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Pope Francis may refine Catholic teaching on the death penalty

He called it “contrary to the gospel.”

Pope Francis Celebrates A Mass In Fatima
Pope Francis has been a controversial figure within his own church
Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

The self-described “pro-life” tendency of many Catholics has often referred, at least in public policy debates, to abortion. But last week, Pope Francis took a different tack, condemning the death penalty in unambiguous terms that went above and beyond the church’s official stance.

“One has to strongly affirm that condemnation to the death penalty is an inhuman measure that humiliates personal dignity, in whatever form it is carried out,” Francis said to clergy gathered to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the official document that lays out church doctrine. He added: “[It is] contrary to the Gospel, because it is freely decided to suppress a human life that is always sacred in the eyes of the creator, and of which, in the final analysis, God alone is the true judge and guarantor.”

Because of the nature of the event at which Francis was speaking, as well as his statement that “[opposing the death penalty] should find a more adequate and coherent space in the catechism," there has been heavy speculation that Francis may be planning to advocate for an update of the catechism, which was established in 1992 under Pope John Paul II as part of a wider program of making church doctrine more accessible to the laity.

The 1992 edition of the catechism allowed for the death penalty in some cases, saying, "Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime.” However, following public outcry, a 1997 update to the catechism — spearheaded by the pope as well as by his top aide Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later to become Pope Benedict XVI — clarified that the death penalty should be permissible only in very rare cases.

The 1997 version of the catechism now reads: "Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means. … [In today’s society], the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

However, Francis’s words indicate that a second update may be in order. Like most changes in the Catholic Church, this would likely necessitate a years-long process of meetings, debates, and formulations by a designated committee of bishops. It’s worth noting that Francis was not speaking ex cathedra — in which his words are considered infallible according to Catholic tradition — and thus they are not automatically binding.

If Francis calls for a catechism update, it may provoke conflict within the church along familiar fault lines. Francis’s reputation as an outspoken thinker on social issues, including environmentalism, capitalism, and the refugee crisis, as well as his relative flexibility on issues like divorce, has made him a controversial figure within his own church.

Much of this internal dissent centers on Francis’s 2016 document “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”). A number of passages, including the infamous “footnote 351,” drew ire from more conservative Catholic clergy. In that footnote, Francis argued that people living in an “objective situation of sin” — something that could mean divorced or unmarried couples — could nevertheless “be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.” More right-wing Catholics saw this as opening the floodgates to allowing such couples to receive the sacrament of communion. In response, 45 Catholic scholars sent a list of dubia (doubts) to Francis, to which he has not yet publicly responded.

Tensions over the dubia have persisted a year later. Late last month, the Associated Press reported that a group of 216 Catholic thinkers delivered a “filial correction” — essentially, a formal rebuke — accusing the Pope of spreading heresy with “Amoris, the first time such a rebuke has been used since the 14th century.

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