During the papal visit to the United States in 2015, Father Federico Lombardi, then spokesman for the Holy See, told reporters that Pope Francis was developing a Catholic teaching on the death penalty and the environment.
He was responding to a question from The Tablet on whether a change in the position of the Church was occurring after the Pope used a speech to call for the “worldwide abolition” of the death penalty while speaking of “environmental law” by addressing the United Nations in New York.
On Thursday, we saw this development become final with the Pope authorizing a modification of the catechism on capital punishment.
The death penalty, according to the revised 2267 clause of the teaching, is “inadmissible in all cases because it constitutes an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”, and that the Church is will work to abolish capital punishment around the world.
In the past, the death penalty had been permitted in Catholic education in some cases in order to protect the common good, as an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes, and to defend the community against an unjust aggressor.
“Today, however, there is a growing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes”, explains the new text. âIn addition, a new understanding has emerged of the importance of state-imposed criminal sanctions. Finally, more effective detention systems have been developed, which ensure the fair protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not permanently deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.
What the change of the Pope shows is that the teaching of the Church, rather than being kept in the aspic, can evolve according to the changing circumstances it faces. In unstable or conflict-ridden countries, the death penalty could have been a deterrent, a way to protect vulnerable people from dangerously violent people. Today, however, prison is more than just punishment and in many countries sophisticated detention centers more than adequately protect the public.
Research on delinquency also shows that rehabilitation must be part of any punishment for a crime, a view that fits the Christian view that no one is beyond redemption. This is something that this Pope, who made mercy the watchword of his pontificate, repeatedly seeks to emphasize.
In October, Francis gave a speech signaling that the death penalty was about to change, arguing that it was contrary to the gospel and deploring the use of the death penalty in the former papal states.
“We do not contradict the teachings of the past in any way, for the defense of human life from the first moment of conception until natural death has been taught by the Church consistently and with authority,” he said. -he declares. said at a rally organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization. “Yet the harmonious development of doctrine requires that we cease making arguments which now appear clearly contrary to the new understanding of Christian truth.”
This is how the Church makes changes: by developing a deeper understanding of divinely revealed truth. The word tradition has its roots in the Latin word “tradere” which means “to hand over” or “to transmit” – it does not mean “to keep everything the same”.
In the United States, however, today’s decision is already receiving mixed reviews as 31 of the 50 states retain the death penalty. For Catholic lawyers, judges, and rulers in these countries, they are now faced with teaching from the Church on a subject that goes against their law of the land. The Pope is unlikely to make support for the death penalty an issue that prevents someone from receiving Communion, but he will seek to change hearts and minds.
While there is already strong criticism of Francis’ catechism change – which to some may seem like an attempt to change the conversation as the clergy sexual abuse scandal rages – others will be delighted.
One of them will be Sister Helen Prejean, a nun who for years campaigned for the abolition of the death penalty and was played by Susan Sarandon in “Dead Man Walking”, a film where Sister Helen offers her supporting an inmate on death row played by Sean Penn.
As for the Pope, criticism of his change in the United States is unlikely to worry him and will assess his decision according to Christ’s words in Matthew 9:13: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”