Unnoticed by many, Pope Francis changed the catechism, concerning the subject of the death penalty, which the Pope now wants to have presented as “inadmissible”.
To say it right at the outset. There are probably few people – especially among Christians – who would plead for the death penalty. Apart from the fact that there can be terrible misjudgments and that people can deeply repent from their deeds and convert, it is a cruel punishment that should be avoided if possible. This is especially true because today there are far better ways to prevent a perpetrator from repeating such grave crimes.
But even today there may still be cases where such protection is not possible, where the safe custody of a serious criminal cannot be guaranteed and where this person, both actively and indirectly through others, may threaten the lives of people. In this way, a criminal may objectively represent a deadly danger to society. The State must therefore have the possibility of protecting its citizens in an extreme case. In a certain sense, in such a case it would even act in self-defense.
The philosopher Edward Feser writes in an article by First Things[1]:
There has always been disagreement among Catholics about whether capital punishment is, in practice, the morally best way to uphold justice and social order. However, the Church has always taught, clearly and consistently, that the death penalty is in principle consistent with both natural law and the Gospel. This is taught throughout scripture—from Genesis 9 to Romans 13 and many points in between—and the Church maintains that scripture cannot teach moral error. It was taught by the Fathers of the Church, including those Fathers who opposed the application of capital punishment in practice. It was taught by the Doctors of the Church, including St. Thomas Aquinas, the Church’s greatest theologian; St. Alphonsus Liguori, her greatest moral theologian; and St. Robert Bellarmine, who, more than any other Doctor, illuminated how Christian teaching applies to modern political circumstances.
It was clearly and consistently taught by the popes up to and including Pope Benedict XVI. That Christians can in principle legitimately resort to the death penalty is taught by the Roman Catechism promulgated by Pope St. Pius V, the Catechism of Christian Doctrine promulgated by Pope St. Pius X, and the 1992 and 1997 versions of the most recent Catechism promulgated by Pope St. John Paul II—this last despite the fact that John Paul was famously opposed to applying capital punishment in practice. Pope St. Innocent I and Pope Innocent III taught that acceptance of the legitimacy in principle of capital punishment is a requirement of Catholic orthodoxy. Pope Pius XII explicitly endorsed the death penalty on several occasions. This is why Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as John Paul’s chief doctrinal officer, explicitly affirmed that doctrine in a 2004 memorandum. (…)
Pope Francis, by contrast, wants the Catechism to teach that capital punishment ought never to be used (rather than “very rarely” used), and he justifies this change not on prudential grounds, but “so as to better reflect the development of the doctrine on this point.” The implication is that Pope Francis thinks that considerations of doctrine or principle rule out the use of capital punishment in an absolute way. Moreover, to say, as the pope does, that the death penalty conflicts with “the inviolability and dignity of the person” insinuates that the practice is intrinsically contrary to natural law. And to say, as the pope does, that “the light of the Gospel” rules out capital punishment insinuates that it is intrinsically contrary to Christian morality.
So it cannot be a development of the doctrine, similarly as it is not the case in Amoris Laetitia. Pope Francis did not refer to biblical arguments in his explanations, nor was he able to use the tradition of the Church as a proof. His action derives from his personal convictions and unfortunately contradicts previous Church teaching.
Why is it important to draw attention to this, and why can it not simply be treated as a secondary matter, since most people are against the death penalty anyway?
1. According to previous church teaching, the authority of the state also includes the death penalty. The state has the right and the duty to protect its citizens if they are seriously threatened by criminals.
A quote from Cardinal Ratzinger (2004): “While the Church exhorts civil authorities … to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible … to have recourse to capital punishment”. [2]
2. The change of the catechism is not to be seen as a further development of previous views, but is in contradiction to them.
One must agree with Edward Feser:
“If capital punishment is wrong in principle, then the Church has for two millennia consistently taught grave moral error and badly misinterpreted scripture. And if the Church has been so wrong for so long about something so serious, then there is no teaching that might not be reversed, with the reversal justified by the stipulation that it be called a “development” rather than a contradiction.
Who then protects the church from the possibility of other “doctrinal developments” in the future? Pope Francis has made statements that seem to contradict traditional Catholic teaching on artificial contraception, marriage and divorce, grace, conscience and the reception of the Eucharist. How do we know that they will not also be included in the catechism as a new insight? Let us think, for example, that a new evaluation of homosexuality and its practice could also be introduced into the catechism.
It is a grave danger for the Church if what she has been teaching for a long time is suddenly called into question without sufficient foundation. Even if the subject of the death penalty seems secondary, the principle is at stake.
3. The undermining of credibility
Again we hear E. Feser: “If Pope Francis really is claiming that capital punishment is intrinsically evil, then either scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and all previous popes were wrong—or Pope Francis is. There is no third alternative. Nor is there any doubt about who would be wrong in that case. The Church has always acknowledged that popes can make doctrinal errors when not speaking ex cathedra .
Not only does this reversal undermine the credibility of every previous pope, it undermines the credibility of Pope Francis himself. For if Pope St. Innocent I, Pope Innocent III, Pope St. Pius V, Pope St. Pius X, Pope Pius XII, Pope St. John Paul II, and many other popes could all get things so badly wrong, why should we believe that Pope Francis has somehow finally gotten things right?”
After Amoris Laetitia, changing the Catechism’s teaching on capital punishment is the Pope’s next step in imposing his ideas on the way of the Church.
Vigilant Catholics and also shepherds of the Church have been critical of this process and have spoken out:
Cardinal Raymond Burke, Cardinal Janis Pujats, Archbishop Emeritus of Riga, Tomash Peta, Archbishop of the Archdiocese of St. Mary in Astana, Jan Pawel Lenga, Archbishop Emeritus of Karaganda, and Athanasius Schneider, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of St. Mary in Astana, published a text on 31 May 2019, which aims to give orientation to the faithful in this time of turmoil. They justify this step thus[3]:
In the spirit of fraternal charity, we publish this Declaration of truths as a concrete spiritual help, so that bishops, priests, parishes, religious convents, lay faithful associations, and private persons as well might have the opportunity to confess either privately or publicly those truths that in our days are mostly denied or disfigured. The following exhortation of the Apostle Paul should be understood as addressed also to each bishop and lay faithful of our time, “Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ”(1 Tim 6:12-14). 
In this „Declaration of the Truths Relating to Some of the Most Common Errors in the Life of the Church of Our Time“[4], they wrote in point 28, concerning our theme:
In accordance with Holy Scripture and the constant tradition of the ordinary and universal Magisterium, the Church did not err in teaching that the civil power may lawfully exercise capital punishment on malefactors where this is truly necessary to preserve the existence or just order of societies (see Gen 9:6; John 19:11; Rom 13:1-7; Innocent III, Professio fidei Waldensibus
praescripta; Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent, p. III, 5, n. 4; Pius XII, Address to Catholic jurists on December 5, 1954).
In this time of great turmoil, God does not leave his Church without faithful shepherds. Even if there are very few who raise their voices – unfortunately too few in my view – they are there and do their duty. Thus the errors are named and the right doctrine is presented to us once again.
At the end of this text, I would like to point out that here again an error is visible. The – I would like to say arbitrary – change in the catechism seems to me to follow exactly the same spirit that is also at work in Amoris Laetitia, that appears in the Abu Dhabi Declaration and that manifested itself in the idolatrous cult of Pachamama as a violation of the first commandment.
In this respect, it is important to point out the error of Pope Francis in this matter too, so that the faithful will not be deceived.