The Pope vs. Paragraph 2266

Reassuring loyal Catholics who feel left behind by the pope's death-penalty pleas.


One Sunday last July, the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend in Indiana had a video shown in all its churches in lieu of a homily. The subject was the death penalty, and the video gave the distinct impression that the Catholic Church now condemns capital punishment and, consequently, that lay Indianans should agitate for repeal of the death penalty in their state.

Sitting in the pews were many Catholics of the kind called Conservative. That is, Catholics who have remained loyal to the pope and his teaching while all around them our culture of dissent told them that they could make up their own minds--chiefly about sexual morality. A few years ago, in the encyclical Gospel of Life, John Paul II had argued that the death penalty should become so rare as to disappear. It was now possible to protect society from dangerous criminals by imprisonment, something that had the added bonus of providing a prolonged opportunity for repentance on the part of the imprisoned. The relevant paragraphs of the Catechism of the Catholic Church were revised to bring them in line with the Gospel of Life.

After the pope's statement, Catholics who hadn't been particularly known for their susceptibility to papal direction eagerly embraced the campaign against capital punishment. The church itself seemed to be allying herself with societal forces that were otherwise hostile to church teaching. What was going on? Had the pope changed the church's traditional doctrine--that the state had the right to exact capital punishment--in order to sign onto a campaign already in process under secular auspices? Could that doctrine be changed by papal fiat? And was the pope letting down his loyal troops?

The pope's personal opposition to the death penalty is little in doubt. It has become commonplace for the Vatican to lobby heads of state and governors, urging them to commute the sentences of those sentenced to die for their crimes. The pope has pleaded for the life of Derek Barnabei, a condemned convict in Virginia, a tactic that worked three years ago when, on a visit to Missouri, John Paul II urged the Protestant governor to spare a man on death row and the request was granted. But leaving the pontiff's personal views aside, has the church changed her teaching on capital punishment?

The answer is no. Nowhere has the pope said that capital punishment is morally wrong or that the state does not have the right to exact it. He has not overthrown a teaching that stretches back through the centuries--something he arguably could not do. When the video was shown in Indiana, the faithful were given a pamphlet which contained the relevant revised paragraphs from the Catechism. Paragraph 2266 recalls the three purposes of punishment: retribution, protection of society, and moral medicine. These are not all of equal weight. "Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense." Nothing could be more traditional.

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