Catholics and the Death Penalty: Teaching CAN Change.

In a notable development, Pope Francis has announced that the death penalty is “no longer acceptable” to Catholics, because there have been what are described as “developments” in doctrine. As a result, it is reported, there will be revisions to the Cathechism.

Pope Francis declared today that the death penalty is “contrary to the Gospel.” He said that “however grave the crime that may be committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it attacks the inviolability and the dignity of the person.”

He did so in a major talk on Oct. 11 to an audience of cardinals, bishops, priests, nuns, catechists, and ambassadors from many countries on the 25th anniversary of the promulgation of the catechism, affirming that there has been a development of doctrine in the church and a change in the consciousness of the Christian people on the question of the death penalty. The pope’s comments and the timing of them suggest that a revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church may be forthcoming to reflect this new development in the church’s understanding.

-America magazine




This should be welcome news, for itself. The death penalty is barbaric: it is for good reason that so many countries in the modern world have removed it from their legal systems. There is no evidence that it works as an effective deterrent, there are too many instances of people who have been convicted of crimes that are subsequently found to have been committed by others. In such cases of miscarriage of justice, people who have been wrongly imprisoned can be pardoned and released. People who have been wrongly executed cannot be resurrected. In addition, as Sr Helen Prejean regularly points out, there is abundant evidence of severe racial bias in the death penalties imposed. Impoverished Black offenders are overwhelmingly more likely to end up on death row than wealthy White men who can afford expensive lawyers.

For LGBT Catholics, there is another reason to celebrate this announcement: it is a welcome, very clear confirmation that yes indeed, Catholic teaching can change – and the Catechism with it. After constant assertions by Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI of the “constant and unchanging” nature of church teaching, this is great news.

The truth is, that Catholic teaching is constantly developing. Over the long term, there have been many fundamental changes, from  core theology to simple matters of discipline.  Well-known examples are over the historic acceptance of slavery, the prohibition of usury and the persecution of Galileo. (It is only relatively recently that the Church has come to accept ideas of evolution, and rejected the Genesis narrative as a literal account of creation in seven days).

Usually, the process of change is glacially slow, with minor incremental adjustments. By the time that change has been completed, there are always those who deny that there has in fact been “change”, but only a deeper understanding., “It was ever thus”, they say, ignoring the evidence before them. In years to come, after sexual doctrines have been transformed to bring them into closer alignment with reality, not doubt there will be those denying that the church was ever hostile to same-sex relationships.

That change however, will come. Early in his papacy, Pope Francis stated clearly in a well-publicised interview, that Catholic teaching must constantly develop, and is doing so. In the introduction to his first Apostolic Exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), he noted that although the content was wide-ranging, certain matters had been omitted, because they needed further study.  One topic studiously avoided, was that of homosexuality. To the surprise of many, the two Synod of Bishops Assemblies on Marriage and Family, and “Amoris Laetitia” which followed it, barely touched on sexual orientation or same-sex relationships, except to encourage more sensitive pastoral care. More recently, the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family has been reconstituted as the “Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for the Sciences of Marriage and Family.”

Softlee softlee, catchee monkey. At the time of Pope Francis’ election, I read an assessment that it was not in his character to take hasty decisions.  Decisive action would be preceded by careful thought, study and intensive prayer. This was confirmed by the extended time he took before embarking on the badly needed reform of the curia. I suspect that he is similarly biding his time, before setting his theologians on an overdue reform (or “development”) of sexual theology, taking into account solid evidence from social and biological science.

As James Alison wrote some years ago, it’s an exciting time to be both gay and Catholic.

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