Should Pope Francis Change the Catechism on the Death Penalty?


How can you make sense of and respond to the announced changes to the Catechism regarding the death penalty?

Watch Brian Holdsworth’s video commentary on Pope Francis’ change to the Catechism…


When I had first become a Christian, I was eager to learn as much as I could about what it means to be a Christian; what practices and beliefs were expected of me.

If Christianity was true, then I wanted reap the benefits of living in that truth, but if it wasn’t true, then I wanted to figure that out too so that I could set it aside and get on with something else.

One of the ways I did that was by reading the bible. I wanted to know what was true and according to the Bible, the Church was the pillar and foundation of truth. She’s not some Jenga pillar that’s always changing shape and constantly at risk of toppling over.

Well, all of my experience of interacting with the world around me has taught me that reality, exists apart from me. It’s not my own invention and it doesn’t bend to my will or preference. I don’t have a single experience to suggest that if I wish hard enough, the world will conform to my expectations.

Every grief I wanted to avoid, every pleasure or reward I wanted, every social interaction I desired, all depended on my playing by the rules of reality, not reality playing by my rules. In other words, every single experience I have teaches me that truth is objective.

And because it’s objective, it has to be consistent. If I discover that falling from a certain height hurts I won’t discover the opposite to be true tomorrow.

And the exact same thing is true about moral behaviour. If I learn that I’m happiest and healthiest when I treat other people the way I would hope to be treated, then that is a principle that can be relied upon always. The changing winds of fashionable thought cannot influence objective reality any more than a starving person can conjure up a steak dinner through wishful thinking.

So, as I surveyed the various denominations that claimed to be this Church, this pillar of truth, it seemed obvious to me that it would act as a messenger of truth would. It would treat it with great care and concern for the gift that it is.

It wouldn’t tamper with it or obfuscate it behind the political agendas or appeals to populism or trending ideas.

This is what I found so attractive in the Catholic Church. None of the other churches I had attended even claimed to be this kind of messenger, let alone acted like it. But the Catholic Church claimed to have doctrinal integrity. It claimed that there was this thing called infallibility and that the teaching magisterium had authority to teach what is true.

Well, if the Church truly is the pillar of truth, then this is what I should expect to find and as I scrutinized that claim, I found that she did remain consistent in her teachings. For example, when all the other denominations changed their minds about divorce and remarriage, she remained consistent. When all the other denominations flipped and flopped over certain teachings and proscriptions about sexual morality and birth control, the Catholic Church remained firm.

Being able to rely on the Church to guide me in my life has been a constant source of liberation and comfort from all the dead-ends and anxiety a person without that kind of roadmap could face.

So when it was recently announced that Pope Francis was revising the Catechism of the Catholic Church to say that capital punishment is always inadmissible, I have to admit, I was bothered a bit because I was familiar with several teachings and sayings by church fathers and doctors, saints, and other popes of the who have said otherwise.

Now, since this news broke, several commentators, philosophers, and theologians have jumped on the topic to help us understand how to deal with this development because if the Catholic Church can change a teaching about what is true, then she can’t be the pillar of truth.

“The particular good should be removed in order to preserve the common good.

But the life of certain pestiferous men is an impediment to the common good, which is the concord of human society.

Therefore, certain men must be removed by death.” St. Thomas Aquinas

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  1. Agreed. This the same reason I became Catholic – the assurance that basic truths can not change. If they do, then Matt. 16:18-20 is wrong, and the Church isn’t true.

    The odd aspect of this change, but also perhaps a saving grace, is that the Catechism itself is a fallible document teaching infallible doctrine and dogma. It is also not necessarily complete. There are doctrines not covered or not clearly defined in the modern catechism. It is unclear whether this change qualifies as infallible. That is being debated by theologians. I doubt there will be any clarification from the Vatican. Confusion seems to be the new norm for Church teaching.

    • Every single Priest and Bishop who has spoken on this change to the catechism confirmed it is neither an infallible teaching, nor does it teach that Capital Punishment is Intrinsically evil (which would be impossible for the Pope to teach as it would contradict previous infallible teachings on the subject). I would definitely recommend you watch Father Thomas Petri’s comments on the change on EWTN if you can.

  2. I really don’t know what to say. I am still astounded that the Pope wanted to change things in the Bible and now this. I honestly don’t feel good about this Pope.

  3. You had my interest untell your last sentence. As one example, we have moved on from slavery. God has given us resources not available to our fathers. How do we respect life and at the same time support state capital punishment?

  4. I don’t understand the confusion and perhaps anxiety about this particular change by Pope Francis. You keep talking about “Church” teaching, but growing up in the Catholic Church, I learned that the teachings of the church came from Jesus. So, concerning the death penalty, is that the teaching of Jesus? Did He ever teach His followers that there were times when governments have the right to kill people? If Jesus ever did say this, then please let me know.

  5. How could God have been any clearer. The Ten Commandments say “Thou shalt not kill!” It is not the right of one human being to take the life of another human being, not in abortion or in capital punishment. Only God has the right to take a life!! This is an area that I feel the Catholic teachings and hence the catechism have been askew all along. As human beings, taking the life of a criminal may seem justified in our human world view, but I don’t believe God would agree based on the Ten Commandments. If we take the life of a murderer, we are murderers. We do not respect their life or their right to conversion from sin. They will get there punishment from God! There are also instances where innocent people can be wrongly accused and sentenced, and executed. We are only human.

