Does Pope Francis'rewording on the subject of capital punishment in the Catechism of the Catholic Church trump those of Pope John Paul II in his encyclical letter Evangelium vitae?

I have always looked on the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a teaching aid towards catholic teachings. But Pope Francis' rewording of the Church's teaching seems to be in contradiction to the words of Pope St. John Paul II in his Gospel of Life (Evagelium vitae) which permits such an application in very limited circumstances.

  1. This is the context in which to place the problem of the death penalty. On this matter there is a growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely. The problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God's plan for man and society. The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is "to redress the disorder caused by the offence".46 Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfils the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people's safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behaviour and be rehabilitated. - EVANGELIUM VITAE

Since these words are from an encyclical and the rewording of Pope Francis on the subject of capital punishment are not, do Pope John Paul II encyclical letter holds precedence over the Catechism of the Catholic Church's wording as 2018?

Pope Francis does not seem to address the possibility that inmates can and have ordered the killing of innocent individual while being incarcerated. A few evil doers will almost always find a way to do evil even from prison. Just ask the Devil and he is equally incarcerated in hell. There are more cases in which moral theologians can see that incarcerations or even detention would not be advisable either in some emergency situations.

Pope Francis on capital punishment: doctrine built on shifting sands?

The death penalty

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. - Vatican Press Office


3 Answers 3


Pope Francis' revision of the Catechism does not contradict John Paul II's thinking on this issue, especially as seen in the encyclical Evangelium Vitae. Francis' revision is just finishing the work that John Paul II began regarding capital punishment. Therefore Francis has not 'trumped' Evangelium Vitae.

Pope John Paul II

First, let's have another look at section 56 while emphasizing a different side of the story with bold text:

On this matter there is a growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely. The problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God's plan for man and society. [...]

It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.

In any event, the principle set forth in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church remains valid: "If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must 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".[48]

-Evangelium Vitae, 56

John Paul II's thought on this issue moved the Church in the direction of abolition by way of human dignity, and this is exactly what we see in section 56.

Safeguarding the Death Penalty?

The key question which concerns us is this: Did John Paul II intend to safeguard the death penalty in Evangelium Vitae? Of course everyone knows that he wanted to severely limit the practical application of capital punishement, but did he also want to safeguard the possibility of the practice? Only if he intended to safeguard it would there be a tension between John Paul II's teaching and Francis' teaching.

There are two reasons why I don't see evidence of this. First, his reasons given for limiting capital punishment reflect an understanding which sees the death penalty as justified only "when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society" (EV 56). Thus he saw capital punishment as a necessary evil that ought to be dispensed with as soon as possible. Nowhere in Evangelium Vitae do we find the claim that capital punishment cannot be abolished. On the contrary, we read that the cases where capital punishment can be legitimately applied "are very rare, if not practically non-existent," and that "If bloodless means are sufficient," then they must be used.

The second reason is weaker. It is that his teaching on capital punishment caused wariness among conservative theologians who affirmed the Church's long practice of allowing capital punishment, such as Avery Cardinal Dulles. Such theologians were relieved when then-Prefect of the CDF, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, wrote a letter to Cardinal McCarrick. The third section of that letter informs us that Catholics may disagree with the Holy Father on the matter of capital punishment. The conservative theologians were worried about an abolition of the death penalty, and their fears were not assuaged by the writings of John Paul II.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis' revision to the Catechism makes use of arguments which are very similar to Evangelium Vitae (e.g. a focus on safeguarding society, emphasizing modern prison systems capable of carrying out life sentences, and a very similar theory of punishment). Like John Paul II, he relies heavily on the idea of human dignity, even using it as the centerpiece of his conclusion, "the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person" (This quote is included in the draft for the Catechism revision and originally comes from this address).

John Paul II said, "If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means..." (EV 56).

Francis has essentially said: Bloodless means are sufficient, therefore the death penalty is inadmissible. John Paul II wrote the conditional; Francis affirmed the antecedent. We all know what follows. "Trumping" only comes into play when there are opposing views. It doesn't apply here.

(It should be noted that while I personally disagree with Francis' revision, I obviously do not believe that it is inherently contrary to John Paul II's teaching on this subject.)


Simple Answer:

Pope Francis put more emphasis on Evengelium Vitae by removing the gray area of subjectivity when He says "all".

Pope St. John Paul II expressed the desire to limits while Pope Francis fulfills the desire of Evangelium Vitae to completely align the 'death penalty abolition" in line with core message of the Gospel which is Redemption is an act of Divine Mercy.

And by giving all powers to God in matters of ending one's life, Pope Francis upheld the teaching of Jesus Christ.

In closing, from St.John Paul II who's part of legacy is reviving St.Faustina's private revelation on Divine Mercy and canonizing St.Faustina speaks volume on the Infinite Mercy of God.

St.John Paul II does not say this things only in words, He's very life is a witnessed to the sanctity and dignity of human life by showing that life must be respected up to the very last breathe.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI continue this message by saying;

"The Divine Mercy is the heart of the Gospel."

