On October 3, The Holy Father, Pope Francis, released an Encyclical letter titled, Fratelli Tutti. In that Encyclical, the Pope intends, “Simply to consider certain trends in our world that hinder the development of universal fraternity.” One of these hindrances, according to the Pope, is Capital Punishment. Thus, he writes, “Today we state clearly that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible’ and the ‘Church is firmly committed to calling for its abolition worldwide.”
Such a statement has given occasion for certain influential people to say, ‘Pope Francis closes the door on the death penalty in Fratelli Tutti.’
But did the Church’s teaching on Capital Punishment really change? I am not convinced.
The current issue surrounding the Death Penalty in the Church is quite confusing. Personally, I am still learning the arguments from those who are both for and against the application of Capital Punishment. But at the same time, the Church, if she is who she claims to be, cannot change its teaching on the doctrine of the Death Penalty. Capital Punishment cannot be at one time a non-intrinsic good or evil, and at another time, an intrinsic good or evil. Such an idea violates the principle of noncontradiction, and therefore reduces itself to absurdity. To say otherwise would be akin to saying 2+2 no longer equals 4, but now equals 5. It can’t happen.
Furthermore, we cannot understand the Death Penalty’s current inadmissibility to mean that Capital Punishment is intrinsically evil. For then, Catholics would find themselves at odds with Scripture, as well as notable theologians such as Saint Augustine of Hippo, Saint Jerome, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and Pope Pius XII. One can, on the other hand, argue that though Capital Punishment is justifiable, we should avoid applying it and use other means of punishment that are proportional to the crime. However, avoiding the use of the Death Penalty vastly differs from Capital Punishment itself being an intrinsic evil.
Those who say that the Encyclical changed Church teaching on the Death Penalty cite Pope Pius XII, who says that Catholics must give assent to a Pope’s Encyclical. They would be correct to say this, insofar as he teaches in matters of faith and morals, given that an Encyclical is a Magisterial Document. (A Magisterial Document is a document which has teaching authority in the Church). The only time a teaching in the Magisterium is to be outweighed is if a teaching with even higher authority overrides the Magisterial Teaching.
Now, Christians believe in Sacred Scripture, which is the inerrant word of God and is therefore, to my knowledge, of higher authority than any Encyclical. Since there are passages within scripture which suggest that the Death Penalty can be used, there must be a way to understand Pope Francis’ words in light of what is taught in Scripture. (For passages on the Death Penalty, see Genesis 9:6, Acts 25:9-11 and Romans 13:1-4.)
Just as we cannot say that doctrine regarding the Death Penalty changed, we also cannot say that what has taken place is a development of doctrine. A development of doctrine presupposes that we move from a vague understanding of some doctrine to a more clear understanding of it. But this cannot be said of Capital Punishment. The Pope is speaking of the application of the Death Penalty, and not the Death Penalty itself. Perhaps it’s possible to come to a deeper understanding of the application of the Death Penalty, but, as stated earlier, the application of it is different than the Death Penalty itself, just as we would say that what we do with a hammer is not the same thing as the hammer itself. Therefore, those who argue that Pope Francis’ teaching is really a development of doctrine are not careful in distinguishing between the doctrine itself and its application. The doctrine remains the same, whereas one’s judgment about its implementation may change. Thus, those who believe that doctrine developed in regards to Capital Punishment itself, fall into the same error as those who believe that the doctrine changed. They give the same argument as those who believe that the doctrine changed, though disguising it as a development.
Since the Church’s teaching on the Death Penalty is a doctrine, it follows that the Church’s teaching on the matter cannot change. Therefore, the Church’s teaching on Capital Punishment did not, and cannot, change.
Link to Pope Francis’ Encyclical, Fratelli Tutti
Link to an article which claims the doctrine did change
Link to an Article on whether the Catholic Church’s doctrine can change
Ryan Ford '23,