The big news out of the Vatican today (not a phrase you see often), is that the Pope has approved a reworded portion of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, specifically paragraph 2267 which will now read:
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. (emphasis added)
This news is not entirely new because Pope Francis spoke last October about wanting to review the Church teachings on the death penalty and it was a topic during the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization that took place that same month. This English text is the fruitful effort of that council as well as the work of Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The new text was introduced with a letter from Cardinal Ladaria where he explains that this is not a new doctrine or a contradiction from previous teaching, but is a natural evolution of our understanding of the dignity of humans:
If, in fact the political and social situation of the past made the death penalty an acceptable means for the protection of the common good, today the increasing understanding that the dignity of a person is not lost even after committing the most serious crimes.
Personally, I have never supported the death penalty. I went to a Roman catholic school and I remember very clearly in grade 9 watching Dead Man Walking about Sister Helen Prejean and her work with Matthew Poncelet during his time on death row. I consider the greatest sin of a state to be the murder of innocent citizens, and the fact that we are incapable of knowing for fact the guilt of any person (even in seemingly clear cut murder cases) means that there is always a risk of the state murdering an innocent person and thus the death penalty is immoral. That is the logic that I am able to use to justify my position. And it is rooted in the dignity of the body, being a creation of God that we have no right to extinguish (even with seemingly good reason). I am therefore certainly not upset that the Pope and the church have taken this position on the death penalty, but my catholic spider senses are tingling here…Cardinal Ladaria is stretched to explain that this is not new doctrine, and he does it by saying that it is our secular understanding of the dignity of the body that has informed the church’s refined position on the matter. The problem with that thinking is that the source of the dignity of the body does not come from our secular understanding– no university professor or philosopher has articulated any powerful message as to why I should care about my brother– it comes from our understanding of our relationship with God and the fact that each and every one of us are created uniquely by God. We therefore all have certain rights and dignity that comes from that fact. This is the source of western human rights. We do not have rights because we are a collection of atoms, we have rights because we are creatures of God. Nothing new has been revealed recently about the dignity of the body. It is part of the Deposit of Faith and has been present since Christ’s Resurrection when the body was glorified. It is a core teaching of the faith that stretches back to the Jews in exile and their understanding of how the world was made– man being made in the image of God and all. So I am personally at a loss to understand where the good Cardinal is coming from when he asserts that this is not new doctrine.
And this is where I am going to depart from the Roman church. They were wrong, and have been wrong on the death penalty for a long time. Their understanding of the dignity of the body is sound, but they made the error long ago of caving to secular and temporal political opinions against the Will of God which was clear in the Deposit of Faith. We know why the church endorsed the death penalty, it had been done for centuries around the world and was being done within advanced western societies (hello United States of America) and the church was not willing to go down into a fight with the state about the issue. It was political and the Roman church failed her faithful in this teaching. And today they are continuing the sin because of their own pride, they cannot admit that they were wrong and are now making a course correction, instead we get a very smart Cardinal contorting himself into all sorts of wild positions in order to justify what is essentially a new or rather corrected doctrine because of the fact that the Roman church puts more emphasis on an appearance of never being wrong rather than just admitting it is not how the church works at all– it is not how the Body of Christ works at all. This is yet another example of Roman church leaders using weak logic to paper over a major sin of the church of the whole, the sin of pride believing that somehow they are incapable of impressing their own human sin and error onto the church that very much exists within the world and is influenced by the broken and sinful humans.
It is good news that the Roman church is finally teaching proper catholic doctrine as present in the Deposit of Faith concerning the death penalty. But it is a sad that they continue to try and fool the faithful in thinking they were not wrong to teach acceptance before, or that this is not a new or complete change in teaching on the subject. I suppose I can chalk up not being made to feel like a fool when Cardinals and the like try to sells these illogical lies to another reason why I am happy to have left the Roman church.