This past week Pope Francis made a change to the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” concerning the application of the death penalty. “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,” Pope Francis stated, noting that today there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, he also noted, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state, with more effective systems of detention being developed which “ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.” As a result, in working for the abolition of the death penalty worldwide, the Church teaches that, in the light of the Gospel, “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”
Pope Francis, recognizing the rarity with which the death penalty is applied as well as affirming those nations which have outlawed its use, indicates that the work of the Church is for the salvation of souls and thus the dignity of every human person must be respected. This same sentiment is echoed in the prior version of the Catechism, but it never ruled out absolutely the possibility of its application by the State for the most heinous crimes.
There has been some serious debate among commentators in the news and on various blogs dealing with the effects of this change to the Catechism. Past popes, theologians and scholars have always held that the state had the right to impose the death penalty for serious crimes and it was also considered a matter of justice. What has many commentators worried is the possibility that this change might be understood to imply that doctrine can evolve with cultural norms. The Church has always taught that doctrine does not evolve, but that our understanding of doctrine can be developed. Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., who was himself an opponent of the use of the death penalty, said in 2002, “if the Pope were to deny that the death penalty could be an exercise of retributive justice, he would be overthrowing the tradition of two millennia of Catholic thought, denying the teaching of several previous popes, and contradicting the teaching of Scripture (notably in Genesis 9:5-6 and Romans 13:1-4).” This debate will continue to be interesting.