  6. Very eloquent Brian, thank you for sharing, but I disagree with your position. I agree with Pope Francis’ decree that the Death Penalty is wrong.
    (Also, it s curious how the Pope is no longer viewed as infallible now that Pope Francis has arrived)
    God Bless Pope Francis and all who serve us

    • It is a wrong attitude to bait a fellow believer. Of course the Church has to update moral standards in view of the prestige, education, and politics of its time. In today’s modern world, in which an avalanche of real life experiences can contradict the Church’s no longer commen sense dictums ( divorce, homosexuality, pet martial sex) it is an uphill and sometimes losing battle. People won’t let go of the image of a Church that wants social uniformity rather than diverse happiness. Many old time Catholic Marriges were miserable, but hey look at the non existent divorce rate! ( one Irish said that they had no divorce;the men just leave.). Homosexual men were encouraged
      to think they were the only deviant in their community and committed suicide.
      As for the death penalty, it’s embarrassing to share our moral certitude with ugly Islamic regimes who also execute with impunity. In the thousands. And the idea of wrongful conviction is ever present. And even for the “ monsters” like the recent man that killed his wife and daughters, or the teen who killed in the Florida school….it’s true their removal causes little harm. But they are already repentant when the full realization of their deeds hits them. Sometimes a day, sometimes accountability takes years. And for the weird demon who manifestly identifies as a predator; they may be of real use as a ps hological study in some Hannibal Lector sense. It is small beans but the pretended truth of deterrence usually only makes people act with a clever plan… rarely deters.

  7. Usury, hold that up to the same scrutiny for a change.
    If you would like to see how hard its been condemned,
    and especially how in the middle ages it caused banking to be viewed as sinful ,
    at least if engaged in with other Christians.
    It shouldnt be that hard to find tough condemnations of it that get a bit on the broad side.

  8. We only have to believe DOGMA. That is when the Pope in infallible. The Pope has not spoken on this as dogma.
    It has been pointed out to me, by a federal judge that I knew well, now deceased, that in prison, the death penalty is the ONLY deterrent for murder within prison. A hardened lifer has nothing to lose if they murder someone, without the death penalty. And who do they murder? Someone not so hardened without a life penalty.
    Also, the death penalty is often an incentive for the perpetrator of a crime to reveal information about the crime, as to where the body is buried to give closure to the victim’s family, as was the case in Cape Girardeau CO, MO, a few years back.

    • Good points. But it speaks more to the brutality of Prison as an organized scheme than the reality of what prisons are really meant to do. As it stands; they are part of a trifecta that only operates to bring in cash dollars for the whole Justice system.

    • The catachism we have all read and studied as children and adults is a book used to teach and explain Catholic dogma and beliefs. ONLY the statements referred to as Catholic dogma are infallible. Portions of the catachism is also used to teach or clarify actions to assist Catholics in a modern world. Examples could be not eating meat on Friday or attending mass Saturday night not on a Sunday morning. These were not dogma situations but examples of the Church providing assistance and direction in coping in today’s environment. I’m not placing the death penalty on the same level as not eating meat on Friday (which some old time Catholics still do). What I am saying, is the Pope makes many statements and actions that are directions you may want to follow in today’s world. The teaching on the death penalty is not dogma and is not an infallible statement. Maybe in 50, 100, 200 years a Pope makes a different statement, depending upon life at that time. Again, the death penalty statement is just that, a statement to help and direct you in today’s world.

  9. Worthy brethren in the Catholic Faith… I paused days to comment. It is easy to see the necessity of justice. To deny a child molester the years of fantasizing in prison about his atrocities… How can a father live knowing such a man is alive and thinking? BUT? I submit to you… There is no deterrent in the death penalty… In the USA, the death penalty is ARBITRARILY applied. A man sentenced for murder will be executed after 25 years of appeals while another guilty of a similar murder, is paroled after 7 years. The family of a victim NEVER receives closure in all those years, and the man executed is NOT the same man that committed the crime, not after decades… I’m not who I was 20 years ago, are you? So the appeal process tortures the victims family for as long as he lives… That is not merciful to the family. Now take the executioner. What kind of spiritual harm is done to a man tasked with injecting a condemned man, tied down, helpless, with a lethal injection that is less humane than what the vet uses to put down a horse or a dog? No, the only right use of deadly force is the immediate need to protect the innocent from aggression. Going further, is it RIGHT or JUST to give your government the power to execute its citizens? The 20th century has shown us that more people were executed by THEIR OWN GOVERNMENT that all the victims of that century’s wars combined. Think about that… Not even Russia has a death penalty anymore. Russia, which is converting BACK to Christianity quicker than the West is leaving it… Can a prayerful man take another man’s life? I tell you this, anyone that kills in God’s name? He is an idolator worshiping a false god.

  10. Kevin, the one point about the executioner, is the point I always struggle with. I cannot, personally, ask someone else to do anything, I myself would not be able to carry out. That alone, would make me vote against execution. There is NO humane way to accomplish an execution.
    Another point is that of punishment. I do not believe in punishment. So would not send anyone to prison as punishment. There other ways to deal with a transgression than punishment in prison.
    Revenge is Mine, saith the Lord.
    If one stole, make them repay directly to the one they stole from, plus interests, by working it out, etc.
    I can think of all sorts of ways to deal with a transgressor, especially the young.
    Going to prison because a person is dangerous to others, should be the only reason for prison.

  11. Some scholars have translated the Commandment (from the original Aramaic Hebrew) as “Thou shall not murder,” i.e. the taking innocent life.


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