Crux reports that:
The Vatican announced on Thursday Pope Francis approved changes to the compendium of Catholic teaching published under Pope John Paul II.
“The death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” reads the Catechism of the Catholic Church now on the death penalty, with the addition that the Church “works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”
This is a departure from what the document, approved under Pope John Paul II in 1992, says on the matter: “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of 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.”
According to Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Spanish Cardinal Luis Ladaria:
... the new formulation of the Catechism expresses “an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium.”
He then explains that previous Church teaching with regards to the death penalty can be explained 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.”
That statement is obviously in tension with itself--one might even say embarrassingly so--how can a change in doctrine to reflect changed social contexts not be in contradiction with the old doctrine? It's also insupportable. In Avery Cardinal Dulles' April 2001 First Things article Catholicism & Capital Punishment, he laid out a careful and nuanced analysis of the Magisterium, in which he concludes that although the death penalty should not be imposed if the purposes of punishment can be equally well or better achieved by bloodless means, such as imprisonment:
The person who does evil may deserve death. According to the biblical accounts, God sometimes administers the penalty himself and sometimes directs others to do so. ...
The State has the right, in principle, to inflict capital punishment in cases where there is no doubt about the gravity of the offense and the guilt of the accused.
As they say, go read the whole thing.
As far as the death penalty itself goes, I am not troubled by the Church's change in doctrine. I've long been skeptical of the death penalty. It's the broader principle that worries me.
This sudden and dramatic shift calls to mind the debate over Judge John T. Noonan’s book A Church that Can and Cannot Change: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching. According to Wikipedia:
“John Thomas Noonan, Jr. (born October 24, 1926) is a Senior United States federal judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, with chambers in San Francisco, California. … Noonan was the 1984 recipient of the Laetare Medal, awarded annually since 1883 by Notre Dame University in recognition of outstanding service to the Roman Catholic Church through a distinctively Catholic contribution in the recipient's profession. Noonan has served as a consultant for several agencies in the Catholic Church, including Pope Paul VI’s Commission on Problems of the Family, and the U.S. Catholic Conference’s committees on moral values, law and public policy, law and life issues. He also has been director of the National Right to Life Committee.”
There is no doubt that Noonan is a brilliant lawyer and a devout Catholic. Yet, his view of Church history has been controversial. In its review of Noonan’s book, the NY Times wrote:
“Noonan drives home the point that some Catholic moral doctrines have changed radically. History, he concludes, does not support the comforting notion that the church simply elaborates on or expands previous teachings without contradicting them.”
In contrast, Avery Cardinal Dulles warned in a review of Noonan’s book published in First Things “that Noonan manipulates the evidence to make it seem to favor his own preconceived conclusions. For some reason, he is intent on finding ‘discontinuity’ but he fails to establish that the Church has reversed her teaching in any of the four areas he examines.”
It's sad that we can't have Noonan and Dulles square off over the death penalty. Is this really a reversal or just an evolution?
But it seems to me that Noonan's thesis just got a shot in the arm from Cardinal Ladaria's statement that "previous Church teaching with regards to [fill in the blank] can be explained in a social context in which [fill in the blank was] understood differently."
Is it really so hard to imagine Pope Francis (or his successor) announcing that "previous Church teaching with regards to divorce can be explained in a social context in which marriage was understood differently"? Or "previous Church teaching with regards to sexuality can be explained in a social context in which sexuality was understood differently"? Or "previous Church teaching with regards to abortion can be explained in a social context in which fetal development was understood differently"?
One hopes Pope Francis explains in detail his views on the evolution of church teaching.