If Pope Francis has been criticized for ambiguity in Amoris Laetitia, he certainly can’t be faulted for it in his latest comments on the death penalty. In his homily today, the pontiff called for a deeper understanding of Christ in the context of our times and of human progress. Just as Christian nations gradually understood the evil of slavery, Francis argued, so too should enlightened nations realize that the death penalty is also a “mortal sin” that is “inadmissible” under any circumstances.

This journey undertaken “to understand, to deepen our understanding of Jesus and to deepen our faith” serves also, Francis explained, “to understand moral teaching, the Commandments.”

He pointed out that some things that “once seemed normal and not sinful, are today conceived as mortal sins:

“Think of slavery: at school they told us what they did with the slaves taking them from one place and selling them in another…. That is a mortal sin” he said.

But that, he said, is what we believe today. Back then it was deemed acceptable because people believed that some did not have a soul. It was necessary, the Pope said, to move on to better understand the faith and to better understand morality.

And reflecting bitterly on the fact that today “there are no slaves”, Pope Francis pointed out there are in fact many more of them…. but at least, he said, we know that to enslave someone is to commit a mortal sin.

The same goes for the death penalty: “once it was considered normality; today we say that it is inadmissible” he said.

Is this a big shift? The Catholic Church has been consistent in its opposition to the death penalty on practical grounds for the last several decades. The last pontiff to take a supportive position on the death penalty was probably Pope Piux XII in 1952, who argued in an address on medical ethics that execution did not amount to a crime against the right to life. The argument was meant in contrast to ethical issues in medical treatments and research:

Even when it is a question of the execution of a condemned man, the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. In this case it is reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned person of the <enjoyment> of life in expiation of his crime when, by his crime, he has already disposed himself of his right to live.

Note, though, that this was hardly an endorsement of the death penalty, but merely an explanation of how it didn’t theoretically conflict with Catholic doctrine. Pius XII’s argument makes it clear that the matter is within the realm of prudential judgment, an argument which goes back to Church doctors such as St. Thomas Aquinas in Summa Contra Gentiles, and St. Augustine in The City of God, both of whom separate execution from the commandment against murder:

The same divine authority that forbids the killing of a human being establishes certain exceptions, as when God authorizes killing by a general law or when He gives an explicit commission to an individual for a limited time.

The agent who executes the killing does not commit homicide; he is an instrument as is the sword with which he cuts. Therefore, it is in no way contrary to the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ to wage war at God’s bidding, or for the representatives of public authority to put criminals to death, according to the law, that is, the will of the most just reason.

However, the need for a death penalty in the modern era weighed more heavily on pontiffs of the latter 20th century, especially as oppressive governments put it to use on an industrial scale. St. John Paul II made the appeal to prudential judgment in 1995’s Evangelium Vitaenoting that the necessity for such a drastic penalty has almost entirely evaporated:

56. This is the context in which to place the problem of the death penalty. On this matter there is a growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely. The problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God’s plan for man and society. The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is “to redress the disorder caused by the offence”.46 Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfils the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people’s safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behaviour and be rehabilitated. 47

It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.

Following up nine years later, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) explicitly clarified that this was still within prudential judgment and not an issue which automatically presented obstacles to receiving the Eucharist. In doing so, he drew a clear line between the death penalty and other issues regarding the sacrament of life, abortion and euthanasia:

2. The Church teaches that abortion or euthanasia is a grave sin. The Encyclical Letter Evangelium vitae, with reference to judicial decisions or civil laws that authorize or promote abortion or euthanasia, states that there is a “grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection. […] In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to ‘take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law or vote for it’” (no. 73). Christians have a “grave obligation of conscience not to cooperate formally in practices which, even if permitted by civil legislation, are contrary to God’s law. Indeed, from the moral standpoint, it is never licit to cooperate formally in evil. […] This cooperation can never be justified either by invoking respect for the freedom of others or by appealing to the fact that civil law permits it or requires it” (no. 74).

3. Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.

This is where Pope Francis has made a significant, and perhaps disturbing, change. Benedict XVI argues that, while the chances of applying the death penalty properly were perhaps surpassingly small, a Catholic with a properly formed conscience who supported its use in those limited ways would be eligible for communion. Francis’ statement obliterates that distinction, reversing centuries of Catholic thought and removing the issue from prudential judgment altogether.

Even for those who oppose the death penalty (as I do, on much the same bases as the USCCB), this change is disturbing. I know more than a few Catholics who find good-faith reasons to support the death penalty through thoughtful application of prudential judgment to very complex situations. Furthermore, Francis’ reasoning on the utter “inadmissibility” of the death penalty contradicts the teachings of his predecessors, who were more careful with their language and their need to bring the modern context of prudential judgment into concert with earlier church teachings. Taken literally, many Catholics would find themselves separated from the church without having moved at all.

In all likelihood, this was offered as an extemporaneous observation rather than an attempt to undo Benedict XVI’s teaching on Evangelium Vitae, as well as that of Pius XII and the church doctors. The use in this homily makes it sound as though Francis took a rhetorical shortcut around the theological clarity of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI to discuss what it means in practical terms when prudential judgment has narrowed to such a surpassingly small amount of opportunity. In this case, though, the Holy Father could have used a little more ambiguity, rather than assign a mortal sin to dissenting positions on a complicated subject.

Addendum: By the way, one cannot blame erroneous media coverage for any confusion this time. The link comes from Vatican Radio’s coverage of the homily.

Update: This question from Tom Pinkerton reminds me of a point I meant to cover:

I’ll quote what I wrote in January: The Catholic catechism does not categorically forbid the death penalty … but the context of prudential judgment on this point is very narrow. Paragraph 2267 of the catechism states that “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 [emphasis mine].” The same paragraph goes on to this all-but-certain exclusion:

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 definitively 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 non-existent.”

As one should recognize, the latter quote is from 1995’s Evangelium Vitae. In nearly all instances, we should not require a resort to the death penalty, but it is not entirely “inadmissible,” nor a mortal sin, at least as far as the catechism describes it.