No Pope can overturn the Church's teaching that the death penalty is legitimate. So Francis's comments were puzzling

On October 11, Pope Francis addressed an audience gathered to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The press has been reporting that the Pope called for a change to the Church’s traditional teaching on capital punishment. Some of his remarks do indeed seem to imply that. However, other remarks in the same address point in the opposite direction. Taken as a whole, the Pope’s remarks make his position on capital punishment very unclear.

To provide context, it is necessary briefly to review the Church’s traditional teaching on capital punishment. Consider first that the Church teaches that Scripture is divinely inspired and cannot teach error on matters of faith and morals. Yet there are a great many passages in Scripture that teach the legitimacy of capital punishment. For example, Genesis 9:6 states: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.” Romans 13:4 teaches that the state “does not bear the sword in vain [but] is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer.” Many other passages could be cited. The Fathers of the Church understood such passages to be sanctioning capital punishment, and the Church has for two thousand years consistently followed this interpretation. The Church also teaches (for example, at the First Vatican Council) that Catholics are obliged to interpret Scripture consistent with the way the Fathers understood it, and consistent with the Church’s traditional interpretation. Taken together, these teachings logically entail that the legitimacy of capital punishment is regarded by the Church as a divinely revealed doctrine.

Every pope who has addressed the subject of capital punishment up to Benedict XVI has reaffirmed this traditional teaching. For example, Pope St Innocent I taught that the state’s right to execute offenders has been “granted through the authority of God,” and that to condemn capital punishment in an absolute way would be to “go against the authority of the Lord.” Pope Innocent III made acceptance of the legitimacy of capital punishment a matter of Catholic orthodoxy when he required the Waldensian heretics to affirm its legitimacy as a condition of their reentry into the Church. The Roman Catechism issued under Pope St Pius V solemnly taught the legitimacy of capital punishment, as did the catechism issued under Pope St Pius X. Pope Pius XII affirmed the legitimacy of capital punishment on several occasions, and taught that a murderer has, by virtue of his crime, “deprived himself of the right to live.”

Even Pope St John Paul II explicitly reaffirmed in the Catechism he promulgated that “the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty” under certain conditions. It is true that John Paul thought that capital punishment was in practice best avoided, but this was a non-binding prudential judgment rather than a doctrinal matter. Cardinal Ratzinger, John Paul II’s doctrinal spokesman and later to become Pope Benedict XVI, made this clear when he stated in 2004 that:

If a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment…he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities… to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to…have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about… applying the death penalty. [Emphasis added]

But mightn’t a pope reverse Scripture and his predecessors on such a matter? He may not. While the First Vatican Council taught that a pope is infallible when he speaks ex cathedra, it also insisted that:

The Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.

In a 2005 homily, Pope Benedict XVI reiterated the point, saying:

The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law… He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God’s Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down…

The Pope knows that in his important decisions, he is bound…to the binding interpretations that have developed throughout the Church’s pilgrimage.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. In our book By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, Joseph Bessette and I assemble a mountain of evidence from Scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, the popes, saints and theologians, and catechisms and other Church documents, that shows conclusively that the legitimacy of capital punishment is irreformable Catholic teaching. And if that is so, then it follows that a pope who taught that capital punishment was always and intrinsically wrong would be as manifestly guilty of doctrinal error as he would be if he denied the Trinity. (Such doctrinal error is possible when a pope is not speaking ex cathedra, though it is extremely rare. There are only a handful of examples in the history of the Church of popes who have possibly been guilty of this, the best known cases being those of Pope Honorius and Pope John XXII.)

So, did Pope Francis propose reversing this traditional teaching? Some of his remarks seem to imply that. For example, he says that capital punishment “is per se contrary to the Gospel.” That gives the impression that capital punishment is wrong, not merely under certain circumstances, but intrinsically or of its very nature – something no previous pope, including John Paul II, has ever taught. This impression is reinforced by Pope Francis’s further statements that “no one ought to be deprived… of life,” that “no matter how serious the crime that has been committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person,” and that traditional arguments in defense of capital punishment “now appear clearly contrary to the new understanding of Christian truth.”

The Pope also indicates that “a more adequate and coherent treatment” of the death penalty would take a more negative attitude toward it than even the Catechism issued by John Paul II did. Now, the Catechism already includes a prudential judgment to the effect that under contemporary circumstances capital punishment should be “very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” If Pope Francis thinks that even this does not convey a sufficiently negative view of capital punishment, then it is not clear what he thinks should be added unless he advocates a complete condemnation of the death penalty even in principle.

To be sure, Pope Francis also says that “in past centuries, when means of defence were scarce and society had yet to develop and mature as it has, recourse to the death penalty appeared to be the logical consequence of the correct application of justice.” He contrasts this with “the new demands of upholding personal dignity” which hold “nowadays.” That might be taken to imply that it is only under contemporary circumstances that capital punishment should be abolished, and that it was legitimate in previous eras. However, in the very same passage he says:

Sadly, even in the Papal States recourse was had to this extreme and inhumane remedy that ignored the primacy of mercy over justice. Let us take responsibility for the past and recognize that the imposition of the death penalty was dictated by a mentality more legalistic than Christian. Concern for preserving power and material wealth led to an over-estimation of the value of the law and prevented a deeper understanding of the Gospel.

This makes it sound as if capital punishment was not in fact justifiable even in the past, and that it is only theological error and base motives – a “legalistic” mentality and “concern for preserving power and material wealth” – that led Catholics of the past to think otherwise.

If this is what the Pope is saying, then the significance of his remarks cannot be overstated. For one thing, it would seem gravely unjust, indeed scandalous, to suggest that the previous popes, saints, and Fathers and Doctors of the Church who supported capital punishment were motivated by “legalism” and a “concern for preserving power and material wealth,” and that they lacked a deep understanding of the Gospel. No one who has actually studied what they had to say on the subject could believe for a moment that they had anything but the highest motives and a deep understanding of Scripture and tradition.

For another thing, if the Pope is saying that capital punishment is always and intrinsically immoral, then he would be effectively saying – whether consciously or unconsciously – that previous popes, Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and even divinely inspired Scripture are in error. If this is what he is saying, then he would be attempting to “make known some new doctrine,” which the First Vatican Council expressly forbids a pope from doing. He would, contrary to the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI, be “proclaim[ing] his own ideas” rather than “bind[ing] himself and the Church to obedience to God’s Word.” He would be joining that very small company of popes who have flirted with doctrinal error. And he would be undermining the credibility of the entire Magisterium of the Church, including his own credibility. For if the Church has been that wrong for that long about something that serious, why should we trust anything else she teaches? And if all previous popes have been so badly mistaken about something so important, why should we think Pope Francis is right?

However, in his address, Pope Francis also says things that point in the opposite direction. He approvingly cites Pope St John XXIII’s statement that “the Church should never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers.” He also approvingly quotes Pope St John Paul II’s remark that the Catechism “take[s] into account the doctrinal statements which down the centuries the Holy Spirit has made known to his Church.” Indeed, Pope Francis goes so far as to assert that in saying what he does about capital punishment, he is “not in any way contradicting past teaching” and that the view he is advocating “in no way represents a change in doctrine” (emphasis added). Now, as already noted, the past, unbroken doctrine of the Church is that capital punishment can under certain circumstances be a legitimate form of punishment. But if that is the case, then capital punishment is not after all “per se contrary to the Gospel” and it is not of its very nature “inadmissibleno matter how serious the crime.”

So we appear to have a conflict between Pope Francis’s assertions. Can it be resolved? The Pope appears to think that consistency with past teaching is ensured by labelling what he says about capital punishment a “development of doctrine.” But simply calling something a “development” rather than a contradiction doesn’t make it so. For example, if a pope were to declare that the doctrine of the Trinity is false, he could hardly justify this assertion by claiming that it is merely a “development” based on a deeper understanding of the traditional teaching that there is only one God.

In his address, the Pope heavily stresses the idea that “tradition is a living reality… [not] something static” and that “doctrine cannot be… tied to an interpretation that is rigid and immutable.” This, he suggests, entails a “new understanding of Christian truth” which reflects not only traditional magisterial teaching but also “the change in the awareness of the Christian people.” Yet this seems to conflict with what the Church has always said about how the development of doctrine works. For example, the First Vatican Council solemnly taught:

That meaning of the sacred dogmas is ever to be maintained which has once been declared by Holy Mother Church, and there must never be any abandonment of this sense under the pretext or in the name of a more profound understanding.

May understanding, knowledge and wisdom increase as ages and centuries roll along… but this only in its own proper kind, that is to say, in the same doctrine, the same sense, and the same understanding.

And in his encyclical on the modernist heresy, Pope St Pius X condemned both the “principle that in a living religion everything is subject to change” and “that most pernicious doctrine which would make of the laity a factor of progress in the Church” that balances “the conserving force…[of] tradition [as] represented by religious authority.”

The most charitable reading of Pope Francis’s remarks is that he is simply speaking very loosely and rhetorically and does not intend to contradict either the First Vatican Council and Pius X on the development of doctrine, or Scripture and previous popes on capital punishment. If that is so, then his remarks do not really change anything and are far less significant than the press reports imply. In that case, however, it would seem that a clarification from either the Pope himself or the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is in order, so that there is no doubt about the credibility of the Church’s claim to preserve the deposit of faith.

Edward Feser is the author of Five Proofs of the Existence of God and co-author of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defence of Capital Punishment, both published by Ignatius Press.