God’s command from the beginning to his covenant children on the death penalty has been: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image” Gen 9:6.
The Old Testament
Understanding Genesis 9:6
Murder is a crime against the sanctity of human life, and man is fully responsible for the destruction of that life § 2258. Homicide therefore merits the strongest penalty, capital punishment Lev 24:17. The Lord can delegate to men Num 35:19 or states Rom 13:4 judicial authority to avenge wrongful deaths.
However, God calls for a policy of strict proportion, one life taken for one lost, lest a single homicide start an ongoing blood feud. We see this strict proportion in Gen 9:6 itself and in Ex 21:23. Even injuries are to be proportionately matched, Ex 21:24–25; Deut 19:21.
The primary principle in Gen 9:6 is therefore retributive justice. God made man in his own image Gen 1:26–27. A murderer assaults God himself. “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” Mt 25:40.
Blood is always the sacred sign of life. “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life” Lev 17:11.
Examples of Capital Punishment
God inflicted capital punishment in order to enforce his laws. When Onan spilled his seed on the ground God killed Onan. Gen 38:10.
And when Uzzah put out his hand to the Ark of the Covenant and took hold of it in violation of God’s command, God killed Uzzah 2 Sam 6:7.
God also commanded his people Israel to stone transgressors to death. Consider only one small part of the Torah:
“Say to the sons of Israel, Any man of the sons of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn in Israel, who gives any of his children to Molech shall be put to death; the people of the land shall stone him with stones” Lev 20:2.
“A man or a woman who is a medium or a wizard shall be put to death; they shall be stoned with stones, their blood shall be upon them” Lev 20:27.
“Bring out of the camp him who cursed; and let all who heard him lay their hands upon his head, and let all the congregation stone him” Lev 24:14.
“He who blasphemes the name of the LORD shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him; the sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death” Lev 24:16.
“So Moses spoke to the sons of Israel; and they brought him who had cursed out of the camp, and stoned him with stones. Thus the sons of Israel did as the LORD commanded Moses” Lev 24:23.
The New Testament
The New Testament also supported the death penalty. When the Pharisees were ready to stone the woman caught in adultery, Rabbi Yeshua forgave her but did not condemn stoning as a means of inflicting the death penalty. All he said was, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” Jn 8:7.
“But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer” Rom 13:4.
The Council of Trent
The Council of Trent convened in 1545 and ended in 1563.
The Catechism of the Council of Trent, in its essay on the Fifth Commandment, Question IV, summarized, “It is lawful to sentence Men to death, or to slay them, in Judgment.” The Catechism on capital punishment In detail:
Another kind of slaying is also permitted, which applies to those civil magistrates, to whom is given the power of life and death, by the legal and judicial use of which they punish the guilty, and protect the innocent. Far from involving the crime of murder, the just exercise of this power is an act of paramount obedience to this divine law, which prohibits murder. For since the end of this commandment is the preservation and security of human life, to the attainment of this end the punishments inflicted by the civil magistrates, who are the legitimate avengers of crime, naturally tend, giving security to human life by repressing audacity and outrage with punishments. Hence these words of David: I will early destroy all the wicked of the land, that I might cut off all wicked doers from the city of the Lord.
Catholic Church, The Catechism of the Council of Trent, trans. Theodore Alois Buckley (London: George Routledge and Co., 1852), 418.
This was formal Catholic teaching until 1992. Until then the Catholic Church had remained steadfast in its understanding of the death penalty. Rabbi Paul said the state as bearer of the sword was the servant of God. The Council of Trent said the death penalty is an “act of paramount obedience to this divine law.”
The New Catechism
The Development of Doctrine
“Will there, then, be no progress of religion in the Church of Christ? Certainly there is, and the greatest.… But it is truly progress and not a change of faith. What is meant by progress is that something is brought to an advancement within itself; by change, something is transformed from one thing into another. It is necessary, therefore, that understanding, knowledge and wisdom grow and advance strongly and mightily … and this must take place precisely within its own kind, that is, in the same teaching, in the same meaning, and in the same opinion.”
The First Edition
An accurate exercise of the development of doctrine had to preserve the understanding of the Council of Trent. However, by 1992 when the Catechism of the Catholic Church, first edition was published, St. John Paul II had narrowed, but essentially preserved the Church’s two thousand year tradition:
§ 2267: “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.”
The Second Edition
However, only five years later, in the Catechism’s second edition, published in 1997, John Paul decided to narrow the capital punishment window as far as he possibly could:
§ 2267: “The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor. If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person. Today, in fact, given the means at the State’s disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender ‘today … are very rare, if not practically non-existent.
By saying “practically non-existent,” John Paul tried to virtually eliminate a Catholic connection to capital punishment. His words, “given the means at the State’s disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it,” are simply not reflected in the crime statistics of the world’s most developed countries. In the United States, for instance, we have strong prisons but large numbers of “sanctuary cities” and politicians who release prisoners who commit more crimes and become more savvy in manipulating the system. In that light it appears to me that the second edition approaches a break with the development of doctrine, but holds it together with a fig leaf.
The Third Edition, § 2267
In 2018 Pope Francis broke the fig leaf.
§ 2267: 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.”
Catholic teaching has always been, § 1700 “The dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God.” Upholding this dignity has been the basis for capital punishment since Gen 9:6. Yet Francis teaches the exact opposite: “The death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”
Francis’ teaching transfers our sympathy for the inviolability and dignity of the person from the victim to the perpetrator.
It is simply impossible to read the Catechism of the Council of Trent, “paramount obedience to this divine law” and today’s Catechism of the Catholic Church § 2267 “inadmissible” and conclude that they are essentially the same doctrine. Indeed, Francis doesn’t try to say so. He calls it “a new understanding.” It is that, but one not grounded in Catholic teaching.
Many Catholics, concerned by this change to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, are holding onto their second edition (1997) copies. Others are going farther back, to the Catechism of the Council of Trent. Several other very good editions include the Buckley edition, the Tan Books edition, and the eBook edition.