Development of Doctrine – Capital Punishment, Liturgy

This headline from Religious News Service is typical of many today: “Pope Francis changes catechism to declare death penalty ‘inadmissible’.” The headline isn’t wrong, but it’s possibly misleading. It could give the impression that the pope arbitrarily changed the teaching because popes can do that to any teaching whenever the urge strikes.

It would be better to say that the pope articulated the faith of the church concerning a teaching that has developed and matured over time. To be sure, the RNS article captures some of that nuance, and notes that Pope John Paul II in 1997 changed the catechism to express the evolving understanding that capital punishment could rarely if ever be justified.  And I get it that headlines have to be short and catchy (and aren’t usually written by the author of the article).

There is the issue of the morality of capital punishment, and then there is the issue of how doctrine develops. I’m concerned with the latter.

In a very important address last October at a meeting of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, Pope Francis spoke on the development of doctrine. He said in part:

Tradition is a living reality and only a partial vision regards the “deposit of faith” as something static. The word of God cannot be moth-balled like some old blanket in an attempt to keep insects at bay! No. The word of God is a dynamic and living reality that develops and grows because it is aimed at a fulfillment that none can halt. …

Doctrine cannot be preserved without allowing it to develop, nor can it be tied to an interpretation that is rigid and immutable without demeaning the working of the Holy Spirit.

It was in this address that Pope Francis wrote that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.” This wording has now been taken over into the Catechism.

The magisterium spoke on the development of doctrine at the Second Vatican Council – especially in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, which Pope Francis draws upon in his address. The point is this: the Catholic Church has solemnly rejected the anti-modernist and historically indefensible position that doctrine has not changed and cannot change. The Second Vatican Council not only admitted to the historical facts on development, but more importantly, expressed the theological conviction that such development is the work of the Holy Spirit.

Very broadly, one could speak of three large attitudes tied to three eras of western and Roman Catholic church history:

  1. For about 1,500 years, there was massive evolution in the articulation of doctrine in ecumenical councils, teachings of bishops and popes, and writings of theologians (who were understood to be part of the magisterium in the Middle Ages). There was limited awareness of the development ever underway, partly because modern understandings of the historical science had not yet developed, partly because there wasn’t that much reason to think about an issue that hadn’t yet become controversial.
  2. Defensiveness was the official Roman Catholic response to the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th century, and the political revolutions of the 19th century. Development that had obviously taken place was downplayed, or even denied, and it was increasingly claimed that church teaching (in its most recent articulation) had never changed over the centuries.
  3. Historical honesty increasingly developed among Catholic theologians in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. This typically met with official condemnation – the low point here is the Syllabus of Errors of 1864 – but also with a bit of openness that was increasing in the decades before the Second Vatican Council, which affirmed development of doctrine.

With the Second Vatican Council, the road splits into two paths. The Catholic Church has, with a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, gone down the path of historical honesty and trust in the Spirit’s continuing presence. A small group (I can’t tell if their numbers are growing) remains committed to attitude #2 above. These are the people who will cry “heresy” at today’s change to the Catechism. They are many of the same people who condemn the reformed liturgy and speak of the Tridentine Mass, against all historical evidence, as if it were the “Mass of the Ages.” These people oftentimes use language suggesting that the old rite is “traditional” but the reformed rite is not “traditional,” which shows that their understanding of tradition is quite different from the Catholic Church’s understanding. They have gone down a different path than that of the Second Vatican Council.

In its most extreme form, this attitude combines an idolatrous attachment to the unreformed liturgy with the worldview of the Syllabus of Errors. The liturgical apex was reached in 1580, the theological apex in 1864, and both should be frozen in time and defended against all modernist innovations and developments.

There are deep interconnections between the Second Vatican Council’s teachings on revelation, its critical openness to the modern world, the development of teaching on religious liberty, the reform of the liturgy, and today’s development of teaching on capital punishment. To be sure, one may take positions of various nuance on such distinct issues. But if one’s position is principled anti-modernist opposition to development, one will have a rough go of it in the Catholic Church.

