More Papal Confusion: Footnoting Francis throws his predecessors under the bus

August 6, 2018 (Steven O’Reilly) – By now the reader has certainly heard the latest news from Rome.  Pope Francis has “developed” the doctrine on the death penalty, so that what was once licit, is now illicit – or more accurately, “inadmissible.” Here is the new version of the Catechism on the death penalty:

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”,[1] and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide. (Source:  Vatican)

Much bandwidth has already been used on the topic by others, so I will be relatively brief with my own comments here, perhaps saving my comments on the prudential difficulties with the changes for another post.

Does Francis View the Death Penalty as Intrinsically Evil?

The recently revised Catechism does not explicitly say that the death penalty in “intrinsically evil.” He uses the odd term “inadmissible.”  Those defending Francis and the change as a “development of doctrine” have relied on this observation. However, I think the well-intended defenders recognize that the suggestion the new revision teaches the death penalty to be “intrinsically evil”  would be a clear problem and contradiction of prior teaching on the subject.  This would be so, most if not all agree, because the Church has taught the death penalty was licit for most of its history, and could not have done so if the death penalty was, in fact, intrinsically evil. Consider, Pope John Paul II’s catechism taught:  “The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.”

Still, Pope Francis’ rewrite certainly appears to allow the reading that it is intrinsically evil because he teaches the death penalty “in light of the Gospel” is now “inadmissible.”  Ambiguous?  Maybe.  Some may defend the Pope’s revision suggesting the inadmissibility of the death penalty is linked in the text of CCC. 2267 to more effective means of detention, etc.  That may be, but the new revision has a footnote.  And, the funny thing with footnotes are, they have a habit of turning up as “authentic magisterium” eventually under Francis (see here) as happened with the Argentine bishops’ interpretation of the infamous footnote 351 in Amoris Laetitia

The sentence in CCC. 2267 which states the death penalty is “inadmissible” is footnoted, referencing the papal address from which the line is taken (see ADDRESS OF HIS HOLINESS POPE FRANCIS TO PARTICIPANTS IN THE MEETING PROMOTED BY THE PONTIFICAL COUNCIL FOR PROMOTING THE NEW EVANGELIZATION, October 11, 2017). In the footnoted address, the Pope states the following (emphasis added):

“Along these same lines, I would like now to bring up a subject that ought to find in the Catechism of the Catholic Church a more adequate and coherent treatment in the light of these expressed aims.  I am speaking of the death penalty.  This issue cannot be reduced to a mere résumé of traditional teaching without taking into account not only the doctrine as it has developed in the teaching of recent Popes, but also the change in the awareness of the Christian people which rejects an attitude of complacency before a punishment deeply injurious of human dignity.  It must be clearly stated that the death penalty is an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity.  It is per se contrary to the Gospel, because it entails the willful suppression of a human life that never ceases to be sacred in the eyes of its Creator and of which – ultimately – only God is the true judge and guarantor.  No man, “not even a murderer, loses his personal dignity” (Letter to the President of the International Commission against the Death Penalty, 20 March 2015), because God is a Father who always awaits the return of his children who, knowing that they have made mistakes, ask for forgiveness and begin a new life.  No one ought to be deprived not only of life, but also of the chance for a moral and existential redemption that in turn can benefit the community.”

Although the Pope references the doctrine as it has developed under his predecessors (e.g., more effective means of detention), this does not prevent Francis from asserting the death penalty is per se (i.e., in and of itself) contrary to the Gospel: “It is per se contrary to the Gospel, because it entails the willful suppression of a human life that never ceases to be sacred in the eyes of its Creator and of which – ultimately – only God is the true judge and guarantor.”  The Google searched definition of “per se” is “by or in itself or themselves; intrinsically.”

My understanding  is that the Pope’s address was given in Italian.  The Italian transcription reads: “E’ in sé stessa contraria al Vangelo perché viene deciso volontariamente di sopprimere una vita umana che è sempre sacra agli occhi del Creatore e di cui Dio solo in ultima analisi è vero giudice e garante” (Here).  The meaning in Italian, again, is the same, the death penalty is “in itself contrary to the Gospel.”  Thus, it seems clear enough that Pope Francis is, in fact, asserting that regardless of any seeming justifying factor at any point in history (e.g., such as the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the means of detention, or the state of Christian or society’s “awareness” of a person’s dignity) – the death penalty is “in itself contrary to the Gospel.” That seems a pretty clear statement that the death penalty is intrinsically evil.  If this is a fair reading of the Pope’s address, such a statement clearly accuses the Church, at least by implication, of having been in error for not previously excluding the death penalty.  On its face, the statement appears heretical.

