Capital punishment in the updated Catechism

Advancing the Church’s position on a critical and highly-controversial issue of morality, Pope Francis has introduced a complete condemnation of the death penalty to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catechism, updated August 2, now reads: “The death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

In the previous version of this section of the Catechism, which was promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1992, the death penalty was declared permissible in some cases. However, it clearly delineated that capital punishment was only permissible in extreme cases in which there was no other option to ensure the protection of society. In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, or “the Gospel of Life”, St. John Paul II said of the death penalty: “The nature and extent of the punishment…ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity.”

The Catholic Church has always upheld and taught the inviolable dignity of the human person. The recent Magisterium, particularly with St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, emphatically declares that society ought to work for the abolition of the death penalty because it violates the human dignity that not even the most serious crimes can remove. This revision, then, is clearly in line with the work of the preceding Magisterium and serves as a clarification of Church teaching rather than a contradiction.

Since its inception, the Church has defended the truth that the human person is created with inviolable dignity because each one is made in the image and likeness of God. As God affirms in Genesis: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (1:26). The death penalty was taught to be admissible in certain cases because governments in the past had fewer means to protect society from serious criminals. Today, however, the modern prison system ensures the proper detainment of such criminals, thus ending the need to default to execution.

As St. John Paul II explored in depth in Evangelium Vitae, society today is in desperate need of a culture of life which upholds the dignity of every human life from conception until natural death. Often in our world, the most vulnerable are left defenseless and voiceless. This can be seen in the widespread crimes of abortion and euthanasia, which directly violate the dignity of each person.

So too does the execution of a person, even for the worst of crimes, directly contradict the truth that each person is created in God’s image. No matter what crime a person has committed, they deserve the opportunity for redemption and reform. The implementation of the death penalty takes away man’s opportunity to experience forgiveness and healing. By declaring the death penalty inadmissible, the Church is reaffirming her belief in this inviolable, sacred dignity of every human person.

Pope Francis’ revision to the Catechism is a beautiful example of the guidance, inspiration, and protection of the Catholic Church by the Holy Spirit. Throughout 2000 years of Church history, the Holy Spirit has continually led the Church to a deeper and more thorough understanding of the truths revealed in the Deposit of Faith. As Cardinal Ladaria explained in his letter to the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith on August 1, this revision is a “coherent development of Catholic doctrine.” There is nothing new being taught: only a clarification that upholds the unchanging truth that God’s great love for us gives inviolable dignity to every person.

Mary Benz is a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame studying Theology and Pre-Med.  She is passionate about the Catholic Faith, her big family, and being Pro-Life. Contact her at