I would put it this way: the Catholic Church will return to the Tridentine liturgy as the universal standard of its lex orandi  the day after it regains the Papal States. That is to say, I think that the road has split and the Catholic Church has decided its path going forward, and there is no going back. The Church’s teachings and directives on liturgy will surely continue to evolve and develop – but down its chosen path, not the other path. The liturgical reform, as Pope Francis has solemnly asserted, is irreversible.

Here’s an interesting addendum. There are hundreds of people executed in the Papal States from the 12th century until the fall of the Papal States in 1870. Among them, in the sixteenth century, are two cardinals. There was a time when popes put cardinals to death.


Featured image: Giovanni Battista Bugatti, executioner of the Papal States between 1796 and 1865, who carried out 516 executions.


  1. There really isn’t much “development” between the prior version and the one just published. Under JP2, the death penalty was only admissible if it was the only legitimate means of defending human life (which it stated was exceedingly rare). The current edition states that such situations do not exist and therefore to impose the death penalty is contrary to human dignity.

    The state can still impose a form of “capital punishment”, think of police officers who take down an active shooter.

    Most of the arguments against the change made by the Pope Francis that I’ve seen floated around the internet could equally apply to the prior version as well. If you consider this a doctrinal aberration and not a development, this happened prior to the current pontificate.

    As for the bigger question, since at least Newman, there has been growing acceptance of doctrinal development. Of course, Newman himself understood not all changes could be understood as developments and someone could be seen as aberrations.

    In regards to Vatican II, despite the intense debate, participating bishops who voted yes on key issues did so because they saw only developments on many issues, religious liberty for example. Dei Verbum does not really allow for the possibility of aberrations. But a good deal of progressives and traditionalists saw aberrations. People will still be debating those issues for the rest my life. And I have a reasonable expectation of living another 50 or 60s.

    It would be nice if possible if the Magisterium could development or propose a test for doctrinal development similar to Newman’s work on the subject.

    1. I don’t disagree, Devin. It went from being theoretically possible but nearly always inadvisable to being 100% inadmissible. For those who want to do mental contortions to convince themselves there is not change in teaching, as of yesterday they could hang on to it still being theoretically possible, as the Church always taught. Within their mindset, I guess I can see their point. But in the real world, the latest change is quite small, as you point out.

    2. I quite agree: I don’t see much different from what John Paul II had already said on this subject, save for Francis’ emphasis on “human dignity,” and the prominence of the announcement focused on this particular subject.

      Alas, though, my legal imagination is not what it should be, and I am unable to picture a scenario in which the death penalty might be “the only legitimate means of defending human life.” I had thought that meant what you say in your second paragraph, viz. when a law enforcement agent kills an evidently dangerous person, without attempting to subdue and arrest that person. But you seem to understand it to mean something else. So, what then?

      1. Even if the new clarification were in discontinuity or contradiction with previous teaching that would not be surprising. Development, in Newman’s sense, often manifests in surprising leaps that seem to be pure contradictions of the past. The classic example is the Council of Nicea. The deep continuity lies in the vitality of what Newman calls the Christian “Idea”, and as Pope Francis shows, trust in the Gospel and in the Spirit (moving in the hearts of the faithful) is the fundamental motor of Development, and of ongoing revision of church teaching to make it truer to its Idea. Changing society and new insights from the human sciences impel the church to new formulations of its moral wisdom. Of course this applies particularly to the teaching on homosexuality, which Homosexualitatis Problema (1986) claims to be supported by the best findings of the human sciences (or of the natural sciences in the Vatican website’s English text). In fact that support from the human sciences has entirely disappeared, so a new and honest discussion of the issue is required. Those ranting against Francis’ alleged violent change of church doctrine often admit that what they really fear is that he will change the teaching on homosexuality. Why they dread this so much is obscure.

  2. I think Devin’s point about taking down an active shooter is perceptive, as it must be seen as a form of state capital intervention in a case where human life is threatened. Yet police forces (at least in the UK) do take pains to make this a very last resort, and all such deaths are referred to inquiry.

    It’s difficult to see how, in certain circumstances (such as the South Bank terrorist atrocity in London last year) such police intervention could have been avoided.