Pope Francis Throws his Predecessors Under the Bus

In the same footnoted papal address on the death penalty, Francis then proceeds to throw his predecessors under the bus:

“In past centuries, when means of defence were scarce and society had yet to develop and mature as it has, recourse to the death penalty appeared to be the logical consequence of the correct application of justice.  Sadly, even in the Papal States recourse was had to this extreme and inhumane remedy that ignored the primacy of mercy over justice. Let us take responsibility for the past and recognize that the imposition of the death penalty was dictated by a mentality more legalistic than Christian.  Concern for preserving power and material wealth led to an over-estimation of the value of the law and prevented a deeper understanding of the Gospel.Nowadays, however, were we to remain neutral before the new demands of upholding personal dignity, we would be even more guilty. (see here.  Emphasis added)

It is astonishing.  First, in an oblique but clear swipe at his predecessors, Francis criticizes the Papal States – under the direct rule of the popes – for allowing capital punishment, and then outrageously asserts the imposition of it “was dictated by a mentality more legalistic than Christian“! Effectively, Francis calls his papal predecessors – and their understanding of and their magisterium on the death penalty – un-Christian! If that is not bad enough, Francis throws into the mix something of a communistic analysis of the origin of the death penalty worthy of Karl Marx himself, stating of the origin of the death penalty: “Concern for preserving power and material wealth led to an over-estimation of the value of the law and prevented a deeper understanding of the Gospel.” 

Whereas John Paul II had respect for the Church’s traditional teaching on the death penalty and its place in history, Pope Francis allows no such concession in his address (emphasis added):

“Here we are not in any way contradicting past teaching, for the defence of the dignity of human life from the first moment of conception to natural death has been taught by the Church consistently and authoritatively.  Yet the harmonious development of doctrine demands that we cease to defend arguments that now appear clearly contrary to the new understanding of Christian truth.  Indeed, as Saint Vincent of Lérins pointed out, “Some may say: Shall there be no progress of religion in Christ’s Church?  Certainly; all possible progress.  For who is there, so envious of men, so full of hatred to God, who would seek to forbid it?” (Commonitorium, 23.1; PL 50). It is necessary, therefore, to reaffirm that no matter how serious the crime that has been committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.”

The bolded statement above does not appear to be true. The Church, per John Paul II, has always correctly held in principle the State had the right to impose the death penalty, provided it was necessary and that less bloody means of punishment did not suffice.  Yet, Francis calls these former arguments – thus certainly the ones taught by the Church(!) – to be “clearly contrary to a new understanding of Christian truth.”  The implication seems clear, where Pope John Paul II may have wanted to abolish capital punishment, I do not think it could be said of him that he would assert the Catholic Church’s prior understanding was “clearly contrary” to the developed understanding he taught.  However, Francis says just that.  Francis states the prior arguments “now appear clearly contrary to the new understanding of Christian truth.”  I do not think St. Vincent of Lerins, who Francis quotes, or St. John Henry Newman would so readily agree with Pope Francis with regard to that statement or the Pope’s take on the development of doctrine.

If the formal text of 2267 avoids suggesting the death penalty is “intrinsically evil” (and I am not asserting it does), the footnote to 2267 suggests more clearly – if not directly – that it is.  Therefore, both the Pope’s claim in the footnoted address that there is no contradiction, and the CDF’s own similar claim accompanying the revised Catechism entry (see here)  seem rather difficult to defend. Perhaps, the Pope and the CDF can defend them with clear arguments, but that would require more care, interest, diligence and effort on the Pope’s part than he has heretofore shown on the important doctrinal controversies which have afflicted his pontificate or perhaps more accurately – which have been inflicted by it on the Church. Regardless, the Pope’s own statements (i.e., in the cited footnote) do little to assuage the fear and distress of many that what we have here is a clear contradiction and an error, and not a true development of doctrine.  This is especially the case coming as it does on the heals of the ongoing Amoris Laetitia controversy (see here), communion for non-Catholic spouses in Germany, and fears over what changes may come regarding Humanae Vitae (e.g., given statements by some of the Pope’s media acolytes, see Walford waffles, again, on exceptionless norms).

However, for now, it appears that Francis, in yet another footnote, has only left behind more confusion. Perhaps we must leave it to the theologians and canonists to provide us more guidance, because the bishops are nowhere to be found. Unfortunately, what is more likely, a future pope and or an ecumenical council will be required to clean up the growing Augean mess which surrounds this pontificate.

Steven O’Reilly is a graduate of the University of Dallas and the Georgia Institute of Technology. He lives near Atlanta with his family. He has written apologetic articles and is working on a historical-adventure trilogy, set during the time of the Arian crisis. He asks for your prayers for his intentions.  He can be contacted at (or follow on Twitter: @S_OReilly_USA).



  1. The Catholic Catechism on the death penalty prior to the revision by Pope Francis:

2267 The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.

“If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should 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.

“Today, in fact, given the means at the State’s disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender ‘today … are very rare, if not practically non-existent.'[John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56.] (Source: Vatican as of 8/6/2018)


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