Theologians' Appeal for Clarification of Apparent Errors in Amoris laetitia – death penalty

Amoris laetitia in n. 83, says that the Church "firmly rejects the death penalty." The theologians censure a theoretically possible interpretation of this that would understand it "as meaning that the death penalty is always and everywhere unjust in itself and therefore cannot ever be rightly inflicted by the state." Such a meaning would contradict Church doctrine. Read in context, I don't see anything suggesting that the text would mean anything so absolute. As it is speaking about the Church's mission to defend life, the straightforward meaning of saying that the Church "firmly rejects the death penalty," would be that the Church holds with conviction that the death penalty should not be employed today.

Though it is not relevant to what the common Catholic would understood the text to mean, evidence for this reading is the way Pope Francis elsewhere describes Pope John Paul II's and the Catechism's position on capital punishment. E.g., in his address to the delegates of the international association of penal law, Pope Francis, referring to their statements that the cases where it is necessary to kill an offender are rare, if not practically nonexistent, says that "Pope John Paul II condemned the death penalty, as does the Catechism of the Catholic Church." So the weaker language of "firmly rejects" is adequately interpreted in this sense of being practically never necessary.

Pope Francis has repeatedly spoke out stronger against the death penalty. One may disagree with the prudence of this. But as there are not real indications that he intends to use the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia to further opposition to the death penalty or to change Church teaching on it, it would seem more well-advised to address those stronger statements, rather than raising concerns about what the statement "firmly rejects the death penalty" could be interpreted to mean.

3 thoughts on “Theologians' Appeal for Clarification of Apparent Errors in Amoris laetitia – death penalty”

  1. I think the idea that Pope Francis believes that the death penalty is intrinsically wrong is at least slightly more plausible than you suggest. While you offer a possible reading of what he said about the Catechism and John Paul II, if it were true that he believed it was intrinsically wrong, he would then believe that having the Church go toward that opinion would be an appropriate development of doctrine. In that case, it would be natural for him to describe previous teaching in a way that fits as well as possible with the proposed development.

    In other words, he would state their teaching without qualification not because that is the best way of proposing a prudential teaching for the present day, but because he believes that the truth they were getting at is the absolute condemnation of the death penalty, even though they did not quite reach it.

    That said, what you propose is also possible. I do not think it can be clearly settled from Amoris Laetitia or from what the Pope has so far said on the topic.

    1. I did not intend to suggest anything in particular about Pope Francis's opinion regarding the death penalty, and rereading the post, don't see how my post suggests that. I am arguing that, whatever his opinion on the matter may be, and wherever his aim in the future may be, he doesn't intend, by the citation in Amoris laetitia of the bishops' statement that the Church "firmly rejects the death penalty," to assert thereby that the death penalty is intrinsically wrong.

      Certainly, on the supposition that Pope Francis believes the death penalty to be intrinsically wrong, the interpretation of "firmly rejects" as asserting that intrinsic wrongness is more plausible than on the supposition that Pope Francis does not believe that, and more plausible than apart from any supposition. But event if it were certain that Pope Francis believed that the death penalty were intrinsically wrong, it seems to me, for the reasons I gave, that the statement in Amoris laetitia would not be meant to assert that the death penalty is intrinsically wrong.

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