Death Penalty- An Authentic Development.

Anne Lastman

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: Letter to the Bishops regarding the new revision of number 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the death penalty, August 1, 2018

“All of this shows that the new formulation of number 2267 of the Catechism expresses an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium. These teachings, in fact, can be explained in the light of the primary responsibility of the public authority to protect the common good in a social context in which the penal sanctions were understood differently, and had developed in an environment in which it was more difficult to guarantee that the criminal could not repeat his crime.”
Cardinal Luis Ladaria
Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
Letter to the Bishops regarding the New Revision of No. 2267 of
the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the Death Penalty

In recent developments the Catholic Church’s teaching on the death penalty has been changed much to dissension amongst some Catholics.

My personal belief has always been that the death penalty is always wrong and against the Fifth commandment, “thou shalt not kill” and this further confirmed by the teachings of St John Paul II who wrote in his Encyclical Evangelium Vitae “Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this.” …

Personally I could not or cannot justify working to save the life of a newly created infant the size of pin head or grain of rice and then say that legally killing another human is acceptable. We are doing no different than the abortionist or those who call for legalised abortion and thus demand the death penalty for a baby which implanted in a womb where it was unwanted. In this matter we take control of the new life and decide its disposal. We demand the death penalty. In the matter of death penalty we take control of a life and decide legally its disposal.

The Holy Father Pope Francis has looked with profound hope at the signs for a new culture of life and the “growing public opposition to the death penalty, even when such a penalty is seen as a kind of ‘legitimate defence” Today we live in a time where it’s possible that those who have committed heinous crimes can be held humanely till life’s end and thus protect society, and no necessity for the legal killing of another human. This also gives the person a chance if not to be freed to reverse his/her life and change for the eternal.
The OT speaks much about “Life” and its source who is God and that Life is His domain. Not our intentional law. When we demand the death penalty we commit the same murder as the felon committed in the first place. (An eye for an eye).

St John Paul II also intervened on occasions against the death penalty, appealing both to respect for the dignity of the person as well as to say that today’s society possesses secure measures to defend itself from criminals and in His Christmas Message of 1998, he wished “the world the consensus concerning the need for urgent and adequate measures … to end the death penalty.”
The motivation to be committed to the abolition of the death penalty was continued with the subsequent Popes Benedict XVI who recalled “the attention of society’s leaders to the need to make every effort to eliminate the death penalty.”

And finally His Holiness Pope Francis went one step further in his capacity as Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, the Vicar of Christ, together with Bishops in communion with him and changed the previous teaching on the death sentence and made it “inadmissible” at all times.
The new text reads “The Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

This means that death penalty is always “inadmissible” because it violates human dignity designed in the image of God, an image which God Himself has pledged to protect when he protected the first murderer Cain. (Gen4:1-16) and it’s also the same human dignity which we believe is inherent in that tiny pre born infant, by being a child of God. Dignity is never lost or traded like a mess of pottage.

This change or further development of tradition as recorded in the CCC para 2267 which deals with this issue will draw fire from Pope Francis’ critics and perhaps those who have lost a loved one to violence, but it is important to remember that that criminal was also designed in God’s image but somewhere along the life journey a wrong road was taken which lead to a squandered life.

It perhaps was expected that this development or revision of paragraph 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church dealing with the death penalty would have drawn a great deal of criticism from the Pope’s usual detractors. The revised teaching now calls the death penalty “inadmissible” in light of “an increasing awareness of the dignity of the person,” “a new understanding . . . of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state,” and the development of “more effective systems of detention . . . which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.” (New 2018 version of CCC 2267).

Critics of the Holy Father Pope Francis argue that this new doctrinal development contradicts previous Church teaching and is thus invalid, and yet as we continue to consider development we can see that in all matters the Church has herself proceeded with development as the times, needs and understandings arose. To remain static would mean that the Church cannot be walking in time with her whole body toward God.
Cardinal Ladaria of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has stated that “the new formulation of number 2267 of the Catechism expresses an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium.” Meaning that with this development continuity is being encored by Pope Francis and his advisers.

We believe that the Holy Catholic Church teaches that Jesus Christ is the authoritative interpreter of the Law and the Holy Father, His Vicar and physical voice on earth, has the authority to pronounce doctrinal judgments and to make disciplinary decisions in the Church. [CCC 553]). However, death penalty advocates whilst acknowledging Jesus’ overruling of the Old Testament laws even the law of Lex Talionis “an eye for an eye” (Lev.24:19-21) and the fifth commandment Thou Shalt not Kill refuse to acknowledge that this new development is in accordance with tradition.

Whenever Jesus sought to make a change to “the law” he always returned to in the beginning. By returning back to the beginning he reminds us that “in the beginning it was not haven been so but because of your hardness of heart that Moses permitted…” (Mt 19:8. The law was conditional because of a human disposition, hardness of heart and not because it was as it should have been.

By going back to the beginning Jesus was able to throw light onto the core of meaning and develop further to infuse the new meaning with light and grace.

Legalised killing (e.g. abortion, euthanasia, and death penalty) is always evil, even if it appears necessary and permitted. However, murder darkens the soul and alters the divine imprint in the design of the one committing the murder, or one participating in a murder or being part of an intentional murder. There is a barrier which is erected between one who commits murder and God. A turning away from God. A change so intrinsic and so fundamental that there cannot ever be a similarity or “likeness” to God again. This is why there was a need for a divine person who knew no death, to come to know death and loss of dignity and effect of that barrier, to make reparation for the death which enveloped Adam and Eve and their posterity.
Only one without stain of death could understand the necessity for His death to make reparation for all other deaths. By His death he has repaired the dignity lost to the human race because of that first sin and further shedding of blood would repeat the death sentence for sin and incur this sentence:

“Whosoever shall shed man’s blood, his blood shall be shed, for man was made to the image of God (Gn 9:6)
In time an understanding has emerged. An “increased awareness of the dignity of the human person” which Pope Francis offers to justify his CCC revision. A vison of which St John Paul II inscribed in Evangelium Vitae with his now famous words “Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this.” E.V 1:7.

The words of the 1997 version of CCC para 2267 “Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically non-existent””
Pope Francis in taking this decision has taken the earlier words of St John Paull II and elaborated these further.

“More effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.”
Current CCC version of paragraph 2267.

The doctrine of human dignity (even of a criminal) is much better understood and therefore more central to our understanding of the value inherent in human being. Every human being from the smallest pre born, to the most weakest and most vulnerable to even one who even ”in his darkest moment” still does not lose his dignity. The dignity is not his to lose or for others to take from him. This we know from God’s response to Cain and his fear of being killed for his own act of killing. God responded with a mark of protection. Not death penalty. Meaning that only He has imprinted His seal on the human and no one else may touch the human at cost of his own life.(Gen.4:15).

Pope Francis’ new teaching is indeed a development in doctrine and has declared and made it clear that it is completely “inadmissible” for a contemporary Catholic to support the death penalty.
Our understanding, and promulgation of our understanding, of human dignity even for the greatest sinner helps us understand that dignity must at all times be respected and protected for the good of all of God’s people. It is this which separates us from other creation and Pope Francis’ new revision does this and does not contradict but indeed brings to mind the great honour inherent in our dignity. Our personhood. Our Image in the likeness of His son Jesus the one who accepted the death penalty in order to restore dignity lost through sin.