While today’s U.S. prisons make it harder than in centuries past for killers to escape, the church’s primary rationale for the death penalty is not the security of prisons or the deterrent effects of capital punishment, both of which involve subjective evaluations. It is, instead, the unchanging principle of retributive justice.
That teaching (found in Scripture and affirmed by popes, church fathers, numerous catechisms, etc.) recognizes that allowing the state to enact a punishment commensurate with an egregious crime honors the worth and rights of the victim; affirms the dignity of the offender as a moral agent capable of deciding to do evil; and offers the killer a spiritual ‘cure’. . . giving him opportunity and incentive to seriously consider the afterlife, examine the state of his soul, and make reparation. There is no such urgency if he’s given a life sentence. In fact, he may even continue his crimes, arranging murders inside or outside the prison. The church recognizes, contrary to the Marcion heresy, that God is a God of both justice and mercy. And like all good moms, she knows punishment for wayward children is actually a manifestation of love.
When Pope Francis altered the catechism, misrepresenting the church’s view on dignity and ignoring retributive justice, he gave the impression that something the church has permitted for 2000 years is now “inadmissible.” If true, this would contradict the consistent teaching of the church founded by Christ and protected by the Holy Spirit. And no one, not even a pope, can change Catholic doctrine.
Pope Francis should have made clear — as St. John Paul did in his own earlier statement on the topic — that what he proclaims is his personal opinion, a matter of prudential judgment. The fact that Francis did not make that clarification — and used his characteristically-imprecise language — means he has once again left both Catholics and non-Catholics with a morally-dangerous ambiguity.
Regardless of where we stand on capital punishment (and we are allowed to disagree), we’re obliged to interpret this in accord with Scripture, tradition, and long-standing magisterial teaching. For the sake of the Church and her unchanging doctrine, we must understand this ourselves and make it clear to others.