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Catechism of the Catholic Church on the Death Penalty: from Acceptance to Abolition

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In the following pages, we present a concise summary of the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church(CCC) on the death penalty and comment on this teaching and its development from 1992, through 1997, and up to 2018.

We wish to give a whole picture of the teaching of CCC on capital punishment: first, in the original edition (1992); second, in the final, “typical” edition (1997), and third, and in the revised number (in 2018) of the 1997 edition. Finally, in the fourth place, we try to answer this question: Regarding the different teachings of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on capital punishment, are we really dealing here with harmonious development of doctrine or with a break? 


We quote CCC numbers 2266-2267: “Preserving the common good of society requires rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm. For this reason, the traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of the 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” (CCC 2266). However, “If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person” (CCC 2267).

Our comment. Obviously, CCC 2266-2267 represents a big step forward of the magisterium of the Church towards the abolition of the death penalty. This new teaching of the Catechism on capital punishment was influenced by the growing social trend for the abolition of the death penalty worldwide, the better understanding of justice – giving to each human being his or her rights -, and of charity as a love of every neighbour. Moreover, the ecclesiastical authorities had in mind, in particular, Vatican II Gaudium et Spes (1965), where we read: “Whatever is opposed to life itself such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia…, whatever insults human dignity…: all these are infamies indeed. They poison human society…Moreover, they are a supreme dishonour to the Creator” (GS, 27; cf. GS, 28). Did the writers of CCC 1992 take into consideration other texts we find in CCC on the dignity of human life? These texts seem to be clear though not explicitly against the imposition of capital punishment. A few examples: “In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord recalls the commandment “You shall not kill’’ (Mt 5:21-22), and adds to it the proscription of anger, hatred and vengeance. Going further, Christ asks his disciples to turn the other cheek, to love their enemies” (CCC 2262); “We see… in every human person, a son or daughter of the One who wants to be called ‘Our Father’ … The neighbour is not a ‘unit’ in the human collective; he is ‘someone’ who by his known origins deserves particular attention and respect” (CCC 2212; cf. nos. 1931, 2258, 2319). CCC 1992, however, admits exceptionally the possible application of the death penalty for gravest crimes. Thus, the door to capital punishment is still open – partly.


We quote CCC 2267: “Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” Thereafter, partly new teaching is added: Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically non-existent’." 

            Our comment. Simply to say that the addition to CCC no. 2267 is taken from the great Encyclical of John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, or The Gospel of Life (1995), no 56.  The Polish Pope had said earlier: “Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity.” We all have “the inescapable responsibility of choosing to be unconditionally pro-life” (EV, 28). Life is God’s gift to us and our life is in the loving hands of God - hands “like those of a mother” (EV, 39). “Human life is sacred and inviolable at every moment of existence” (EV, 61). We all have “to respect, love and promote” “the life of every man and woman,” and thus contribute to “the establishment of a new culture of life, the fruit of the culture of truth and love” (EV, 77). Certainly, CCC 2267 is another huge step towards the total abolition of the death penalty. But still not absolutely. The grave criminal cases that make of the execution of the offender an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically non-existent’." Practically non-existent! But the door to the death penalty is not totally closed yet – almost, but not completely.



We read CCC 2267 (2018). First paragraph: “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.” Second paragraph: “Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.” Third paragraph: “Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person’, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

Our comment. Three paragraphs, then. The first two argue from reason, and the third from reason and faith. First paragraph: the death penalty was considered for a long time an appropriate and acceptable (Spanish translation: “admissible”) response, although “extreme.” Second paragraph: Committing “serious crimes” do not take away the dignity of a person; there is now a new understanding of penal justice; there are today “more effective systems of detention”, and the “due protection of citizens” can be achieved without recourse to the death penalty, and thus – at the same time - giving the guilty opportunities to redeem themselves.  Third paragraph: in the perspective of faith, of the Gospel of Jesus, the death penalty is “inadmissible” for it attacks “the inviolability and dignity of the person.” Hence, the Church works today “with determination for the abolition of capital punishment worldwide.” Thus, the door to capital punishment is hermetically closed: no exceptions at all. Not only that: the Church works now for the abolition of capital punishment worldwide.

