The Death Penalty and the Prayers of the Faithful

The recent decision of Pope Francis to revise the Catechism to state that the death penalty is always inadmissible was big news. Every major news outlet reported it and reactions were strong indeed.

Here is the Vatican-approved English translation of the revised section:

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.

Two unrelated comments.

First, I just finished reading two essays on the death penalty by two very different figures, both from the journal First Things and sent out last week as part of their “Sunday Spotlight” feature, no doubt in light of the Pope’s recent decision. The first is from 2001 by the late Avery Cardinal Dulles and is marked by his typically clear, even, and unblinking style. Despite arguing for the tremendous weight of magisterial teaching that, “the State, in principle, has the right to impose the death penalty on persons convicted of very serious crimes,” he concludes: “I am of the opinion that killing should be avoided if the purposes of punishment can be obtained by bloodless means.” He says a bit later: “The Pope and the bishops, using their prudential judgment, have concluded that in contemporary society, at least in countries like our own, the death penalty ought not to be invoked, because, on balance, it does more harm than good.” My comment is simply this: it is difficult to square the first and third argument made in the second paragraph of the new sec. 2267 with Dulles’ account of the magisterial teaching through the middle of the 20th century.

Ok, one more comment to go along with the first one. I find it difficult (and I may well be wrong here) to square Newman’s account of the development of doctrine with the argument of the new paragraph of the Catechism which claims that, basically, the tradition has not properly understood the dignity of the human person until the late 20th century and was thus in misguided in its support for the death penalty. Paul Griffiths, in the second First Things essay, believes that the absolute end to the State’s theoretical right to execute justice by way of the death penalty is compatible with Newman’s approach, though not really in the same way the Catechism implicitly argues. That’s no small point. Now, Catechism’s claim about a lack of the proper understanding of human dignity may, in fact, be true. But the first and third arguments for the position in the revised sec. 2267 seem (and I say this hesitantly, as I am no expert) to mischaracterize the shape of earlier Catholic teaching on the matter, particularly the Scriptural teaching (as difficult and uncomfortable as I find some of it) as outlined by Dulles and which formed part of the basis for such teaching.

My second comment is much different. One of the things that I found so noteworthy when I would attend Mass (particularly during my doctoral work at Marquette University) was the way the Prayers of the Faithful would be used. The priest would often invite those present to verbalize petitions. One of the most common insertions was a prayer for an end to abortion in this country. What sometimes would then happen, however, is that another person, in a sort of veiled one-upmanship, would pray for that this country would be committed to “the seamless garment of life,” which appeared to be a challenge to those who saw the importance of the protection of life to include only abortion and euthanasia, but not necessarily capital punishment. I wonder how this development in teaching as reflected in the Catechism’s revision to play out in parochial contexts, particularly in the Prayers of the Faithful. If you have experiences from the past few weeks to share, please do!


  1. Thanks for this excellent post, Matthew.

    I have one thought. I think it’s time to say out loud that Newman’s work on development of doctrine was a huge and monumental achievement for its time, but it’s not the last word on the topic. Already when he wrote it, he was guilty of a bit of fitting messy data of history into a schema when it didn’t always quite fit. But since 1845 when he wrote, we have further statements which he did not have to account for, which is to say that his project is not quite up to our task. We have to deal with clear changes in teachings on slavery in the later 19th century, for example. And even more, we have to deal with teachings of the Second Vatican Council, for example on religious liberty and freedom of conscience, which are pretty clearly not just developments but in fact contradictions of past solemnly-held teachings.


  2. I do wonder about petitions that are designed to back our own positions and take a pot shot at the other side.
    Maybe I just have a sensitive smug-ometer …… I can’t cope with “All are welcome” for example.

  3. That describes a big problem that I see in spontaneously verbalized petitions: Too often they are not “universal” as the Universal Prayer should be, but they are an expressions of one’s personal opinions on political, ethical, or whatever issues. They become indoctrinating, and instead of uniting the people in the prayer, they divide the people into to groups: Those who agree and those who disagree. Verbalizing the Universal Prayer is a much higher challenge than most believe. It is not “what any of us desires”.

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