Did Pope Francis  change infallible church teaching when he changed the catechism on the death penalty?

No.   He didn’t change the moral principles, he changed how the principles are currently are applied.  Why? Because,  “in Pope Francis’s judgment, society has changed in a way that requires a different application of them.” Understanding the Catechism Changes on the Death Penalty

The change focuses on the death penalty in relationship to the  dignity of humans. The church’s acknowledgement  that there are times when the death penalty is necessary for the common good hasn’t changed.

So why the change to the catechism? Pope Francis believes that there are times when the death penalty doesn’t need to be applied to accomplish what it is intended to do.

 He agrees that it is a legitimate,  but that we are not always compelled to use it. Jesus didn’t enforce the death penalty for the woman caught in adultery. He applied the weightier elements of the law when he responded with  “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”. Jesus didn’t say that the death penalty is wrong-he chose to take a more merciful approach.

 Pope Francis believes that it isn’t necessary to apply lethal means of punishment when  non-lethal means are sufficient to fulfill the goal of punishment.  Pope John Paul II said: 

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”-Pope John Paul II


But doesn’t the Catechism now say that the death penalty is  wrong? 

No, Pope Francis didn’t say the death penalty is wrong.  He said it is inadmissable.

Inadmissable is not the same thing as wrong.  For example, evidence can be absolutely 100% true yet be “inadmissible”  in court.

There are all sorts of things that aren’t inherently wrong that have been declared inadmissable. For example, one of our family’s favorite  family  restaurants has a small bar are where the  bartender makes drinks. By law,  there is a sign that says that area of the restaurant is off limits to anyone under 21.  It is inadmissable for minors to be there  but there is nothing inherently wrong with a minor being in that space. In fact there are times when the law defies common sense.  For example, a 20 year old Marine who has fought  to defend our country can’t legally sit there. Being off limits is an attempt (albeit an imperfect one ) to  apply the moral duty to protect children. Applications aren’t always perfect. 

In a similar way, Pope Francis is attempting to apply the moral duty to protect society against aggressors along with the duty to honor the dignity of humans. He thinks, given our present circumstances, that the best way to fulfill those two duties simultaneously  is by  making  the death penalty  inadmissible, because he believes our society has developed ways to  “sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person”.

In short, he prefers to use punishment methods that honor the dignity of the person if they can accomplish the same purpose. 

Is his reasoning on this issue fully developed? In my opinion, its not.  But, it doesn’t claim to be.  The  level of authority which he exercised in making this change is considered non-infallible and not fully defined. 

Let us take care to understand what it is we are judging before before we judge.

The change Pope Francis  made regarding the death penalty is considered a prudential judgement which is a development of social doctrine and qualifies as non-infallible teaching that is not fully defined

Church teaching has varying levels of magisterial authority and various levels of development. 

Catholics  see the doctrines of the Church as the necessary and logical development of the Gospel. Their growth in richness and complexity represents the change from an embryonic form into maturity. But how are we to demonstrate whether or not a particular doctrine (or body of doctrines) is a genuine development and not a corruption of the Christian faith?

One Catholic theologian who sought to provide an answer to this question  was the eminent English convert Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890). Newman identified seven “notes” or characteristics of authentic developments, as opposed to doctrinal corruptions, in his famous work “Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine” (University of Notre Dame, 1989). –The Development of Doctrine: Is Catholic Teaching a Corruption of the Simple Gospel

The Catechism says that “In Catholic doctrine there exists an order or hierarchy of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith.” 

Dogma is a belief that is taught de fide. This is a divinely revealed truth of the first order that a Catholic must hold to”. They are considered “first order” because they are given directly from our Lord.

A doctrine is a worthy teaching of the church that is not of the first order of revelation or which may still be under discussion or which has not been fully defined…

Disciplines include the ordinary moral teaching of the church to which we are to “receive with religious assent.”

Prudential judgements are applications of the the moral teachings–usually on social issues. We are to receive these with an open heart and mind, but they are not binding. The pope’s teachings on environmentalism or economics for example, are not of the same order as the moral teaching against murder and adultery.

Devotions are the rules of prayer, worship and Christian life that are optional and vary from place to place and individual to individual and which can be altered by the proper church authority. Do You Have To Accept the Pope’s Death Penalty Decision? 

There Can be Legitimate Diversity of Opinion on Some Moral Issues

To better understand the change that Pope Francis  made,  it is essential to remember that not all moral issues have the same weight. There can be legitimate diversity of opinion on some moral issues and not on others  because some  issues  are intrinsically unjust (like abortion and euthanasia) and others  are not (like war or the death penalty).

Consider just war theory.  We are not commanded to go to war but when we do go to war, it can be be a just war or it can  be an unjust war. 

By  contrast, abortion is always wrong. 

There are circumstances when the death penalty is  the  best way to exercise retributive justice and to protect the common good. But in other cases it is better to not use it. 

 I expect there will be ongoing discussion and further development of the church’s social doctrine on this issue because while Pope John Paul II retained these four purposes of capital punishment,

Defense of society

 Pope Francis’ judgement only addresses  2 of those 4 purposes.  I think his prudential judgement lacks clarity on how how retributive justice fits into his conclusions. So I personally share  Fr Longenecker’s  concerns about the philosophical foundation of this prudential judgement needing to refined to be more consistent with the moral one.- Do You Have to Accept the Pope’s Death Penalty Decision? 

But, I am also taking the approach that Msgr Charles Pope encourages us to do:

“I realize that there will be ongoing discussion. I only ask that we calm down a bit and try to listen to what is actually being said (even if we find it somewhat ambiguous). Perhaps we should exhibit a little more care than I have seen exhibited in some of the commentaries I have read.”I urge the thoughtful reader to take his advice to heart. His short article can be read here. 

Let’s Be Careful in Our Charges Regarding the New Wording of the Catechism on the Death Penalty

Indeed, let’s be careful  to understand before we judge a prudential teaching as “unbiblical” or contradictory to the constant teaching of the church.  Pope Francis issued a prudential judgement. We are to receive prudential judgements with an open heart and open mind. This  judgement  is  not  infallible. It is not a dogma of the church.  It is not binding. Is it not fully defined. The change to the catechism is concerned with  how moral teaching of the church should be applied and it should be  interpreted with that in mind.