Pope Francis prays with participants at an encounter marking the 25th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church at the Vatican (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

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.

Many conservative Catholics in the United States—the only Western country to practice capital punishment—sorely misused John Paul II’s framework.

Finally, the prohibition might be a magisterial application of the cardinal virtue of prudence, which is (morally infused) right reason about things to be done or avoided in the here and now. Although some categories of actions are not intrinsically evil (that is, wrong by reason of the agent’s object in acting), they can still be understood as indisputably wrong given the indisputable facts and circumstances. An example here would be a total prohibition on the use of nuclear weapons.

So which of these three categories is the best way to understand the new prohibition of capital punishment as inadmissible? While there are arguments for each of them, I think the case for the third option is strongest for three reasons.

First, I think it is significant that the revision did not use the phrase “intrinsic evil,” a label more appropriate for wrongful acts in the first and second categories. Second, Ladaria Ferrer presented the judgment as designed “to better reflect” recent developments in church teaching. The key development here was the articulation of the prohibition under John Paul II, which emphasized that the situations in which the death penalty is morally acceptable “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” That type of reasoning belongs in the third category: it is an authoritative judgment of prudential reasoning, applying moral norms to specific factual situations.

But many conservative Catholics in the United States—the only Western country to practice capital punishment—sorely misused John Paul II’s framework. They falsely claimed that intrinsically evil acts like abortion were always worse than actions that were wrong for other reasons. Moreover, they treated prudential judgment in a crudely relativistic way. They insisted that opposition to intrinsically evil acts was compulsory—but when it came to prudential judgments, it was chacun á son goût. Despite their sensitivity to the dignity of the unborn, they seemed blind to the dignity of the wretched, messy, and less pure members of the human family.

The Catechism is a teaching tool. Pope Francis’s program as a moral teacher is, I take it, first to reassert the inherent dignity of every human being—even the inmate on death row—and second to reclaim the vigor, breadth, and moral depth of prudential judgment. But since the language of prudential judgment has been distorted, Francis needed to find a new way to convey his message. The word “inadmissible” is a good choice for the job. While it is an oddity in English, it is a rich word in Italian. According to the Italian Dictionary il Sabatini Coletti, inammissibile refers to something that cannot be approved (accettato), or justified (giustificato), something lacking with respect to its assumptions (presupposti). So even if capital punishment isn’t an intrinsic evil, it cannot be approved or justified. It is an affront to the sovereignty of God and to the dignity of all persons.

Cathleen Kaveny teaches law and theology at Boston College.

Also by this author
This story is included in these collections:

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the September 21, 2018 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.