On Thursday, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis has revised the catechism to hold that the death penalty is “inadmissible” in all cases, and that the church must advocate “for its abolition worldwide.” The change comes amid news of the resignation of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who has been accused of abusing men and boys during his decades of service. There may never have been a more poignant time for an announcement like this: With a disgraceful abuse tempting many to leave the church, the Vatican’s clarity on capital punishment offers a well-timed reminder of what is pure and holy in the Christian tradition. In the church, earthly institution that it is, good and evil are inevitably entangled.
The church had previously made clear its general opposition to the death penalty. Vatican statements framed the latest shift more as a clarification reflecting evolution in papal thought than a change in teaching. In its letter to bishops, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith noted that Francis’s decision followed logically from developments introduced by his two predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II. Both popes had emphasized the affront the death penalty represents to human dignity, and had called for its abolition, but stopped short of formalizing their entreaties in doctrine.
Prior to this clarification, the catechism allowed for the death penalty only within narrow parameters. “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined,” it read, “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.”