Put Out into the Deep

A Development of Doctrine on the Death Penalty

My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

Recently, our Holy Father, Pope Francis, by amending the Catechism of the Catholic Church, declared that the death penalty is unacceptable in all cases. He built on the teaching of St. John Paul II who in his 1995 Encyclical, “Evangelium Vitae,” stated that punishment “…must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.”

Today, however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not and practically are not existent.”

Some have interpreted this to say mean that the John Paul II left the door open for Catholics to support the death penalty. However, this probably is a misreading of John Paul II’s continued insistence and constant urging for countries to abolish the death penalty. St. John Paul’s Encyclical on the Gospel of Life is perhaps the best place to juxtapose the right to life from conception to natural death in treating the death penalty as a part of the respect for life in the Catholic tradition. Pope Francis continued building on the teaching of St. John Paul II by declaring it inadmissible in all cases.

This is what we call in the Catholic Church the “development of doctrine.” The teaching of the Catholic Church, or its doctrine, is not something that is frozen in history.  Rather, the teaching does change in expanded understanding, but not in its central elements. For example, in regard to religious liberty, the Second Vatican Council moved from mere toleration to the acceptances of universal religious freedom.


Changes in Society

In the past, society had little opportunity to incarcerate prisoners for life or to rehabilitate them so that they could be released at some time.  Today, this is possible and the preferred way of seeking restorative justice in society and not mere retribution for crimes. The continued use of the death penalty in society weakens the resolve of many to find just solutions to the problems of society which many times might lead some to commit heinous crimes such as the murder of another person. While there is no excuse for murder, the circumstances of those who commit murder must be understood so in order that society can be rightly oriented.

The recent statement of Pope Francis has been met with mixed reactions.  Recently, in our local newspapers, two headlines were featured. One stated, “The Pope Makes a Mistake,” and the other stated, “Heed the Pope on the Death Penalty.”  What are we to believe?

The first article spoke about the Holy Father making a fatal error. The author stated, “…death penalty is inadmissible though the Pope did not state it was intrinsically evil.” This certainly is one point of view.  The taking of another human life is, for example, permitted in self-defense.  And so the circumstance for taking a human life is very limited.

Pope Francis is not trying to annunciate a new moral law. Rather, he is trying to convince society that the death penalty is not necessary nor is it a solution or a deterrent for criminals who have taken the life of another human.

One of the articles mentioned some examples where criminals have thought twice about taking another human life because of fear of the death penalty.  Greater research on this area has shown that its use as a deterrent is very limited.

Although the second headline told us to heed the Pope, it makes a point that his declaration has unfortunately been politicized. Some try to satisfy the popular understanding that revenge in taking a life for a life is better than trying to imprison a person for life if they cannot be rehabilitated.

It must be understood that the Church’s teaching on life and the right to life from natural conception to natural death is the fundamental principle on which our moral system is built.  We cannot make exceptions when human life is at stake. The more consistent approach, as the Holy Father reminds us, is that circumstances do not justify capital punishment in modern societies and capital punishment should be inadmissible as a penalty for any crime.

Our Holy Father has sustained some criticism for this declaration, which is in effect an example of the “development of doctrine.” This occurs when our understanding of our theology changes over time when we are enlightened by God’s grace.

The Old Law

For example, in the Old Testament, the teaching was “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” which was known as the law of retaliation.  Jesus, however, changed that law and brought it to a new level of understanding by teaching us to love our neighbors and forgive even when it seems not possible to do so.

When it comes to the understanding of our Catholic people regarding the death penalty, several years ago research was done regarding the Catholic attitude on the issue of the death penalty.  At that time, I was working on the committee for the U.S. Bishops’ Conference dealing with the matter.

Surprisingly, we found that those who were practicing Catholics agreed with the abolition of the death penalty because they came to understand over time, based on the teaching of St. John Paul II, that the death penalty is not an option that we should use.  Just as our opinions change, so too can our understanding of moral law, especially when it is expansive in the understanding of our responsibilities and obligations.

In our society today there are other means and methods for the punishment of criminals, or more importantly their rehabilitation. There are those who because of psychological illness cannot be reinserted into society. Those cases are rarer than most people believe.

True rehabilitation and restorative justice are means for society to put out into the deep of our understanding of the inadmissibility of the death penalty today.

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