Well, the media was somewhat abuzz with Pope Francis “changing” the teaching of the Catholic Church about the death penalty. It was really kind of a baby-step change, though, and largely due to the development of technology and society … being not so much a change of the teaching as simply a logical next step to what it already has been taught. It is certainly no change in essential Catholic dogma.
After all, why do we have the death penalty? In large part, for punishment/retribution, and for protection of society against one who perpetrates great evil.
The Roman Catholic Church (hereafter referred to as “the Church” for brevity), and the entirety of the Christian faith for that matter, is founded for a single purpose: to seek the salvation of souls through discipleship to Jesus, because that salvation is the very purpose for which He came to us.
As Christianity’s understanding of the Gospel of Christ has matured over the millennia, it has come to understand more fully the preciousness of each human person … of each human soul. Thus, has developed over time an increasingly greater reverence for all human life—each having a value far beyond any calculable material value … each “…single, unique, and unrepeatable, someone thought of and chosen from eternity, someone called and identified by name…” (Pope John Paul II, Christmas Message, 25 December 1978). This belief is a main reason—whether you agree with it or not—that the Church teaches so adamantly against abortion, seeing in the blastocyst/embryo/fetus a nascent, unique, unrepeatable, innocent and thus precious human life.
Realizing this inestimable value of the human person, the Church also recognizes that it often takes time for persons—especially the young—to come to a full understanding of the gravity and effect of their crimes. In hope of their eventually coming to such understanding, and longing for their conversion and repentance and the subsequent salvation of their souls, the Church’s stance for many decades now has been that the death penalty should the absolute last resort—no longer utilized as punishment, but only for protection of human life if it cannot be otherwise safeguarded. Modern prison systems and law enforcement has negated such danger almost entirely.
Another of the concerns of the Church is the inescapable human fallibility in law enforcement and the judicial systems. After all, to whom do we relegate the task of deciding life or death? Individuals are not allowed to do so; that is called vigilantism … under which we ourselves can be accused of murder. Rather, we relegate the task to judges and juries, who then decide for life or death. And yet … we know beyond doubt that any human judges are quite fallible; scarcely a week passes without news of yet another erroneous past conviction. But there is no returning what such persons lost in being incarcerated, often for years. How much more so for those who have been sentenced to death and executed?
The Church therefore seeks to refer judgment of life and death to the ultimate, infallible judge before whom we will all appear: God. This doesn’t mean we cannot punish offenders and protect society to the best of our ability. But execution is absolutely irreversible, and the Church, recognizing this, believes justice systems must make allowance for the possibility of judicial error in convictions. Most of all, however, the Church seeks to give all possible time and opportunity for wrongdoers to repent and to convert, and thus come to salvation and eternal life.
“But what about the ‘you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound’ (Exodus 21:23-25)!?” The “eye for an eye” system in its time was actually a development of justice in its point in time of the development of civilization—a legislating against disproportionate punishment for crimes. After all, would you today advocate that someone who stabs, be stabbed? Shot, to be shot? Maimed, to be maimed? Or would we think such punishments rather barbaric?
We see in His defense of the woman caught in adultery (John 8)—which would have merited a death sentence in His society—Jesus’ ushering in a time of mercy. The Church, in seeking to be faithful to her Lord’s example, longs for each person to come to realization and attainment of the salvation offered to them by Christ’s own sacrifice upon the cross and subsequent resurrection.
“But … justice!” In fury at a loved one being taken from us by violence, or at horrid crimes done against the innocent, we are tempted to think of the culprit: “He shouldn’t be saved; he needs to be punished! Damn him to HELL!!!” But eternal damnation is … well … forever, and described even by Jesus Himself in frightening terms as to its severity.
Jesus doesn’t teach us to love only those who love us or are good; on the contrary, He teaches: “I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same…But love your enemies, and do good…expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High…Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:27-36)
“Love your neighbor as yourself”, Jesus tells us. And if He can forgive from the cross those who nailed Him upon it (Luke 23:34), His disciples ought always themselves seek to forgive any offense, for Jesus shows God’s own love by sacrificing even Himself for the salvation of the world.