Some responses to Pope Francis's revision of CCC 2267

Pope Francis has revised the text of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that deals with the death penalty (see the Bollettino here). The previous version of CCC 2267 went like this:

Traditionalis doctrina Ecclesiae, supposita plena determinatione identitatis et responsabilitatis illius qui culpabilis est, recursum ad poenam mortis non excludit, si haec una sit possibilis via ad vitas humanas ab iniusto aggressore efficaciter defendendas.

Si autem instrumenta incruenta sufficiunt ad personarum securitatem ab aggressore defendendam atque protegendam, auctoritas his solummodo utatur instrumentis, utpote quae melius respondeant concretis boni communis condicionibus et sint dignitati personae humanae magis consentanea.

Revera nostris diebus, consequenter ad possibilitates quae Statui praesto sunt ut crimen efficaciter reprimatur, illum qui hoc commisit, innoxium efficiendo, quin illi definitive possibilitas substrahatur ut sese redimat, casus in quibus absolute necessarium sit ut reus supprimatur, “admodum raro [...] intercidunt [...], si qui omnino iam reapse accidunt”

[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.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

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 definitely 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 nonexistent.”]

The new version goes like this:

Quod auctoritas legitima, processu ordinario peracto, recurrere posset ad poenam mortis, diu habitum est utpote responsum nonnullorum delictorum gravitati aptum instrumentumque idoneum, quamvis extremum, ad bonum commune tuendum.

His autem temporibus magis magisque agnoscitur dignitatem personae nullius amitti posse, nec quidem illius qui scelera fecit gravissima. Novus insuper sanctionis poenalis sensus, quoad Statum attinet, magis in dies percipitur. Denique rationes efficientioris custodiae excogitatae sunt quae in tuto collocent debitam civium defensionem, verum nullo modo imminuant reorum potestatem sui ipsius redimendi.

Quapropter Ecclesia, sub Evangelii luce, docet “poenam capitalem non posse admitti quippe quae repugnet inviolabili personae humanae dignitati” atque Ipsa devovet se eidemque per omnem orbem abolendae.

[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 opposes the inviolability and dignity of the person,” and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.]

The revised text was released five days ago and was accompanied by an official commentary by Luis Ladaria, SJ, the cardinal prefect of the Holy Office. Ladaria’s commentary takes the form of a letter addressed to the bishops of the Catholic Church.

The Holy Father had proposed making this change to the Catechism in a speech last fall (which I wrote about here), so Thursday’s news wasn’t unexpected.

There are already a number of public responses to the revision of CCC 2267 by Catholic philosophers and theologians. I want to single out four responses that I think will be of particular interest to readers of Thomistica:

• Ed Feser at First Things

• Peter Kwasniewski at LifeSiteNews

• Michael Pakaluk at First Things

• Thomas Petri, OP at the Catholic News Agency

I encourage you to read their comments. All four are eminently qualified to speak on the topic. They have different things to say about the revision but they seem to agree that the antecedent teaching of the Church, according to which the death penalty is morally permissible in certain circumstances, is irreformable. I don’t know how anyone could seriously question that. (If you’re tempted to, then read this essay by Ed Feser.)

I don’t have the time to write anything long and sophisticated but to the comments that have already been made I would like to add a few of my own that I think might be useful.

One controversy over the revision of CCC 2267 that has already emerged has to do with whether it teaches that the death penalty is “inadmissible” for prudential reasons (which would be a version of John Paul II’s approach) or because it is a malum in se (a view that the Church has consistently rejected). The revised text gives three reasons for the inadmissibility of the death penalty. Two reasons appear to refer to contingent circumstances whereas a third, taken by itself, seems not to. According to this third reason, the death penalty “opposes the inviolability and dignity of the person.” Now, this sounds like we could be talking about a malum in se. But looking back at the rest of the text, it might be argued that it only intends to claim that “today” (his temporibus) in certain circumstances the death penalty constitutes such an opposition. I think this is how Fr. Petri reads the text. In any case, whoever wishes to claim that the revision of CCC 2267 teaches that the death penalty is a malum in se must contend with the fact that neither the new text itself nor Ladaria’s commentary on it expressly uses that language.

There’s reason to think that this is deliberate. One of the most problematic statements, from a doctrinal perspective, that the Holy Father made in his comments on the death penalty last fall was this:

Si deve affermare con forza che la condanna alla pena di morte è una misura disumana che umilia, in qualsiasi modo venga perseguita, la dignità personale. È in sé stessa contraria al Vangelo perché viene deciso volontariamente di sopprimere una vita umana che è sempre sacra agli occhi del Creatore e di cui Dio solo in ultima analisi è vero giudice e garante.

[It must be forcefully affirmed that the death penalty – in whatever way it is carried out – is an inhumane practice that humiliates personal dignity. It is in itself contrary to the Gospel because there is a free decision to suppress a human life, which is always sacred in the eyes of the Creator and with respect to which God alone, in the final analysis, is the true judge and guarantor.]

If this isn’t code for malum in se, I don’t know what is. If it is, it contradicts what should look to all the sane and educated Catholic world like an irreformable teaching. But none of this absolutist language made it into the final draft of the revision of CCC 2267 and Ladaria doesn’t employ it in his commentary either. It’s entirely conceivable that the CDF saw the above statement as impossible to reconcile in any reasonable way with the antecedent teaching and concluded that it expresses merely a personal opinion of Pope Francis.

The revised text only quotes a small fragment of last fall’s speech, the one that tells us that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it opposes the inviolability and dignity of the person” – “la pena di morte è inammissibile perché attenta all’inviolabilità e dignità della persona.”* As I just said, that fragment, taken in isolation, could give the impression that the death penalty is a malum in se but, as I also just said, if we look at the revised text as a whole, it could also be interpreted as relating only to certain contemporary circumstances.

The hermeneutic rule of thumb in interpreting new magisterial pronouncements is to understand them in the light of established teaching. In other words, they should be read in such a way that they don’t contradict that teaching. Why? Well, this could be explained in a few different ways. But perhaps it’s put best by Holy Writ: “Iesus Christus heri et hodie, ipse et in sæcula.”

If the letter of some new magisterial pronouncement can’t be reconciled with established teaching or is so unclear that no one can honestly make heads or tails of how it’s supposed to relate to established teaching, then we have a problem. In my view, the revision of CCC 2267 falls into the latter category. This makes it quite unhelpful as a formulation of the Church’s teaching. As such, it should be retracted. If it isn’t retracted, then it should be rewritten to conform more clearly with the Church’s previous consistent teaching. If neither of these courses is taken, then it will be Amoris laetitia redux.

* The Latin text renders attenta as repugnet. I think the most straightforward English translation of attenta here is “attack.” I’m not sure if repugnet is the best Latin translation of attenta but it is certainly a possible translation. I have translated repugnet into English as “opposes.” The Vatican’s official English translation has “is an attack.” That may be perfectly fine even if it does turn a verb into a noun.