Pope Francis shook the Christian world last week at a gathering to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church when he denounced the death penalty as "contrary to the Gospel." While various popes and bishops have long encouraged civil governments to minimize the use of capital punishment, Francis's statements constitute a radical departure by claiming that Church doctrine on the issue has been fundamentally wrong for two millennia.
The Catechism itself explains that capital punishment is not inherently evil and within the scope of "legitimate public authority ... to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense." While the next paragraph adds that technological advances have rendered cases in which the death penalty is "absolutely necessary ... very rare, if not practically non-existent." But even this unusually prudential addition does not proscribe the death penalty in any case, and its first sentence sums up why: "The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty."
In recent years, many prominent members of the Catholic clergy, including the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, have condemned the death penalty. Both of Francis's most recent predecessors also campaigned against capital punishment, most famously in Pope St. John Paul II's 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae. But in 2004 then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would become Pope Benedict XVI, clarified the significance of papal opinion on the issue. He explained,
If a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment ... he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities ... to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible ... to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about ... applying the death penalty.
In declaring capital punishment "contrary to the Gospel," Pope Francis apparently placed himself at odds with his predecessors, the Doctors of the Church, and sacred scripture. Pope Pius XII sent a Jesuit archivist to the prosecutors at Nuremberg to hasten the executions, and he personally assured the American prosecutor, "Not only do we approve of the trial, but we desire that the guilty be punished as quickly as possible.” An earlier Pius, Pope St. Pius V, propagated the Roman Catechism, which states:
Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder.
Pope St. Innocent I taught that capital punishment was “granted through the authority of God” to legitimate authorities and that any effort to condemn the practice per se would “go against the authority of the Lord.” St. Augustine of Hippo in City of God explained:
The same divine authority that forbids the killing of a human being establishes certain exceptions, as when God authorizes killing by a general law or when He gives an explicit commission to an individual for a limited time.
The agent who executes the killing does not commit homicide; he is an instrument as is the sword with which he cuts. Therefore, it is in no way contrary to the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill" to wage war at God's bidding, or for the representatives of public authority to put criminals to death, according to the law, that is, the will of the most just reason.
Doctor of the Church St. Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologicae espoused his conclusion that not only is capital punishment not inherently evil but further that heretics ought to be executed "in order to safeguard the common good, since 'a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump' (1 Cor. 5:6)." St. Paul addressed the topic bluntly in his Epistle to the Romans:
For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.
Edward Feser, a professor of philosophy at Pasadena City College and author of a recent Catholic defense of capital punishment, explains the threat that Pope Francis' comments pose to the Barque of Peter. "If the church has been that wrong for that long about something that serious," he asks, "why should we trust anything else she teaches?"
For this reason among others, neither this pope nor any other can reverse past teaching on capital punishment, despite the misunderstood dogma of papal infallibility. The First Vatican Council, which articulated that the pope is infallible when he speaks in a strictly defined way, explains, "The Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles."
A small group of popes over the past two millennia have taught doctrinal error, but none have the authority to change Church teaching on the death penalty. On the bright side, Pope Francis' comments offer an edifying opportunity for the thoughtful faithful to engage not merely scripture and history but also the oft-neglected medicinal effects of hanging.