The Magisterial Weight of the New Text of the Catechism on the Death Penalty

by John P. Joy, STD


In view of the uproar caused by Pope Francis’ decision to alter the text of the Catechism on the death penalty, it may be helpful to pause and consider the magisterial weight or degree of teaching authority exercised by the pope in promulgating this text and the corresponding response due to this teaching on the part of the faithful. The three levels of magisterial authority are outlined in the concluding formula of the Profession of Faith as follows:


With firm faith, I also believe everything contained in the word of God, whether written or handed down in Tradition, which the Church, either by a solemn judgment or by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, sets forth to be believed as divinely revealed.

I also firmly accept and hold each and everything definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals.

Moreover, I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act.[1]

The first two paragraphs refer to the infallible teaching of the Church, which is proposed either as contained in divine revelation and so “to be believed as divinely revealed” (first paragraph) or as at least connected to divine revelation and so “definitively to be held” (second paragraph). The third paragraph refers to the authentic (that is, authoritative) but not infallible teaching of the pope or bishops.

The pope teaches infallibly only when he fulfills the requirements set forth by the First Vatican Council.[2] These requirements are essentially three, pertaining to the subject, object, and act of the teaching.[3] (1) On the part of the subject, the pope must be speaking as supreme head of the universal Church and not merely as a private person or a local bishop; (2) on the part of the object, the pope must be speaking about a matter of faith or morals; (3) and on the part of the act itself, the pope must define the doctrine by a definitive act.[4]

Magisterial Weight of the New Text of the Catechism

In the present case, there is no great difficulty in recognizing that Pope Francis was acting in an official capacity as supreme head of the Church when he approved the new text of the Catechism n. 2267 and ordered it to be inserted into all editions of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is intended as a teaching document for the whole Church. And there seems to be no doubt that the text in question has to do with matters of faith and morals, for the death penalty pertains in itself to morals and the teaching is proposed explicitly “in the light of the Gospel”[5] and in the context of an exposition of the Fifth Commandment. But with respect to the third requirement, there does not seem to be any evidence of the definitive mode of proclamation that is required for infallibility. The burden of proof would in any case be on anyone who wanted to assert that it does constitute an infallible definition.[6]

But just because it is not infallible does not mean that it is not authoritative. The conditions for authoritative (or authentic) papal teaching are less stringent than for infallible papal teaching. For authentic papal teaching it is enough for the pope, acting in an official capacity as pope, to propose a teaching regarding faith or morals even if not by a definitive act. The rescript, therefore, by which the new text of the Catechism on the death penalty was published on August 2, 2018, is an act of the authentic papal magisterium, and as such it calls for a religious submission of will and intellect on the part of all the faithful.[7]

Religious Submission of Will and Intellect

The nature of this religious submission of will and intellect corresponds to the nature of the authentic but non-definitive magisterium: because the teaching is authoritative, it calls for a genuine internal assent; but because the teaching is not definitive, the nature of the assent will be provisional. In other words, it will have more the character of opinion rather than knowledge, since the doctrine is to be accepted as true, though with the awareness that it could possibly be false.[8]

However, although this religious submission is normally due to the teaching of the authentic magisterium, it may legitimately be withheld in certain cases.[9] To do so merely on the basis of one’s own private judgment would certainly be rash and dangerous, but assent must be withheld when the teaching in question openly conflicts with the public dogma or definitive doctrine of the Church. For in the case of conflicting obligations, precedence must always be given to the stricter obligation; and the obligation to give definitive assent to the irreformable doctrines of the infallible Church is a stricter obligation than the religious submission due to the non-infallible teaching of the authentic magisterium. (And it is not possible to assent simultaneously to contradictory propositions.)

The duty of religious submission to the authentic teaching of the Holy Father, therefore, is very much like the duty of children to obey their parents. Just as children have a duty to obey their parents in all things unless their parents command them to violate the law of God, so too Catholics have a duty to assent to all things taught by the authentic papal magisterium unless the pope should teach something contrary to a truth revealed by God himself or infallibly taught by the Church as pertaining to divine revelation. And just as children must obey the higher law of God even when it means disobedience to their parents, so Catholics must believe and hold the dogmas and definitive doctrines of the Church even if this means withholding assent from a given instance of authentic papal teaching.

Magisterial Weight of the Traditional Catholic Teaching

Now the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church is that the death penalty is in principle legitimate,[10] which means that it is not intrinsically immoral. And this traditional teaching is absolutely unchangeable, for it is a dogma of divine and catholic faith.[11]

A dogma is a doctrine contained in divine revelation (Scripture or Tradition) which has been proposed as such by the Church, either by a solemn judgment or by the ordinary and universal magisterium.[12] Now the legitimacy in principle of the death penalty is clearly taught in Scripture. For example: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image” (Gen 9:6).[13] Nor may any Catholic legitimately dispute this interpretation of Scripture, for the Fathers and Doctors of the Church are unanimous in interpreting Scripture (especially Gen 9:6 and Rom 13:4) as affirming the legitimacy in principle of the death penalty as a matter of justice.[14] And it is never permitted for any Catholic to interpret Scripture contrary to the unanimous consensus of the Fathers, as the Councils of Trent and Vatican I have declared.[15] Moreover, such a unanimous consensus is sufficient proof that the doctrine has been infallibly taught by the magisterium of the Church dispersed throughout the world.[16] Therefore, the legitimacy in principle of the death penalty as a matter of justice is a dogma of divine and catholic faith. And to doubt or deny a dogma of divine and catholic faith is heresy.[17]

What Does this mean for the New Text of the Catechism?

