living God, the Holy Trinity), this relatively minor adjustment to the Catechism makes sense to me.

    In a way, this could be seen as a slapdown on non-Christian theocracies, as in, “you guys have no authority to carry out capital punishment, because you have no grounds on which to carry it out, because your government is in no way connected to or derived from the living and true God.”

  24. Semper Gumby says:

    JesusFreak84: Yes, that’s my understanding too. In addition to deterrence, a time limit can focus the mind of the criminal on repentance.

    Avery Dulles in First Things:

    “Capital punishment does not reintegrate the criminal into society; rather, it cuts off any possible rehabilitation. The sentence of death, however, can and sometimes does move the condemned person to repentance and conversion. There is a large body of Christian literature on the value of prayers and pastoral ministry for convicts on death row or on the scaffold. In cases where the criminal seems incapable of being reintegrated into human society, the death penalty may be a way of achieving the criminal’s reconciliation with God.”

    Today is the feast day of St. Maximillian Kolbe. Here is a 2016 article from the Catholic Herald: “Did the Commandant of Auschwitz undergo a miraculous conversion before he died?”

    “Thus hell – and the possibility of forgiveness; David Baldwin relates an anecdote which demonstrates the dramatic link between the two. He happened to bump into a Polish priest at the Divine Mercy shrine in Krakow and explained to him that he was “dreading going to Auschwitz the next day.” The Polish priest then informed him that his own great-uncle, a Jesuit provincial, had heard the confession of Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, before he went to his execution.
    Baldwin writes: “This of course rocked me back and I could only think of asking, “Did your uncle think it a ‘good’ confession?” “He must have done,” was the reply, “because he took Holy Communion to him the next day.””

    The Nuremberg Trials and the death penalty concentrated the minds of more than one National Socialist war criminal.

    Unfortunately, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 there were no Nuremberg Trials to prosecute those who killed tens of millions from 1917 to 1991.

    As David Pryce-Jones pointed out in his 1990’s book on the collapse of the Soviet Union, I’m paraphrasing here: “The criminals escaped justice. The Communist officials who ordered and organized the execution and starvation of tens of millions, and the Gulag commanders and guards, all walk the streets of Russia. They have pensions, and some even give TV and radio interviews. The absence of justice contributes to the moral rot of Russia to this day.”

    Socialists, as others have pointed out, could care less about the People or the Environment. See, for example, what the Soviets did not only to their own citizens, but to dozens of ethnic minorities in the Caucasus and Central Asia. The Soviets managed to nearly destroy the Aral Sea; and just one Soviet-era toxic waste area, outside Budapest, holds an estimated 10 million tons of toxic sludge.

    “Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.”
    2 Cor 5:17

  25. Yes, Rudolf Hoess converted — reverted — before his execution. He was moved by the kind treatment he received at the hands of his Polish jailers, and also by a sound we hear less and less frequently in our own time: monastery bells near his prison.

  26. Semper Gumby says:

    Anita Moore OP (lay): Thanks for the additional details. There is a dual biography, which I have yet to get to, titled “Kolbe and the Kommandant: Two Worlds in Collision.”

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