Pope Francis officially updated Catholic catechism, calling death penalty “unacceptable”

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Pope Francis has long been a vocal critic of the death penalty. On Thursday, the Vatican announced that it had approved formal changes to the catechism, the main teaching document of the Catholic Church, to clarify that the death penalty, in the eyes of the Church, is completely unacceptable.

In a statement released Thursday morning, the Vatican announced a correction to the section of the Catholic Catechism that deals with the death penalty, which now go read:

The use of the death penalty by the legitimate authority, after a fair trial, has long been 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 a growing 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 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.

Quoting a speech made in 2017 by Pope Francis at a pontifical council, the document continues: no one, ”and she works with determination for its abolition around the world.

In a letter published Thursday, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, Vatican Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, called the change an “authentic development of doctrine” in line with the Church’s earlier teaching. Earlier, Ladaria wrote, more ambiguous approaches to the death penalty could be rationalized by the responsibility of governments to defend people against offenders. Ladaria confirmed in his letter that Pope Francis specifically requested the changes.

In October 2017, Pope Francis told the clergy gathered at the Vatican to honor the 25th anniversary of the existence of the catechism that “it must be emphatically affirmed that the death penalty is an inhuman measure which humiliates personal dignity” , suggesting that the Catechism could be updated to reflect this. The move has sparked debate among Catholics about the extent to which Pope Francis is refining an existing understanding of the death penalty or, more controversially, changing the teaching of the church outright. These questions have come to mark the controversial papacy of the pontiff more widely.

The catechism has been updated regarding the death penalty before

While catechism updates are not uncommon, they are extremely rare, and so this decision represents an important step for the Pope to advocate for an abolition of the death penalty around the world.

That said, the catechism itself is relatively recent, dating back to 1992 under John Paul II as part of a larger program of codification and clarification of Church teaching after Vatican Council II of 1962- ’65. The 1992 version of the catechism noted that governments had the right to apply the death penalty in specific circumstances, but only when “bloodless means” were not “sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor” or “to protect public order”.

In 1997, a correction Catechism was published under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who would later become Pope Benedict XVI), making it clear that the circumstances in which the death penalty might be acceptable were so rare that they were potentially non-existent.

The final text of 1997 declares that the Church “does not traditionally exclude the use of the death penalty”, but with the reservation that she recognizes the death penalty as legitimate only “if it is the only possible means. to effectively defend human lives against the unjust aggressor. . “However, the catechism goes on to say that in today’s society,” the cases where the execution of the culprit is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically non-existent “.

The language of the latest update therefore builds on the 1997 document, citing, in part, the universal development of adequate prison systems as evidence that the death penalty is no longer necessary in rare cases to ensure security. public.

Overall, it is not known what political influence the change in the catechism will have. Since, by and large, Catholic organizations (at least in the United States) have already Supporters of the abolition of the death penalty and that no predominantly Catholic country applies the death penalty, this move is unlikely to have significant global effects.

Nonetheless, the change in the catechism – the primary instructional document codifying the nature of the Catholic faith – is striking.

Theologians have not always been against the death penalty

Over the past decades, several popes, including John Paul II, Benedict XIV and Francis himself, have all been vocal opponents of the death penalty. This was not always true, however. Throughout the early Church and the medieval period, extremely influential theologians such as Saint Augustine (354-430 AD) and Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) made a distinction between murder and execution. legal sanctioned by the government.

Augustine, for example, wrote that “if there were no other established means of suppressing the wickedness of the wicked, perhaps extreme necessity might cause these men to be put to death”, although he also urged local magistrates to show mercy to convicted prisoners and commute their sentences in order to give them time to repent.

The Catechism of Trent, which dates back to 1566 and was the broadest teaching document available to the church before 1992, explicitly tolerates the death penalty. “Another type of lawful murder belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted the power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent”, we can read. “The proper use of this power, far from implying the crime of murder, is an act of primary obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder.”

In the aftermath of Vatican Council II, however, prominent Catholic figures increasingly opposed the death penalty. This is in part due to a broader focus – perhaps best expressed in Pope John Paul II’s 1992 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (Gospel of life) – on a “culture of life», A holistic approach to social education on issues such as abortion and medical care that holistically emphasized the dignity of the human person from conception to (natural) death.

In the United States, Catholic bodies like the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have actively lobbied for abolition of the death penalty in America in recent years. That said, when it comes to Catholics on the ground, the numbers tell a different story; 53 percent of American Catholics support the death penalty, just 1 point lower than the national average.

Francis, during his pontificate, interpreted the call for a “culture of life” more broadly, not only pleading for traditional “pro-life” causes such as opposition to abortion, but also by pushing for it. environmental protection, refugee rights and dismantling. economic inequality. His approach to the death penalty therefore fits well with the broader tendencies of his own papacy and of the Vatican in general.

Critics of François worry about his tendency to make unilateral decisions

The actual change in catechism is relatively minor. However, for Francis’s critics, this is yet another example of his tendency to unilaterally influence Church teaching. Because Catholic theology is fundamentally founded on historical continuity – although the doctrine can in theory be refined – critics of Francis see it as a threat to the fundamental unity of the Church.

In recent years, Francis has been criticized for including a footnote in an apostolic exhortation he wrote, suggesting that parish priests have the power to grant communion to divorced and remarried couples, even though the Church Catholic formally denies the legitimacy of these unions. Often, Francis’ method has been to use his media platform to informally advocate, say, for greater compassion for LGBTQ people on a pastoral level (such as when he asked reporters, “Who am I?” – I to judge? ”homosexuals), while avoiding going through formal channels to refine or modify the teaching of the church.

Francis’ decision to call for a “development” of doctrine therefore merits being seen in the context of his larger papacy. While many Catholics celebrated the move, some of its longtime critics have expressed suspicion.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, whose book on Francis, Changing the Church, criticized the pontiff’s divisive approach, characterized the movement as “another example of how Pope Francis has consistently exposed the tensions in the post-Vatican II conservative position”. He added that François “pushed the [John Paul II] synthesis ”- that is to say, authorizing the death penalty in theory while arguing that it is undesirable in practice -“ in an intellectual crisis ”.

Yet for many Catholics the move was welcome – especially after a week in which one of America’s most influential Catholic leaders resigned over allegations of sexual abuse.



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