    1. PS: It would be helpful if those of us who oppose the death penalty don’t resort to using this development as a cudgel in turn to mark other Catholics as Insufficiently Catholic or to feel more entitled to ignore them as (sometimes fellow) Cherry Picking Catholics, else we turn into the Catholic version of the famous Emo Philips 1980s routine about the battling Presbyterian orthodoxers (to coin a neologism) on the Golden Gate Bridge….

  3. I think I follow the multiple succession of revisions in the Catechism of the Catholic Church on this subject. And I do not disagree with the progression. But, I do pose myself a question: Our Lord himself (willingly) and at the behest of the crowds and the authority of Rome was publicly executed with the means used for ‘slaves’ and rebels. Where would our Christian Religion:be if this event (the whole Pascal Mystery) had not taken place — with its result of death being conquered? It seems to me that one should at least bring up this question — even if in the ‘present circumstances’ it is not politically correct. [Added to this, the ‘question’ both the Docetists and the follows of the Quran deny is the reality of this ‘passage through death to life’ without which ‘our faith is in vain’ — as St Paul insists.] This is a ‘real question’ which we must at least ‘think and teach’ about!

    1. Surely it is not problematic that the Lord’s death involved a sinful act? Indeed, isn’t the whole point that death and sin are, to be slightly non-theological for a moment, doing their worst, and God triumphs none the less.

  4. Surely no one is suggesting that Christ’s crucifixion is an argument for retaining the death penalty? After all, part of the point is that Christ was innocent–like many that even today are being executed (I mean, wrongly convicted for some particular crime.) And to follow on, who would argue that today’s wrongly convicted must be executed anyway…because Christ was.

    I see the point about possible alternative histories. But since we have but the one actual history, it becomes moot, I believe.

  5. At very least perhaps , the willing sacrifice of the Christ could/should be an argument for not totally excluding the death penalty. Realistically it is not excluded in many countries and other territories where Judeo-Christian culture is not at least the basis for their polity — and many Martyrs are being executed even today because of their faith by peoples who hold the Quran or outright secularism as the ultimate basis for their polity

  6. To me it is significant that we at least retain a sense that certain offences are notionally capital. If covering up sex abuse rightfully results in your forfeit of millions of dollars in damages, and anything less than that level of punishment would be an affront to the dignity of the victim, then it seems equally offensive to the human dignity of the victims to suggest that the commission of multiple murders is not grave enough to warrant a forfeit of the right to your own life. Seems very individualist and lacking in a profound sense of how beholden we are to the good of the entire community.

    Genesis 9:6 seems to throw this notion of victim’s dignity around.

    This is not to say that the death penalty cannot be practically excluded in prudential or circumstantial judgments, but this notion seems important to retain, that it is not intrinsically unjust.

  7. “it seems equally offensive to the human dignity of the victims to suggest that the commission of multiple murders is not grave enough to warrant a forfeit of the right to your own life.”

    The Church though doesn’t view the human dignity of two persons as being mutually exclusive, even in extraordinary cases like psychopathic serial murderers. This of course flows right into the Church’s teaching on life issues like abortion. Let’s also not forget that Jesus had a soft spot for the condemned and their capacity for redemption in John 8:3-11 and Luke 23:39-43. Our modern popes’ condemnations of capital punishment make a lot of sense when viewed through this lens.

  8. In our zeal to safeguard the right of the state to execute people for heinous crimes, we tacitly accept that innocent people will also be executed. This is a well established fact; it happens quite frequently. If we are offended at the notion that a murderer will ‘only’ remain imprisoned for life, perhaps we can take solace when another innocent man or woman walks free and avoids death.
    I don’t see any way around this. We’re not going to suddenly get it right from here on out. More wrongly convicted will be executed. Frankly, this is more of a moral concern for me than the fear of a murderer going on living in prison. Ultimately no one avoids a final accounting. More solace for the families and friends of victims.

  9. I wonder if there are any exceptions in time of war. Like in Iraq right now. There are ISIS fighters at large who are dangerous to the public and there are not enough prisons to hold them. They can’t send them back to where they came from because those countries don’t want them. I understand that executions are wrong, but is this a case of the lesser of two evils, given the bloody reign of terror that ISIS waged there, and the terrible risks involved in the potential for them to regroup? My assumption was that the loophole of the previous version of the catechism’s teaching was to cover cases such as this, but I could be wrong.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *