On August 1, 2018, the Vatican announced a change to the Catechism of the Catholic Church that strengthened moral opposition to the death penalty at the order of Pope Francis. In his announcement of the change, Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, maintained that it “expresses an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium.”
And indeed, the change was not extreme. The old version of the Catechism had already expressed great skepticism about the use of lethal punishment. It simply left open a loophole for cases where “this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” The new version appears to close that loophole. The relevant paragraph now proclaims that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”
But what does it mean to say the death penalty is inadmissible? That is not a technical term of Catholic moral theology. How does the prohibition relate to the established framework of the Catholic moral tradition? In my view, there are three options.
First, the prohibition against capital punishment could be an absolute moral norm, binding in all times and places. In this case, those who taught that capital punishment was either morally good or morally tolerable were in fact mistaken—in much the same way that those who taught that slavery was tolerable were mistaken. Here the continuity would lie in the growing sensitivity to the Gospel’s commitment to human dignity.
Second, prohibition against capital punishment could be a culturally dependent moral norm—absolutely binding, but only on those who live in particular times and cultures. Consider the case of usury. For centuries, the church considered the lending of money at interest to be an intrinsic evil. But the church increasingly recognized that an absolute prohibition was justified only in a pre-capitalist economy, not in a capitalist one. The difference between the first and second option does not matter much in practice, since we cannot choose which era we live in. But it is theoretically important, since it means that those who held a different view of usury or capital punishment in the past were not wrong to do so. They were just born in different times.