The Death Penalty Is Inadmissable

Author: Rino Fisichella*

The Death Penalty Is Inadmissable

Rino Fisichella*

The clear and decisive words with which Pope Francis has repeatedly condemned the death penalty should also be reflected in the Catechism, of the Catholic Church. In his speech last October, for the 25th anniversary of its publication, the Pontiff explicitly addressed the issue by affirming that the subject should find in the Catechism “a more adequate and coherent treatment”. In continuity with the previous Magisterium, in particular with the statements of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the Pope wanted to emphasize the dignity of the person, who must in no way be humiliated or ostracized: “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”.

With the new formulation of n. 2267 of the Catechism, therefore, the Church takes a decisive step in promoting the dignity of every person, whatever crime he or she may have committed, and explicitly condemns the death penalty. The formulation makes it possible to grasp some innovative amendments that pave the way for a more responsible commitment in the life of believers, especially in those numerous countries where the death penalty is still in force.

The text does not only refer to a “change in the awareness” that is increasingly manifested by the people and, in particular, by the young generations called to assume responsibility for a new culture in favour of human life. A careful reading allows us to verify how the Church in recent decades has made real progress in comprehending the teaching on the dignity of the person and, consequently, in reassessing her thinking on the death penalty.

Noting the change in the awareness of the Christian people is certainly a key aspect. Stressing that today states have at their disposal many defence systems to protect the population, and that forms of detention have been developed which exclude the danger and trauma of violence being done to innocent people is also a determining factor.

However, this is not enough. The new text of the Catechism states that in the light of the Gospel the Church teaches that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person”. This passage clearly demonstrates that we are dealing with a true dogmatic advancement with which a matter of the faith is clarified, one that has steadily matured to the point of making understood the unsustainability of the death penalty in our time.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s letter to Bishops introducing the new text of the Catechism, shows [the Congregation’s] concern to emphasize that the new content is in continuity with the previous Magisterium. One cannot but observe, however, that Pope Francis’ strong stance allows us to grasp the advancement that is being made. On the other hand, in his speech last October, the Pontiff — making his own the words of John XXIII in the inaugural address to the Second Vatican Council — expounded his thoughts with two verbs: to guard and to pursue.

To guard the sacred deposit of faith does not mean to mummify it, but to conform it ever more to its own nature and allow the truth of the faith to answer the questions of each generation. Tradition cannot be represented as a fly in amber, to use a colourful English expression. If that were the case, we would have destroyed it. Rather, the Church’s teaching of the faith is a proclamation, a vital word that challenges everyone, always and everywhere, to freely take a stance to undertake the transformation of the world.

Referring the matter of the death penalty to the perspective of the dignity of the person, Pope Francis therefore takes a decisive step in the interpretation of a long-established doctrine. It is a question of a development and an advancement in the understanding of the Gospel that opens horizons that have so far remained in the shadows. The history of the dogma does not proceed from discontinuity, but from continuity aimed at progress through harmonious development which dynamically brings forth timeless truth.

The Church is well aware that there are always mixed feelings in the face of such violent and inhumane crimes that lead a legitimate authority to impose the death penalty. In defending the abolition of the death penalty, one certainly does not forget the suffering of the victims involved, nor the injustice that has been perpetrated. Rather, it is expected that justice take its own decisive step, not out of rancour and vengeance, but out of a sense of responsibility beyond the present moment. It is a perceptive glance that recognizes that conversion, repentance and the desire to start life anew cannot be taken away from anyone, not even from those guilty of the most serious crimes. Voluntarily taking a human life is contrary to Christian revelation. The challenge of the New Evangelization calls the Church to focus on forgiveness and redemption.

*President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
3 August 2018, page 1

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