For Catholics trying to understand and live their faith, the death penalty can be a stumbling block. If Catholics are pro-life why did the Church accept the death penalty as permissible for so many centuries? Is capital punishment considered to be on the same level as abortion? Has the Church changed its teaching on the death penalty, and if so does that mean the Church might change its teaching on other life issues? It’s a complex topic, and too often the discussion around capital punishment becomes politicized and divisive – even among Catholics.
Patrick Madrid recently shared what changed his mind when it came to capital punishment. He also took some time on The Patrick Madrid Show to go through the history of the Church’s teaching on the death penalty, in order to shed some light and help listeners understand the Church’s position on this topic.
“In 1988, when the Catechism of the Catholic Church was released I got my copy,” he recalled. “I think I got my first copy in French and then I got another copy in Spanish, and that’s what I worked with until the English version came out. I’m not sure why it came out later than the other ones, but it did.”
“In any case, those first editions of the Catechism had language that said that capital punishment was okay,” he said. “We prefer mercy, we prefer that if possible prisoners should be granted clemency. But it was very specific in saying that the death penalty is not intrinsically evil. It’s not something you can never resort to, unlike abortion which is always and everywhere wrong.”
Patrick explained that a few years after the release of the Catechism, Pope John Paul II released a very important encyclical called Evangelium Vitae, which is Latin for ‘The Gospel of Life.’ In this encyclical, the pope took a stand against the death penalty. In the encyclical, Pope John Paul II wrote:
It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.
Patrick explained, “This was a very decided shift away from the previous nineteen centuries of Catholic teaching on capital punishment as being morally permissible. So what happened was he ordered that the Catechism be revised, so that in the next edition which came out about two years after the encyclical, the section on capital punishment had been completely eliminated, what you would have read there the first time around. It was replaced by a restatement of what Pope John Paul II said in his encyclical.”
However, though it was a shift, Patrick pointed out that it was not a reversal of Church teaching. He said, “It left the door open. It pointed out what we all know to be true, which is that capital punishment is not in itself intrinsically evil.”
More recently, Pope Francis moved the needle even further, and it is likely that the next version of the Catechism that comes out will reflect the phraseology from his encyclicals that capital punishment is inadmissible.
So does this mean that the Church is changing teaching and acknowledging it was wrong about capital punishment? Not so, says Patrick.
“I would argue this is a change in the Church’s pastoral approach to this topic,” he said. “So the door has been closed on this now as a pastoral consideration. But it doesn’t change the fact that the Bible points out that God himself ordered capital punishment, in many cases actually.”
“If we were having this conversation 30 years ago it would have been a non-issue,” he pointed out. “Because everybody recognized that capital punishment was permitted. Now that Pope Francis has gone further than St. John Paul II, we can say with the pope that capital punishment is inadmissible.”
However, Patrick pointed out that though popes have, and could again in the future, change the permissibility of the death penalty’s use, that itself is permissible because the Church’s stance on the nature of the death penalty itself has not changed. It is to be avoided when possible but is not intrinsically evil.
“It’s possible, I don’t know how likely it is but it’s possible, that a future pope could say that given these new circumstances we’re in we’re now going to be okay with capital punishment again,” he said. “That could happen. And the reason it could happen (I’m not predicting it will happen, but it could happen) is because the essence of the issue of capital punishment has not changed. Nor can it change, actually. It is recognized that capital punishment is not an intrinsic evil.”