Has Pope Francis really banned the death penalty?
Credit: Scott Eisen/Getty Images   

Earlier this month, Pope Francis positioned the Catholic Church against the death penalty. Amending the Catechism, which summarises the major tenets of the faith, the Church doctrine now holds the death penalty “inadmissible” – in other words, it is never to be used.

The news came as no surprise. Francis has long maintained that the death penalty is “contrary to the Gospel.” Last October, to an audience of cardinals and ambassadors marking the 25th anniversary of the publication of the Catechism, he said “however grave the crime that may be committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it attacks the inviolability and the dignity of the person.”

So far, the announcement has garnered little reaction, though is generally seen as welcome. Those for whom the announcement is not welcome – the governments of the fifty plus countries that retain the death penalty – have largely remained silent. After all, the Pope’s pronouncement does not have the force of international law, and, as Stalin once pointed out, the Pope has no “divisions”.

It appears to put the Vatican at odds with those countries who retain the death penalty, not least the United States, but also China

But is their silence entirely cynical? The much respected Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, Vice President of the US Conference of Bishops, in welcoming the change added that “many good people will continue to believe that our society needs the death penalty to express its moral outrage and to punish those who commit the ultimate crime of taking human life.”

Those same people would probably already have been at odds with Pope John Paul’s revision of the Catechism in 1992, which stated that the cases in which the death penalty was absolutely necessary in order to protect society were “practically non-existent.” As the then Cardinal Ratzinger (subsequently Pope Benedict XVI) pointed out, disagreement did not place them seriously at odds with Christian teaching. That, however, was ultimately because the Catechism permitted the theoretical possibility of the death penalty being necessary, and therefore a matter for the civil power, whose duty it was to protect society.

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That theoretical room for manoeuvre has been removed with Pope Francis’ revision – and it has huge implications. For a start, it appears to put the Vatican on a collision course with those countries who retain the death penalty, not least the United States, but also China, where Pope Francis has been making a major – and controversial – effort towards rapprochement.

Catholics in China are divided between those in the ‘underground’ community who recognise the Pope, and those who belong to the state-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA), whose bishops are appointed by the government. The change in the Catechism puts the underground bishops at direct odds with Beijing, and compliant CPA bishops at odds with the Vatican.

Is Pope Francis saying therefore that previous doctrine was wrong? No: he is saying that the change is a “development of doctrine”, taking account of new possibilities and understanding.

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The 1992 Catechism was at pains to emphasise that the “Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime… The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude… recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.”

In 1992 the Magisterium, “the Church’s divinely appointed authority to teach the truths of religion” (vested uniquely in the Pope and the bishops), believed that at that time there were still states which might not have the means “to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive [by death] the one who has committed it”. Now it believes that there are no such states.

But there remains the possibility that the threat, character and purpose of crime may change, in which case, in logic, a further development of doctrine may restore the admissibility of the death penalty – or even permit it under existing provisions. It is significant, for example, that Pope Francis has proposed no change to doctrine regarding war – or, as the Catechism has it, “Safeguarding Peace.”

We cannot know the future character of conflict, and we cannot therefore know the consequences of inaction – such as staying the use of the death penalty

All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war, but “as long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defence, once all peace efforts have failed.” In this case, the civil authorities “have the right and duty to impose on citizens the obligations necessary for national defence.” The Catechism is not specific as to what these obligations are, or the penalties that are admissible in order to enforce them. But the death penalty is not specifically excluded, nor indeed is it made inadmissible for war crimes.

What, therefore, if “crime” is used by an aggressor to wage war against a nation in what is known increasingly as ‘hybrid warfare’: a blend of political, cyber and conventional warfare, plus other influencing methods, such as fake news, diplomacy and electoral intervention? What if the aggressor is not another state, but a subversive movement within the state, either a political force or an essentially criminal one such as a major drugs cartel using paramilitary tactics to establish a ‘narco-state’?

One of the Catechism’s requirements for recourse to war to be legitimate (“Just War” theory) is that the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation “must be lasting, grave, and certain”. Immediately after the announcement, President Duterte of the Philippines, around 80% of whose population is Catholic, and which suspended the death penalty in 2006, said that it was “still the priority of the administration to re-impose the death penalty for serious drug-related offences.”

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Will this place him seriously at odds with Christian teaching, with the country’s bishops and 80% of Filipinos? Not necessarily. Duterte speaks of the country’s “war on drugs”, believing the threat to be lasting, grave, and certain. He might rightly point to the Catechism’s assertion that “governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defence”, all peace efforts having failed, which only the government has the capacity to decide.

Pope Francis’s development of doctrine has the potential to sow considerable dissension within the Catholic Church if it is applied without discernment. The Catechism asserts “the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict”; the fact of war having broken out “does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties.” But we cannot know the future character of conflict, and we cannot therefore know the consequences of inaction – such as staying the use of the death penalty.

Pope Francis is a Jesuit; he is well-versed in subtlety of thinking. I believe, we can expect further “development of doctrine.”