Pope Francis, St. Paul and the Death Penalty

Recently, in an address to a delegation from the International Commission against the Death Penalty, the pope denied the moral goodness of the death penalty, saying: “in the light of the Gospel…the death penalty is always inadmissible because it counters the inviolability and the dignity of the person.” In the same address,, the pope condemned previous popes who maintained the death penalty saying they neglected “the primacy of mercy over justice.” This comes as no surprise as, prior to these comments, the pope added his new teaching about the inadmissibility of the death penalty to the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 2267. The catechism had previously taught:

Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

The new paragraph reads:

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.

The pope’s claim that the change to the catechism is a “harmonious development” notwithstanding, the new teaching is clearly a break with the past. Nevertheless, it is worth considering the reason behind the change. The new teaching is claimed to be based on a new recognition of the “dignity” of the human being. This raises many difficulties because it makes one wonder if God was unaware of the dignity of human beings when He commanded the children of Israel to put to death men, women and children when dispossessing them from the Promise Land. This also does not account for the fact that previous popes considered the dignity of the human being but recognized the human that is guilty of certain offenses has lost their right to life. Pope Pius XII, for instance, stated:

“Even when there is question of the execution of a condemned man, the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life … by his crime, he has already dispossessed himself of his right to life.”  – Address to the First International Congress of Histopathology of the Nervous System, 14 September 1952, XIV, 328

Many more quotes to the contrary of Pope Francis’ new teaching can be cited, but one must especially ask what is one to make of St. Paul, who stated in his letter to the Romans:

For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. (Romans 13:4)

Here, Paul clearly affirms the ruler bears the “sword” on behalf of God, who is his “agent of wrath.” Lest anyone argue that “bear the sword” here is used metaphorically for the notion that the authority merely has the power to punish, though not necessarily implying capital punishment, one should note Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, that explains the meaning of the phrase, stating:

to bear the sword, is used of him to whom the sword has been committed, viz. to use when a malefactor is to he punished; hence, equivalent to to have the power of life and death, Romans 13:4 (so ξίφοςξιφη ἔχεινPhilostr. vit. Apoll. 7, 16; vit. sophist. 1, 25, 2 (3), cf. Dion Cass. 42, 27; and in the Talmud the king who bears the sword, of the Hebrew king). (Emphasis mine)

Clearly, the phrase is in reference to capital punishment. This would mean, in Paul’s mind, any alleged supremacy of mercy over justice was not applicable for those guilty of a capital offense. So, one must ask, does Pope Francis think St. Paul was guilty of ignoring the alleged supremacy of mercy over justice? Is it possible St. Paul, in inspired Scripture, committed the error of being too just, or is it possible Pope Francis has a faulty understanding of the meaning and role of mercy?

Further Reading:

Read here for more theologians, philosophers and historians who dispute the Pope’s new teaching on the death penalty.

Read here for an historical analysis of the Roman Catholic teaching on the death penalty.

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