Pope Francis highlighted the works begun by St.John Paul II and continued by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI by declaring the Year of Mercy and opening the Door of Mercy in the four corners of the world.

And in the controversial teaching of Amoris Laetetia, Pope Francis once again is seen invoking the Divine Mercy over orthodoxy by calling all the "Dubia & AL Dissenters" to seek "CONVERSION", by being docile to the voice of the Holy Spirit to see the Light of Truth over orthodoxy.


In the beautiful words of Sis.Ann Shields she said,

"Conversion is seeing the Face of God, the Mercy of God."

And added the question, what's keeping us from seeing the Mercy of God? Is it our sins, the sin of the mind?( the sin of the mind is PRIDE).PRIDE is what BLINDED Lucifer in the Heavenly Realms to see the Light of TRUTH.

And what is DUBIA?

Bro. Ralph Martin reflections goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden, the creature who sow the first DUBIA, when the serpent said "Did God really said that you will surely die?

Ted Flynn in his article in Signs & Wonders said there are two opposing forces in this world, Dubia & Faith.

"Dubia belong to Satan while Faith belong to Christ". (Ted Flynn)

In closing, Pope Francis removing the gray area in CCC2267 shines the Full Light in the Gospel of Jesus Christ which is Mercy & Forgiveness.

At the Foot of the Cross Agonizing Jesus said to the Abba Father;

"Father forgive them for they know not what they do." (Luke 23:34)

And Pope Francis embracing the fullness of the Gospel of Christ had these important reminders to all the redeemed Christian.

"The Divine Mercy of God is Infinite but the Time of Mercy is Not".


Does Pope Francis' rewording on the subject of capital punishment in the Catechism trump those of Pope John Paul II's encyclical Evangelium vitae?

The short answer is no, but Pope Francis unfortunately destabilized the traditional teaching and made murkier the Magisterium's position regarding capital punishment, according to Edward Feser, a traditional Catholic Thomist philosopher who recently co-authored the book By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment. In his blog he gave his rebuttal to those who critiqued his book from the rank of potential supporters of the Catechism change.

He offered a rather tight logical analysis of the only 2 choices resulting from Pope Francis's action in a First Things article "Pope Francis and Capital Punishment". In the same article he pointed out a worrisome trend of Pope Francis's habit in making murkier the traditional teaching on other matters as well (see links in that article).

What to do about it? What are the ways that the faithful, the scholars, and the bishops can do about it without undermining the office of the Pope? Edward Feser, who tags himself

My primary academic research interests are in the philosophy of mind, moral and political philosophy, and philosophy of religion. I also write on politics, from a conservative point of view; and on religion, from a traditional Roman Catholic perspective.

wrote a well researched and lengthy Thomistic analysis and a history about the times when the church disagreed with the Pope.

  • Did Edward Feser consider the fifth commandment has no footnote meaning no "if 's nor but", when God said "thou shall not kill" He means all kiling is prohibited.God did not qualifies anything. But the Church in the early years had considered their social conditions in defining Death Penalty and so,. now the Church under Pope Francis had consider the social situations too..So, where is the contradiction? Is Pope Francis fully orthodox in uphelding "Thou shall not kill" or Edward Feser who still embraces "if & but"? May 1, 2019 at 3:17
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    @jongricafort: you forgot that in the same books (Exodus and Deutoronomy) where the fifth commandment was enshrined, plus Leviticus and Numbers (also attributed to Moses), the same God commanded Moses, his delegates, and (in future generations) the town elders and judges to "put to death" the people who violate some commandments. I counted 9 instances in Exodus, 14 in Leviticus, 10 in Numbers, and 3 in Deuteronomy (NLT translation). Examples: Ex 20:13, Num 25:5, Deut 13:5. Aren't those footnotes? May 1, 2019 at 4:18
  • Are you questioning the Wisdom of God in commanding Moses? What I emphasize is Death Penalty is not a Dogma, and the Church has the power to defined what is acceptable or not. The early Church considered the social conditions in allowing some cases and so now the Church considered that the social conditions had changed. So, is the Church in error for exercising His Authority? May 1, 2019 at 4:43
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    @jongricafort: Did I question the power of the Church to teach? Did Edward Feser? It behooves us to respect the complexity of the situations, matters of prudence, social situations, etc. which Pope Benedict XVI has shown (please read Feser's article I linked above in the last paragraph). If you want to discuss social conditions, how about from deterrence point of view? There are some excellent comments about deterrence here. May 1, 2019 at 4:49
  • The thing is the Church already approved the changes and attested that it does not contradict any doctrines and it is already an approved Magisterial teaching. Anyone who express contrary views are violating Canon752.The dissenters must expressed it following the guidelines in Donum Veritatis otherwise they are guilty of Canon752. The dissenters must assent to the Faith of the Church and not the other way around. May 1, 2019 at 4:55

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