The death penalty and the development of doctrine


Father Eugene McKenna’s letter to the editor in the December 13 Rhode Island Catholic raises important questions about the continuity of Church teaching. In August 2018 Pope Francis approved a revision to the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding the use of the death penalty. Contrary to those who suggest the Pope has approved a rupture in Catholic tradition, the teaching of the Church remains unchanged. The death penalty is in principle consistent with both natural law and the Gospel.

Here it is important to distinguish an action done in principle versus in practice. There has always been disagreement among theologians about whether the death penalty represents the best way to maintain social order and the common good. In recent years, magisterial pronouncements have generally opposed the use of the death penalty in practice, but allowed it in principle. In other words, the Church maintains that the death penalty should be the absolute last resort and the revision to the Catechism reflects this. In fact, a society should develop in such a way so that while in principle the death penalty can occur, in practice it never does. It is like the fire extinguisher in a building: there just in case, but ideally never used. This distinction between practice and principle finds a solid basis in Scripture, Tradition and natural law.

The recent change in the Catechism of the Catholic Church reads, “…the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.’” The term inadmissible provides the key to understand the pope’s statement. We may interpret this to mean: “That there are no present circumstances in which the death penalty is an allowable means of enacting justice.” This follows from the use of “inadmissible” in the legal sphere, which concerns the circumstances in which evidence is obtained. Given different circumstances the evidence, or in this case, the death penalty, may be administered. For instance, evidence obtained as a result of an unlawful search and seizure is inadmissible. If that very same evidence was obtained due to a lawful search and seizure, then it could be used. The use of “inadmissible” in the Catechism does not state unequivocally that the death penalty is contrary to Scripture or Tradition. Catholic doctrine remains unchanged. At the same time, the Church recognizes that given our present cultural circumstances, the death penalty should not be used.

As we know the Pope cannot change essential teaching or invent doctrine which contradicts prior teaching. In a word, the Church cannot change its essential teachings. Regardless of who you are or what position in the Church you hold, the teaching of Christ cannot change. A teaching can develop, but such a development can never contradict what came before. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith asserts that this language constitutes “an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium.”

We should not ignore that the sentence of death can, in certain circumstances, represent an act of mercy and the means of conversion. Historical evidence of abominable imprisonment bears testament to that. Some prisons stand not for mercy and rehabilitation, but to make the imprisoned suffer long and terribly. The words of the demon Screwtape in A Screwtape Letters deserve pondering: “Men are killed in places where they knew they might be killed and to which they go, if they are at all of the Enemy’s party, prepared. How much better for us if all humans died in costly nursing homes amid doctors who lie, nurses who lie, friends who lie… How disastrous for us is the continual remembrance of death which war enforces.” The point is clear: a human being who knows if and when he is going to die is much more apt to get ready for death. Further, our teaching in regard to respecting life, is concerned not primarily with the prolongation of life here on earth for its own sake, but always in view of life’s ultimate destiny in eternity.

So it is important to remember that doctrine has not changed. Rather the Pope has reemphasized what the Church has always taught: the death penalty is a last resort in practice, which nevertheless remains permissible in principle.

Father Barrow is assistant pastor at Our Lady of Mercy Parish, East Greenwich.