The Church's position on the death penalty is one example of how Church teaching is not static, the Pope said
The death penalty, no matter how it is carried out, “is, in itself, contrary to the Gospel,” Pope Francis said.
Marking the 25th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church at the Vatican on October 11, Pope Francis said the catechism’s discussion of the death penalty, already formally amended by St John Paul II, needs to be even more explicitly against capital punishment.
Capital punishment, he said, “heavily wounds human dignity” and is an “inhuman measure.”
“It is, in itself, contrary to the Gospel, because a decision is voluntarily made to suppress a human life, which is always sacred in the eyes of the Creator and of whom, in the last analysis, only God can be the true judge and guarantor,” the Pope said.
The death penalty, he said, not only extinguishes a human life, it extinguishes the possibility that the person, recognizing his or her errors, will request forgiveness and begin a new life.
The Church’s position on the death penalty, he said, is one example of how Church teaching is not static, but grows and deepens along with a growth in faith and in response to modern questions and concerns.
In the past, when people did not see any other way for society to defend itself against serious crime and when “social maturity” was lacking, he said, people accepted the death penalty as “a logical consequence of the application of justice.”
In fact, he said, the Church itself believed that, and the death penalty was a possible punishment in the Papal States. It was only in 1969 that Pope Paul VI formally banned the death penalty, even though it had not been imposed since 1870.
“Let us take responsibility for the past and recognize” that use of the death penalty was “dictated by a mentality that was more legalistic than Christian,” Pope Francis said. “Remaining neutral today when there is a new need to reaffirm personal dignity would make us even more guilty.”
The first edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, published by St John Paul II in 1992, recognized “as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty.” At the same time, it said, “bloodless means” that could protect human life should be used when possible.
But the language was formally changed in 1997 after St. John Paul II issued his pro-life encyclical, “Evangelium Vitae.” Since then, the catechism has specified that the use of the death penalty is permissible only when the identity and responsibility of the condemned is certain and when capital punishment “is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”
The development of Church teaching, Pope Francis insisted, is not the same as contradicting or changing Church teaching. “Tradition is a living reality and only a partial vision would lead to thinking of ‘the deposit of faith’ as something static.”
“The word of God,” he said, “cannot be saved in mothballs as if it were an old blanket to protect against insects.”
The Christian faith, he said, always has insisted on the dignity of human life from the moment of conception to natural death. So, the Church has a continuing obligation to speak out when it realizes something that was accepted in the past actually contradicts Church teaching.
“Therefore, it is necessary to reiterate that, no matter how serious the crime committed, the death penalty is inadmissible, because it attacks the inviolability and dignity of the person,” Pope Francis said.