UNDERSTANDING THE MODIFIED TEACHING ON CAPITAL PUNISHMENT
by Steven A. Long
Luis Francisco Cardinal Ladaria Ferrer of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has announced to the bishops Pope Francis’s approval of new material addressing capital punishment in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (number 2267). The inserted passage notes “an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes,” “a new understanding . . . of the significance of penal sanctions,” and “more effective systems of detention.” It concludes, “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.” This addition to the Catechism is widely either heralded or attacked as a major doctrinal departure, an abrogation of the Church’s teaching of two millennia that the death penalty is an essentially just penalty. Yet this claim of essential doctrinal change is gravely misleading.
First, it is an absolute norm of Catholic doctrinal interpretation that magisterial documents be read in a collegial fashion. It is assumed that the document belongs to the Church and that the entirety of the Church’s prior teaching and tradition enters into its proper understanding. For this reason alone, the recent statement cannot be a doctrinal “break” or “rupture.” The word for doctrinal breaks is heresy. The Church has taught for two millennia that the death penalty is essentially valid. This is taught in Sacred Scripture, and has been affirmed by popes, numerous catechisms, the consensus of the Fathers of the Church, and the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas. If this teaching is erroneous, then the whole of the ordinary universal magisterium of the Church—especially its moral magisterium—is merely a contingent effect of ecclesial will. The nihilistic voluntarism of such a view is incompatible with Catholic faith.