Pope orders change to Catechism on death penalty

What happened?

Pope Francis changed the wording of the Catechism on the death penalty. There was widespread disagreement, however, about the meaning of the change, in which the death penalty was said to be “inadmissible”. The Catechism previously said that Church teaching “does not exclude recourse to the death penalty”, while urging governments to avoid using it where possible. It is unclear whether the Pope was implying that the death penalty was intrinsically immoral.

What commentators are saying

Commentators were divided on the meaning of the new wording. At First Things, philosopher Edward Feser said: “Pope Francis has once again appeared to contradict two millennia of clear and consistent scriptural and Catholic teaching.”

The legitimacy of the death penalty was affirmed not only by Scripture, Feser said, but “by the Fathers of the Church, including those Fathers who opposed the application of capital punishment in practice”. The great theologians – such as St Thomas Aquinas and St Alphonsus Ligouri – clearly said that the death penalty was not always immoral, as did “the popes up to and including Pope Benedict XVI”.

But at Community in Mission, Mgr Charles Pope drew attention to the accompanying statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This used “an important interpretive phrase: ‘Today, however …’ ”. So the Pope was only talking about “the Church’s current stance”, he said, not claiming “that previous Church teaching was wrong”.

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