Sister Helen Prejean, renowned American anti-death penalty advocate, called it “the last remaining loophole in Catholic teaching on the death penalty”: the paragraph in the Catechism of the Catholic Church which allowed the death penalty, if only when it was “the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor”. Par. 2267 continued by stating that, if there are other and bloodless means of defence against an aggressor, these should always be used instead of the death penalty.
Yesterday Pope Francis changed this paragraph, and it now states that the death penalty is inadmissable in all circumstances.
The full text of the new paragraph 2267 is as follows:
“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.
Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”
 Francis, Address to Participants in the Meeting organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, 11 October 2017: L’Osservatore Romano, 13 October 2017, 5.
With the press release came a letter from Cardinal Luis Ladaria, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, addressed to the world’s bishops. He explains how the changes to the Catechism are rooted in past teachings of the Magisterium, especially Pope St. John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium vitæ, and teachings from Pope Benedict XVI and Francis himself. The cardinal therefore concludes:
“All of this shows that the new formulation of number 2267 of the Catechism expresses an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium. These teachings, in fact, can be explained in the light of the primary responsibility of the public authority to protect the common good in a social context in which the penal sanctions were understood differently, and had developed in an environment in which it was more difficult to guarantee that the criminal could not repeat his crime.”
In his blog, canon lawyer Bishop Jan Hendriks explains why past teachings, which did allow for the death penalty to be implemented, do no invalidate this new text:
“The reason lies in a greater awareness of human dignity and the various developments in society which make it no long necessary to implement the death penalty to protect citizens. That was also the reason why Pope John Paul II could hardly imagine the death penalty to be necessary, as the Catechism has stated since 1995: the state has such good means that the cases in which the death penalty is necessary to neutralise the aggressor are very rare, if they even occur. The new text takes a further step and unequivocally states that it is no longer necessary to implement the death penalty, and that a greater awareness of human dignity makes this even more inadmissable.”
Is this change as major as some media would have us believe? Yes and no.
Yes, because it is evidence that the Church has the luxury to say that capital punishment is no longer a necessity, no matter how rare. Past reasons for a state to kill a person are no longer valid, as there are other ways in which society can be protected from dangerous people.
And no, because it is a logical consequence of the pro-life position of the Church. Every person is created and willed by God and as such has an innate dignity which we must respect. Among other things that means that we have no right to take a life. This is a position that the Church has always held, even when it allowed for certain situations in which capital punishment was the only resort. The death penalty as such is always sinful. But, being also practical, the Church knows that sometimes there are no ideal solutions.
But that no longer flies. As Catholics we are pro-life, even if that life belongs to a murderer or other criminal.