The new text of the Catechism n. 2267 reads as follows:

Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.

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.[18]

In the letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the bishops regarding this new revision, Cardinal Ladaria asserts that this teaching constitutes “an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium,”[19] which can only means that it does not deny the legitimacy in principle of the death penalty. He also acknowledges that, “the political and social situation of the past [may have] made the death penalty an acceptable means for the protection of the common good,”[20] which seems to suggest that this text is not intended to be understood as meaning that the death penalty is intrinsically immoral. For anything that is intrinsically immoral can never be justified under any circumstances, past, present, or future. Moreover, the development of more effective prisons in modern society is cited as one of the reasons for the new teaching, which would seem to allow for the fact that the death penalty could have been justified prior to the development of better prisons, in which case, presumably, it can still be justified in less developed societies, and could be justified again if the prison systems in more developed societies deteriorate. And anything that could ever be justified cannot be intrinsically immoral.

On the other hand, to say that the death penalty is inadmissible precisely “because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” is hard to understand in any other way than as an assertion of its intrinsic immorality. For surely it is always and everywhere immoral to attack the inviolability and dignity of the person. Likewise, the earlier remark of Pope Francis cited in the letter to the bishops: “The death penalty, regardless of the means of execution, ‘entails cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment.’”[21] For again, it is surely always and everywhere immoral to treat people in a manner that is cruel, inhumane, and degrading.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion, therefore, that this text suffers from serious ambiguity (inasmuch as it seems to be open to multiple interpretations) or even incoherence (inasmuch as it seems to assert contradictory propositions). In any case, however, Catholics are obliged to continue believing that the death penalty is in principle legitimate, since this is a dogma of divine and catholic faith; and because of the religious submission of will and intellect due to the authentic magisterium of the Holy Father, Catholics should also refrain from interpreting the new text of the Catechism in a manner that would contradict the traditional dogma as long as any other interpretation remains possible.


[1] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Professio fidei (1998).

[2] Vatican I, Pastor aeternus, cap. 4: “When the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.”

[3] See The Gift of Infallibility: The Official Relatio on Infallibility of Bishop Vincent Gasser at Vatican Council I, trans. James T. O’Connor (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1986), 45–46.

[4] Cf. Vatican II, Lumen gentium, 25: “And this is the infallibility which the Roman Pontiff, the head of the college of bishops, enjoys in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith (Lk 22:32), by a definitive act he proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals.”

[5] New redaction of n. 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the death penalty (2 Aug. 2018).

[6] CIC 749, §3: “No doctrine is understood as defined infallibly unless this is manifestly evident.”

[7] Vatican II, Lumen gentium, 25: “This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will.”

[8] Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, de Veritate, q. 14, a. 1.

[9] This is discussed by the CDF in Donum veritatis (1990), 24–31.

[10] See, for example, the Catechism of the Council of Trent: “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’ (Ps 101:8).”

[11] Vatican I, Dei Filius, cap. 4: “That meaning of the sacred dogmas is ever to be maintained which has once been declared by holy mother Church, and there must never be any abandonment of this sense under the pretext or in the name of a more profound understanding. May understanding, knowledge and wisdom increase as ages and centuries roll along, and greatly and vigorously flourish, in each and all, in the individual and the whole Church: but this only in its own proper kind, that is to say, in the same doctrine, the same sense, and the same understanding.” Cf. Dei Filius, cap. 4, can. 3 “If anyone says that it is possible that at some time, given the advancement of knowledge, a sense may be assigned to the dogmas propounded by the Church which is different from that which the Church has understood and understands: let him be anathema.”

[12] Cf. Vatican, Dei Filius, cap. 3: “Wherefore, by divine and catholic faith all those things are to be believed which are contained in the word of God as found in Scripture or tradition, and which are proposed by the Church as matters to be believed as divinely revealed, whether by her solemn judgment or in her ordinary and universal magisterium.”

[13] See also Rom 13:1-4; Acts 5:1-11; Acts 25:11; John 19:10-11; and the many crimes for which God required the death penalty to be applied in the law of Moses.

[14] For a thorough review of the evidence of this consensus, see Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette, By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment (Ignatius Press, 2017); see also Avery Card. Dulles, “Catholicism and Capital Punishment,” First Things (April 2001).

[15] Vatican I, Dei Filius, cap. 2: “In matters of faith and morals, belonging as they do to the establishing of Christian doctrine, that meaning of Holy Scripture must be held to be the true one, which Holy Mother Church held and holds, since it is her right to judge of the true meaning and interpretation of Holy Scripture. In consequence, it is not permissible for anyone to interpret Holy Scripture in a sense contrary to this, or indeed against the unanimous consensus of the Fathers.” Cf. Council of Trent, Second Decree on Scripture.

[16] Cf. Pope Pius IX, Tuas libenter; Vatican I, Dei Filius, cap. 3.

[17] CIC 751.

[18] New redaction of n. 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the death penalty (2 Aug. 2018).

[19] CDF, Letter to the Bishops regarding the new revision of number 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the death penalty (1 Aug. 2018), 1.

[20] Ibid., 2.

[21] Ibid., 6. Citing Pope Francis, Letter to the President of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty (20 March 2015): L’Osservatore Romano (20-21 March 2015), 7.


Header Image: Allegory of Justice, Altes Rathaus, Vienna.

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