In an open letter, scholars and clergy say that Scripture teaches the death penalty can be legitimate
Forty-five philosophers, theologians and writers have signed an open appeal to the College of Cardinals. They ask the cardinals to advise Pope Francis to withdraw a recent change to the Catechism, in which the death penalty was described as “inadmissible”.
The Church has traditionally taught that governments can, in principle, use the death penalty. There has been widespread debate over whether the term “inadmissible”, and the rest of the new Catechism entry, contradict this doctrine.
The letter, published on the First Things website, says that the new phrase implies that established Church teaching is incorrect. The implication is “gravely scandalous”, they say, partly because the teaching is founded on Scripture.
The signatories say that the Pope’s change “will cause and is already causing many people, both believers and non-believers, to suppose that the Church considers, contrary to the Word of God, that capital punishment is intrinsically evil”.
About half of the signatories are philosophy professors, including J Budziszewski of the University of Texas in Austin, Isobel Camp of the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas, and Thomas Pink of King’s College London.
Some of the signatories oppose the current use of the death penalty, but believe it is not in principle “intrinsically evil”. Michael Sirilla, Professor of Dogmatic and Systematic Theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, told the Catholic Herald: “Many of us, myself included, signed this appeal not principally because we want capital punishment to be employed, but because the new wording in the Catechism is the latest in a series of ambiguously-phrased teachings which are causing a critical level of doctrinal and moral confusion among the faithful.
“Most people are taking this change to be a reversal in the Church’s teaching on a matter revealed in Scripture and consistently and definitively taught by the Magisterium through the centuries. This has naturally led some to request the Church to change other teachings, for instance, on the immorality of homosexuality.
“The Pope has the duty to clarify matters of faith and morals, but no right to introduce new doctrines, or to contradict what the Church has always believed. We sent the petition to the cardinals because they are traditionally considered to be the Pope’s own counsellors.”
Other names are new, such as Fr Anselm Ramelow OP, who chairs the philosophy department at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in California.
The author and commentator Fr George Rutler, who is also among the signatories, commented: “To make an absolute prohibition of capital punishment, and to do so through use of the uncanonical and unexplained term ‘inadmissible’, is to replace doctrine with sentiment. It abuses authentic development of doctrine.”
Fr Rutler said the confusion dated back to Pope St John Paul II, who had “inserted a prudential opinion into the Catechism” by suggesting that the use of the death penalty might today be wholly unnecessary. But Fr Rutler said John Paul had understood that Church teaching did not entirely rule out the possibility. “With his fine mind and great soul, he knew that even his opinion had to be qualified by the Church’s authentic doctrine.”
The letter notes St Thomas Aquinas’s teaching that “If the faith were endangered, a subject ought to rebuke his prelate even publicly.”
It concludes by addressing the cardinals: “we state our conviction that this [asking the Pope to withdraw the change] is a duty seriously binding upon yourselves, before God and before the Church.”