Does the Pope’s Development of Doctrine on the Death Penalty Turn Catholics into Pacifists?

October 17, 2017

Does the Pope’s Development of Doctrine on the Death Penalty Turn Catholics into Pacifists?

By Andrew Parrish


(ROME) – Speaking to the meeting of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization last week, Pope Francis declared the death penalty an “inadmissible” punishment which was “contrary to the Gospel”. Commentators have rightly noted this statement's apparent contradiction to the deposited teaching of the Church, including the strong definitions of previous Popes. However, the grounds on which the Pope's position appear to depend could require far more revision of Church teaching than anyone has yet noted, including the concepts of just war and killing in self-defense.

The Pope, in his remarks, bases his opposition to the death penalty on the idea that it is a violation of human dignity. “This issue cannot be reduced to a mere résumé of traditional teaching without taking into account not only the doctrine as it has developed in the teaching of recent Popes, but also the change in the awareness of the Christian people which rejects an attitude of complacency before a punishment deeply injurious of human dignity,” he said. The Pope believes that: “Here we are not in any way contradicting past teaching, for the defense of the dignity of human life from the first moment of conception to natural death has been taught by the Church consistently and authoritatively.” Based on this ground, the death penalty “is per se contrary to the Gospel, because it entails the willful suppression of a human life that never ceases to be sacred in the eyes of its Creator and of which – ultimately – only God is the true judge and guarantor.”

The historical development of human societies, as well as the Church's understanding of human dignity, has progressed to a point where the death penalty's appropriateness is no longer apparent. “In past centuries, when means of defense 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. Sadly, even in the Papal States recourse was had to this extreme and inhumane remedy that ignored the primacy of mercy over justice,” Pope Francis declared.

The Pope concludes, “It is necessary, therefore, to reaffirm 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.” Such a strong position on the meaning of “human dignity” is dangerous, because it equates “dignity” with the integrity (the “inviolability”) of the human body.

Thanks to this emphasis, the Pope's position leaves one to wonder, not whether it is licit for the State to take a life, but whether a life can be taken under any circumstances. This understanding could rule out, for example, the possibility of a just war, in which the human dignity of enemy soldiers will almost inevitably be violated, and also of a just killing in self-defense, in which the human dignity of an attacker will be violated.

Indeed, the choice of the word “inviolability” appears to threaten even the idea of deliberately causing bodily injury to another person, let alone killing them. Is not disabling someone an attack on their “inviolability”? At the very least, this line of thought conjures up images of a supine society in which murderers, rapists and foreign armies wander the streets unchecked. The Church has intentionally developed its position to avoid endorsing such total pacifism. If Pope Francis would like to endorse it now, it will be necessary to determine how human societies can exist without ever inflicting just punishment on anyone, and this will require dramatic changes to the Church's understanding of political theory, human nature, and justice.


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By Andrew Parrish

Andrew Parrish is a 2015 graduate of the Catholic University of Lublin in Poland. He holds a BA in Philosophy.

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