Building on the development of Church teaching against capital punishment, Pope Francis has ordered a revision of the Catechism of the Church to assert “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” and to commit the Church to working toward its abolition worldwide.
The catechism’s paragraph on capital punishment, 2267, had been updated by St John Paul II in 1997 to strengthen its scepticism about the need to use the death penalty in the modern world and, particularly, to affirm the importance of protecting all human life.
Announcing the change, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said: “The new text, following in the footsteps of the teaching of John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae, affirms that ending the life of a criminal as punishment for a crime is inadmissible because it attacks the dignity of the person, a dignity that is not lost even after having committed the most serious crimes.”
Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) was St John Paul’s 1995 encyclical on the dignity and sacredness of all human life. The encyclical led to an updating of the Catechism of the Church, which he originally promulgated in 1992 and which recognised “the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty”.
At the same time, the original version of the catechism still urged the use of “bloodless means” when possible to punish criminals and protect citizens.
The catechism now will read: “Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good. Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state.
“Lastly, 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.”