A key word in the new teaching on the death penalty is “inadmissible,” that is, capital punishment is inadmissible, that is, unacceptable. Capital punishment is totally opposed to the dignity inherent in every human being. The teaching of the new version of CCC, 2267 (in 2018) comes indirectly from Pope John Paul II: “I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty which is cruel and unnecessary” (Homily, at the Trans World Dome, St. Louis, MO: January 27, 1999). Justice is not vengeful retributive justice but medicinal and restorative justice. For the Christian, it is fraternal justice. Capital punishment is considered by many “legal vengeance.” Needless to say that in the first place we all are with the victims of criminals and murderers, but we also have to love the “criminals”: Christian love is a universal and not selective love.

The new CCC text – added to CCC 1997 - comes directly from Pope Francis, who had said and repeated that Christians ought to be absolutely against the death penalty: “You shall not kill has an absolute value” (cf. Pope Francis, Letter to the President of the International Commission against the Death Penalty: March 20, 2015; Address to Participants in the Meeting Organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization: 11 October 2017). Another recent text: “The dignity of a person is not lost even when he/she has committed the worst of crimes. The life of no one can be taken away and deprive him/her of the opportunity to be able to embrace the community again that he/she wounded and made suffer” (Pope Francis,  Video-Message to the 7th World Congress against the Death Penalty [Brussels], February 27- March 2, 2019).



The new revision of number 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, approved by Pope Francis, “situates itself in continuity with the preceding magisterium while bringing forth a coherent development of Catholic doctrine (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter to Bishops regarding the New Revision of CCC no. 2267: 1 August 2018). Presenting the new CCC revised number on the death penalty, the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation, Cardinal Luis Ladaria SJ, says: This change “is not in contradiction of the previous teaching of the magisterium.” In this sense, we comment, it is not – it cannot be - a break in the sense of a dogmatic change or a change in the Depositum Fidei (first truths of faith, the Creed). But, obviously, there is a change in the teaching of the Church that goes from total acceptance (XIII to XIX centuries), to exceptional acceptance (XX century, second half), to complete abolition (XXI century, the year 2018). This obvious change in the teaching on capital punishment belongs not to the Apostolic Depositum Fidei but to the Depositum Ecclesiae that followed after the apostles (cf. Niceto Blázquez OP, 2019).

This “change” is correctly considered part of the progressive development in the magisterium of the Church on the death penalty: a homogeneous, harmonious development of doctrine, based on a new understanding of human dignity and rights, of justice, solidarity and fraternity, and influenced positively by the growing global trend against capital punishment. The Argentine Pope says: “The harmonious development of doctrine demands that we cease to defend arguments that now appear clearly contrary to the new understanding of Christian truth…” Cardinal Christoph Schonborn says that while the development of church teaching evolves over time, the church and the Gospel don't change.” Says Pope Francis: today we have removed from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the death penalty. 300 years ago heretics were burnt alive — because the Church has grown in morality, in respect of the person” (March 31, 2019).

Therefore, as we clearly understand it today, the death penalty is incompatible with the excellent dignity of the human person (“image of God”), the inviolable (“untouchable”) right to life of all persons (“innocent” and guilty). Moreover, it is incompatible with charity: Jesus’ love in us includes necessarily the love of God and all neighbours. Hence, Christians, in particular, are asked to work with determination for the abolition of capital punishment worldwide. How could it be otherwise? Jesus, the peaceful and fraternal Son of God and man, our Way, keep telling us: Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children of your Father in heaven (Mt 5:44-45).

By Fr. Fausto Gómez, OP.

(original text)