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.Several commentators have questioned whether "inadmissible" is equivalent to "intrinsically evil" and have asked for clarification. No such clarification is needed if we look to Saint John Paul II's definition of "intrinsically evil" in Veritatis Splendor 80:
Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature "incapable of being ordered" to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church's moral tradition, have been termed "intrinsically evil" (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances.In the foregoing passage, Saint John Paul II identifies 4 elements that are relevant to determining the morality of an act:
- The object of the act (i.e., the act itself)
- The subject of the act (i.e., the identity of the person committing the act)
- The circumstances of the act
- The intentions of the person committing the act
Acts that are always wrong by reason of their object alone
Certain acts, regardless of who is doing them, are always wrong. An example of such an act is masturbation. It is always wrong, regardless of who does it, whatever reasons they may have, and whatever circumstances they may face.
The object of the death penalty is the act of killing another human being. It is clear from Catholic teaching throughout the ages, up through and including the current edition of the Catechism following the latest change by Pope Francis, that killing a human being is not always morally wrong. Sections 2263-2265 of the updated Catechism state that it is morally acceptable to kill a human being in defense of one's own life or in defense of another's life. Thus, Pope Francis does not teach that the death penalty falls into this category.
Acts that depend on the subject
Some acts are morally wrong unless performed by a person authorized to commit the act. Thus, sexual intercourse is wrong, unless both persons committing the act are married to each other. As another example, attempting to minister the sacraments of the Eucharist, confession and ordination is wrong, unless performed by the appropriate priest or bishop.
Acts in this category and the foregoing category would fall under Saint John Paul II's definition of "intrinsically evil" when performed by an unauthorized subject. Thus, adultery and imitating the Sacrifice of the Mass are always wrong, regardless of the circumstances and the intentions of the person committing them.
Killing does not fall into this category either. The morality of killing another human being does not solely depend on the identity of the person doing the killing. The government does not have an absolute right to kill whomever it wants for any reason. All sides would agree that the morality of the government killing a person depends on both the circumstances of the killing and the government's intentions for killing that person. Thus, killing (and thus the death penalty) is not an intrinsically evil act.
Acts that depend on the circumstances
The morality of certain acts depends on the circumstances. Driving 55 miles per hour is morally acceptable in a clear lane on an interstate highway, but not on a residential side street. Here the intentions of the subject do not matter. Even if you are in a rush to get a dying person to the hospital, driving 55 miles per hour down a residential side street is not morally acceptable.
Does the morality of killing a person depend on the circumstances alone, regardless of the subject's intention? We can look to the Catechism of Trent to confirm that the answer is no:
In like manner, the soldier is guiltless who, actuated not by motives of ambition or cruelty, but by a pure desire of serving the interests of his country, takes away the life of an enemy in a just war.The Catechism of Trent states that the circumstances alone (i.e., a just war) do not justify a soldier killing an enemy combatant. Rather, the soldier must be "actuated not by motives of ambition or cruelty, but by a pure desire of serving the interests of his country."
Acts that depend on the subject's intentions
"It's the thought that counts." Buying someone a gift you think they will like, even if for reasons unknown to you they will hate it, is nonetheless a morally acceptable act. Buying someone a gift you know they will hate, out of a desire to cause them displeasure, is not morally acceptable, regardless of the circumstances.
Does the morality of killing a person depend on the subject's intentions alone? The answer must be no. A justifiable intent to kill another human being can only arise when there are circumstances that necessitate it.
Acts that depend on both the circumstances and the subject's intentions
Finally, some acts depend on both the circumstances and the subject's intentions. This is the category in which killing falls. Killing another human is morally justifiable when the circumstances necessitate it and when done with the right intentions. The Catechism of Trent makes this clear in its discussion of the death penalty:
Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder. The end of the Commandment is the preservation and security of human life. Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing outrage and violence. Hence these words of David: In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land, that I might cut off all the workers of iniquity from the city of the Lord.The Catechism of Trent identifies the circumstances (repressing outrage and violence) and the intentions (judicious exercise with an end to preserve and secure human life) in which an authorized subject (the civil authority) is morally justified in committing the object of the act (killing a human being).
Thus, it has always been the case that the morality of killing depends on the identity of the subject, the subject's intentions and the circumstances in which the killing takes place. Pope Francis has provided greater clarity on the circumstances and intentions in which killing a human being is acceptable. Saint John Paul II previously provided greater clarity on this issue by limiting the circumstances in which the death penalty could be employed. The previous version of Section 2267 of the Catechism stated:
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent."How has Pope Francis modified this teaching? By limiting the intentions that justify killing. He has made it clear that killing a person for the purpose of punishing them, i.e., inflicting a penalty on them, is inadmissible. It is not morally acceptable to kill a human being for the purpose of punishing them. The only morally acceptable reasons to kill a human being are set forth in the unchanged portion of the Catechism's teachings on the 5th commandment: defense of one's self, defense of other human beings, and just war.
Taking all of this into account, can Pope Francis' new teaching be interpreted as declaring the death penalty to be "intrinsically evil"? Following Veritatis Splendor, the morality of an intrinsically evil act depends solely on the object of the act and the identity of the subject. Does Pope Francis teach that the morality of killing depends solely on the object of the act and the identity of the subject? No, he teaches that it depends on the circumstances and the subject's intentions, which is the same teaching as the Catechism of Trent. Just as Saint John Paul II provided greater clarity on the circumstances that justify killing, Pope Francis has provided greater clarity on the intentions that justify killing.
Veritatis Splendor: http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_06081993_veritatis-splendor.html
Catechism of Trent: http://www.cin.org/users/james/ebooks/master/trent/tcomm05.htm
1997 Catechism: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a5.htm
2018 Update: http://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/it/bollettino/pubblico/2018/08/02/0556/01210.html#letteraing