Pope codifies change on death-penalty teaching, prepares for Ireland visit

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of Congress in Washington Sept. 24, 2015. The pope strongly spoke against the death penalty in the address. The Vatican announced Aug. 2 that the pontiff has ordered a revision to the Catechism of the Catholic Church to state that the death penalty is inadmissible and to commit the church to its abolition. Also pictured are Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner, both of whom are Catholic. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis’ revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church declaring the death penalty “inadmissible” in all circumstances, announced Aug. 2, should not have come as a huge surprise. 

During his visit to the United States in 2015, Francis gave a speech to both houses of Congress in which he called for “the global abolition of the death penalty,” comments which at the time did not receive the attention his shift in teaching is now garnering. 

After that 2015 address, I asked Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, then the Holy See spokesperson, if the pope was developing teaching in this area, given the catechism allowed for capital punishment in certain circumstances. Lombardi responded that, yes, Francis was amending doctrine, adding that he might “deepen” this in the future. 

Then, last October, the pope gave a speech in which he called for the catechism to be updated on the death penalty, giving this explanation:
“We are not in any way contradicting past teaching, for the defense of human life from the first moment of conception to natural death has been taught by the church consistently and authoritatively,” he told a gathering of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization. “Yet the harmonious development of doctrine demands that we cease to defend arguments that now appear clearly contrary to the new understanding of the Christian truth.” 

To critics, the pope’s death-penalty shift somehow undermined the integrity and consistency of Catholic doctrine. If something has been permissible for generations, they argued, how can it suddenly be “inadmissible”? 

But during that speech last October, Francis stressed that tradition — which has its roots in the Latin word “trader,” which means to “hand over” or “hand down” — is a “living reality” and that the deposit of faith is not something static. “No,” the pope said, “the word of God is a dynamic and living reality that develops and grows because it is aimed at a fulfillment that none can halt.”

In other words: doctrine can and must develop, while dogma — divinely revealed truth — remains unchanging. The church deepens its understanding of unchanging revelation through each generation and in varying contexts. 

On capital punishment Francis is also building on the teaching of John Paul II, who argued in “Evangelium Vitae” that it should only be used in “cases of absolute necessity.” 

In 1999, during a visit to St. Louis, he called for a “consensus to end the death penalty.” Later that year he also successfully lobbied Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan to commute the sentence of a convicted murderer from death to life in prison. 

For some of Francis’ critics, however, the revision of the catechism seemed to be less about theology and more about news management. This summer has brought a new round of revelations about  the church’s handling of clerical sexual abuse, especially regarding the case of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, who resigned from the College of Cardinals while awaiting a canonical trial over claims that he abused minors and engaged in sexual misconduct with seminarians.

Some alleged that by releasing details about the catechism revision, the Holy See was trying to change the subject. More likely, the timing is the result the sheer volume of Francis’ inbox. Early August was a clear moment to release an item long in development. The pope, after all, authorized the change back in May. 

Francis knows that the clerical sexual abuse scandal is not going away. On Aug. 25, he will fly to Dublin for the World Meeting of Families, where he is expected to address a scandal that has devastated the local church’s credibility. The pope is under pressure to meet with abuse survivors, something he has done on several occasions, although such meetings are rarely made public in advance. 

His visit to Dublin will last 36 hours, and he is being called on to meet not just clerical sex-abuse survivors, but also those abused in church-run institutions such as the infamous Magdalene laundries. 

Francis will arrive in an Ireland that recently voted to change its constitution to allow abortion, has brought in same-sex marriage legislation and has an openly gay president, Leo Varadkar, who says he will be raising the issue of same-sex parents and families when he meets the pope. 

Over the past 25 years, a clerically dominated, power-brokering model of the institutional church in Ireland has come to an end, yet it hasn’t meant an end to faith in the land of saints and scholars. 

According to the 2016 census, 78 percent of Irish citizens still identify as Catholic, just in a very different way from years gone by. 

As a result, don’t expect the pope to wag his finger when he is in Dublin. Instead he will likely try to use his visit to model a humbler, purer and more credible church. His message to Ireland will be simple: We may disagree on some things, but you are still part of the family. 


  • pope francis
  • capital punishment
  • death penalty

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