On August 2nd, 2018, Pope Francis made a change to the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding capital punishment.

In Catholicism there are various levels of Magisterial teaching, a concept which derives from the document Donum Veritatis. Each level of Magisterial teaching requires a different level of assent from the Catholic faithful (cf. Wikipedia on levels of teaching and assent). Two well-recognized levels of assent are the assent of faith, and religious assent.

There is a primary and a secondary question which are closely related:

  1. What level of assent does this new teaching on capital punishment require of Catholics?
  2. To what level of Magisterial teaching does this new teaching belong?

1 Answer 1


The new wording of the Catechism, as approved by Pope Francis, does not quite require Catholics to disapprove of the death penalty in all circumstances.

Was the Pope’s decision to revise the Catechism’s teaching on the death penalty a change in Church teaching, or a development of existing doctrine? Theologians may debate the point, but the vast majority of Catholics, receiving their information from the secular media, will hear about a change—a clear break from previous Church teaching.

Even the new wording of the Catechism, as approved by Pope Francis, does not quite require Catholics to disapprove of the death penalty in all circumstances. The Pope’s new language does not contradict the time-honored Church teaching that the state has the authority to invoke the death penalty in appropriate circumstances. (That traditional teaching was clearly upheld, in the same section 2267 of the Catechism, even after Pope John Paul II called for a tighter restriction on executions.)

Nor does the revised Catechism teach that the use of capital punishment is intrinsically immoral. So when liberal Catholic activists argue, as they inevitably will, that politicians who support the death penalty should be judged as harshly as those who support abortion and euthanasia, they will be distorting the Church’s teaching. Again. - Pope Francis and the death penalty: another dose of confusion

The Pope can say—indeed Pope John Paul II did say—that it is always wrong, in every case, deliberately to take the life of an innocent human being. But if he values logical consistency, he cannot say that it is always wrong to take an innocent life under current political conditions. Because political conditions change.

Cardinal José Gomez of Los Angeles, in a Twitter comment on the Pope’s announcement, offered his own version of the case for change:

The Church has come to understand that from a practical standpoint, governments now have the ability to protect society and punish criminals without executing violent offenders.

Expressed in those terms, the change in teaching prompts a number of questions:

•If a doctrine is based on a “practical” judgment, who should make that judgment? If it is primarily a political judgment, should it not be made by political leaders?

•Do all governments have the ability to protect innocent civilians effectively? If not, how can capital punishment be “inadmissible” in all cases?

•Who should decide what constitutes adequate protection for civilians? Again, is that not clearly a political judgment?

•What would happen if, “from a practical standpoint,” governments lost the ability to protect civilians? Would the Church teaching on capital punishment be changed again? - Pope Francis on capital punishment: doctrine built on shifting sands?

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as John Paul’s chief doctrinal officer, explicitly affirmed some of the faithful may indeed have a different outlook on the subject of the application of the death penalty, as reported in an article on FirstThings.com — Pope Francis and Capital Punishment:

It was clearly and consistently taught by the popes up to and including Pope Benedict XVI. That Christians can in principle legitimately resort to the death penalty is taught by the Roman Catechism promulgated by Pope St. Pius V, the Catechism of Christian Doctrine promulgated by Pope St. Pius X, and the 1992 and 1997 versions of the most recent Catechism promulgated by Pope St. John Paul II—this last despite the fact that John Paul was famously opposed to applying capital punishment in practice. Pope St. Innocent I and Pope Innocent III taught that acceptance of the legitimacy in principle of capital punishment is a requirement of Catholic orthodoxy. Pope Pius XII explicitly endorsed the death penalty on several occasions. This is why Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as John Paul’s chief doctrinal officer, explicitly affirmed in a 2004 memorandum:

If a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment … he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities … to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible … to have recourse to capital punishment.

  • While I appreciate this answer, the reason I am not accepting it is because it interprets rather than weighs. My question is asking about the weight of Francis' teaching. This answer is an attempt at interpretation, at describing the content of Francis' teaching. Content is different from weight. Interpretations are welcome, but weighing is necessary.
    – zippy2006
    Commented Aug 6, 2018 at 16:51

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