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A Change in the Catechism

Yesterday news broke that there is going be a change in the catechism regarding the Church’s teaching on the death penalty. You can read the article in the National Catholic Register here.

I have written previously about why I think repealing death penalty laws and overturning Roe vs. Wade are both necessary actions for restoring a culture of life. You can read that in my session review here.

Formerly, the catechism read, “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.”

That language, “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives” is the key to understanding the change. Where a community did not have recourse to secure prison facilities, they could not effectively protect themselves from the most dangerous prisoners. The death penalty may have been the only way a community could protect itself. An argument could be made that this “exception” has not been applicable to those of us living in the U.S. for a very long time.

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.”

Two immediate thoughts come to mind after reading the new paragraph.

First, I was reminded of testimony given by a friend of mine as he argued against the death penalty repeal bill last year. He has been a staunch ally when it comes to defending the lives of the unborn. However, in his argument against the death penalty repeal bill he said that capital punishment should be “legal, but rare.” I was stunned because his testimony sounded so eerily similar to those who are arguing that abortion is a right. They say that abortion should be, “safe, legal and rare.”

My second thought came from the language in the paragraph that states, “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.”

We can’t appeal to “the possibility of redemption” in a secular setting because the secular world is not concerned about that. However, I have already read several articles from Catholics who are upset about the change in the catechism. One of them even calls Pope Francis a heretic.

I’ve read less accusatorial articles posted by friends who appeal  to scripture and tradition in an attempt to justify their dissent from the change. But as a people of faith we see the Church is God’s instrument. God seeks repentance and the redemption of souls. How does justifying the premature death of an individual square with our belief that God desires that person’s redemption? From our lived experience, we know that God can work on hearts over time. If we become the reason for why that time is cut short, then we become an obstacle to God for that person. Jesus has some rather harsh words for those who become obstacles, (stumbling blocks or skandalon) to God for others.

Life is either sacred or it’s not. Period.