Cardinal Ladaria said the change does not contradict previous Church teaching

Pope Francis has changed the Catechism to say the death penalty is “inadmissible”, sparking a debate over the meaning of the word in the context of Church teaching.

The Vatican announced the change to Canon 2267 on Thursday. The text now reads:

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.

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.

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.

It is unclear whether “inadmissible” means “always immoral” or only “to be opposed in today’s political context”.

A dogmatic theologian, who asked not to be named, told the Catholic Herald that the Church’s traditional teaching – which states that the death penalty can be legitimate in some cases – “is irreformable dogma. To deny this or assert the contrary is formally heretical. Catholics remain obliged to believe and accept this doctrine with firm faith regardless of any changes to the Catechism.”

The theologian said that, while the Pope’s term “inadmissible” was ambiguous – and thus not necessarily in contradiction with Church teaching – it would be widely interpreted as meaning “intrinsically immoral”, which would contradict Catholic doctrine.

The change to the Catechism, the theologian said, was part of the “third level” of magisterial teaching, being “non-definitive” (not declared as divinely revealed or connected with divine revelation), and so did not necessarily command assent. “As in any case of conflicting obligations, the lesser obligation yields to the stricter. Just as children are commanded to obey their parents unless and except when their parents command anything contrary to the law of God, so Catholics are required to submit to the third level of magisterial teaching unless and except when it comes into conflict with the first two levels of magisterial teaching.

“Just as children are required to obey the law of God even when it means disobedience to their parents, so Catholics are required to believe and hold the divinely revealed dogmas of the faith and definitive Catholic teaching even if it means dissenting from the authentic magisterium of the pope or bishops.”

Today’s announcement was accompanied by a letter from Cardinal Luis Ladaria, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to all bishops around the world.

It said the revision is “in continuity with the preceding Magisterium while bringing forth a coherent development of Catholic doctrine,” citing the Pontifical Biblical Commission which in 2008 spoke of a “refinement” in the moral positions of the Church.

“The new text, following the footsteps of the teaching of John Paul II in Evangelium vitæ, affirms that ending the life of a criminal as punishment for a crime is inadmissible because it attacks the dignity of the person, a dignity that is not lost even after having committed the most serious crimes,” the letter adds.

“This conclusion is reached taking into account the new understanding of penal sanctions applied by the modern State, which should be oriented above all to the rehabilitation and social reintegration of the criminal. Finally, given that modern society possesses more efficient detention systems, the death penalty becomes unnecessary as protection for the life of innocent people.”