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Opinion When it comes to the death penalty, Pope Francis is correcting a distortion in the Church

Brandon Ambrosino is a Delaware-based freelance writer.

Complicated theological debates often come down to disagreement over a word or two. For example: Does Jesus share being with God? Does the Holy Spirit proceed from one person of the Trinity or two? Is God in the world or with the world?

One word that has been at the centre of theological debate throughout the papacy of Pope Francis is the word “change.” Almost since Day 1, onlookers have argued over whether or not Francis is truly “changing” the direction of the church, or if he’s simply “developing” what she has always taught. Conservatives claim to be okay with the second, but seem terrified of the first.

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The change/develop debate has come to a fever pitch over the past week in response to the Vatican’s announcement that, at the request of Francis, the catechism would be changed to state unequivocally that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” In no uncertain terms, Francis has said the death penalty “is per se contrary to the Gospel.” The 1997 version of Catechism 2267, approved by Pope John Paul II, stated “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.”

While the Vatican acknowledges that the church has in the past approved of the death penalty, Francis says moral reflection on the issue must take into account both the development of doctrine and a recent “change in the awareness of the Christian people.” This is from the Vatican’s official statement on the change:

“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.”

Today … increasing awareness … emerged … new understanding … developed: This kind of talk has made a lot of conservatives very, very angry. Catholic University of America professor Michael Pakaluk writing in First Things accused Francis’s language of “smacking of raw judicial power,” and, wringing his hands, wondered whether Francis might change church teaching on other issues. He notes that such issues, as the late Cardinal Avery Dulles wrote, might include divorce, abortion, women’s ordinations and homosexuality.

Another author, Edward Feser, also writing in First Things, made a similar case: “If capital punishment is wrong in principle, then the Church has for two millennia consistently taught grave moral error and badly misinterpreted scripture. And if the Church has been so wrong for so long about something so serious, then there is no teaching that might not be reversed … .”

The issue, then, isn’t so much about capital punishment as it is the church’s “authority.” Pope Francis’s death penalty change, the argument goes, compromises the authority of the church on matters of theology and ethics. A pope who has the courage to admit his church was wrong about one issue lays the groundwork for other Catholics to start admitting that the church was and perhaps is wrong about other issues.

Well, it’s high time. The church, as Francis says, is a pilgrim on a journey, which means she hasn’t yet arrived to her fullness. It is semper reformanda, in evolution. It’s unfinished, as Bernard Prusak, one of my Villanova University professors and author of The Church Unfinished, has long argued. “The Church should not be conceived as so predetermined by the past that its future simply has to be more of the same,” he writes. “Engaged in a critical dialogue with ongoing human history, the two-thousand-year-old Church is reshaped and becomes young again precisely through its creative efforts to proclaim the good news in such a manner that it will be heard and received in every time and culture.”

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In other words, Prof. Prusak says elsewhere, the church must live out of its past and into its future. We know what Christianity looks like 2,000 years after Jesus’s day – what will it look like in 10,000 years or 100,000 years? We can bet a lot of what passes for Christian ethics today will at that time be different. Changed. New.

Before he was pope, Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, pointed out that “not everything that exists in the Church must for that reason also be a legitimate tradition.” Alongside the legitimate tradition is a “distorting tradition.” To adjudicate between the two, he said, “tradition must not be considered only affirmatively but also critically.” In light of his contemporary situation, what he often calls the “signs of the times,” Francis critically considered the death penalty and found the church’s justification of it to be a distorting tradition, and with an admirable humility, corrected the distortion.

If his critics are concerned that this theology will open the door to similar hermeneutic moves – well, they are probably right. But such change is perfectly at home in a religion whose founder promises to “make all things new.” In fact, Jesus’s ethical deliberation often included subversions or reconsiderations of commonly accepted religious wisdom. “You’ve heard it said like this,” he’d teach, “but why not consider it this way?” That Jesus and early Christians had such supple moral imaginations should not be overlooked. What this means is rather than seeing a readiness to reconsider and reform key teachings a modern hermeneutic move, we should accept that such reconsiderations have always featured in Christian wisdom since the time of Jesus and his first followers.

Such creative thinking is on full display in the Gospels. One such episode, in fact, involves the death penalty itself. The Hebrew scriptures prescribe capital punishment for dozens of behaviors, including what it calls sexual immorality. Some of Jesus’s opponents seized on those laws. When a woman who was “caught in the act of adultery” was brought before Jesus, his critics demanded him to enforce the Torah and put her to death for her sin. But Jesus, who always kept the concrete person at the forefront of his theology, saved her life by turning around the ethical challenge to her accusers: “Let him who is without sin throw the first stone.”

While Jesus respected the law, he never elevated it above humans. In fact, the purpose of the law, he maintained, was to serve humans, to safeguard their lives and to encourage their flourishing. When a particular law – don’t work on the Sabbath, say – was at odds with the immediate needs of a person, he always prioritized the person, even when it meant violating the law as it was popularly understood.

Pope Francis’s words on the death penalty are in the same vein. Even though states, including the Vatican, have argued for its lawfulness, capital punishment “abases human dignity.” For that reason, he says, it can no longer be justified. Here he is doing what he learned from Jesus: applying an age-old principle to a contemporary situation with the goal of safeguarding human life and dignity. You can call it “change” or “development.”

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But you can also just call it “Christian.”

The Roman Catholic Church has formally changed its doctrine to oppose capital punishment, reflecting an evolution in teachings that started with Pope John Paul II. Reuters
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