Pope Francis’ reversal of Catholic teaching on the death penalty continues to draw reaction, with some Southern Baptist theologians saying the move contradicts biblical principles of ethics.
At the same time, the theologians surveyed by Baptist Press share Francis’ concerns about just application of capital punishment amid multiple U.S. lethal injections gone awry in recent years and increasing awareness of racial and economic disparities in the criminal justice system.
“The Catholic Catechism has changed considerably from its establishment in the 16th century,” Rex Butler, a church historian at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS), told BP. “John Paul II brought about considerable change with his mitigated support of capital punishment, but Pope Francis’s amendment declaring capital punishment ‘inadmissible’ marks a more radical break from the Catholic Church’s historic position.”
The Vatican announced Aug. 2 that paragraph 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church – a summary of official Catholic teaching – had been revised to state, “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 [the Church] works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”
Previously, paragraph 2267 stated, “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”
Butler, professor of church history and patristics at NOBTS, said the change runs contrary to at least 1,600 years of Catholic teaching on capital punishment. Augustine endorsed it in the fifth century, he said, Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century and the Council of Trent in the 16th century.
In 1995, Pope John Paul II discouraged application of the death penalty in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae. His view was quoted in a 1997 revision of the Catechism, which nonetheless continued to assert the admissibility of capital punishment, though it added, “The cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically non-existent.’”
Butler said in written comments that the pope’s “affirmation of the ‘dignity of the person … even after the commission of very serious crimes’ is commendable.” But “for this pope to declare that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible’ and expect also the end of life imprisonment [as he called for in a 2014 address] hardly seems helpful and certainly not practical.”
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, voiced a similar critique in an Aug. 2 commentary.
“Christians can debate whether a state should declare a moratorium on capital punishment while reforming unjust sentencing practices,” Moore wrote. “Christians can debate whether the death penalty is effective as a deterrent or whether the death penalty is meaningful at all in a world in which legal systems delay for years the application of the penalty. These are prudential debates about how best to order our political systems, not debates about whether every act of state killing is murder and thus immoral and unjust.
“The pope is here making more than just a prudential argument. He is applying the commandment against murder to every application of capital punishment. On that, I believe he is wrong. We may disagree, with good arguments on both sides, about the death penalty. But as we do so, we must not lose the distinction the Bible makes between the innocent and the guilty. The gospel shows us forgiveness for the guilty through the sin-absorbing atonement of Christ, not through the state’s refusal to carry out temporal justice,” Moore wrote.
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, also defended capital punishment on biblical grounds, and he said the Catholic Church’s claim that doctrine can develop over the years contradicts the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura.
“The reformers came to understand that they must define the development of doctrine in terms and in terms alone of fidelity to scripture,” Mohler said Aug. 3 on his podcast The Briefing. “The issue is what do the scriptures teach, and the reformers came with an understanding that right doctrine would always be right doctrine and false doctrine would always be false doctrine. It is not the right or the stewardship of the church or of any authority in the church to change what was right to wrong or wrong to right.”
Evan Lenow, an ethics professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, told BP a Christian consideration of capital punishment must “balance” the Bible’s permission for governments to carry out capital punishment in passages like Genesis 9 and Romans 13 with “the importance of human life throughout scripture” and the realities “that mercy is part of God’s character that we should emulate” and “capital punishment ends any further opportunities for rehabilitation and evangelism.”
“I believe that capital punishment is warranted biblically, but I would only want it applied in the clearest circumstances,” Lenow said in written comments. “If there is a possibility of getting the conviction wrong or applying the death penalty inequitably, then I would not want it applied in that situation. As we have seen through the years, many people on death row have seen their convictions overturned. In some of those situations, the conviction was overturned after execution.
“I don’t know if there is a humane way to take someone’s life,” Lenow said. “I appreciate the attempts to make death through capital punishment as painless as possible, but that will never fully be accomplished. I also think we should be concerned when methods that are employed for execution do not work properly.”
The Southern Baptist Convention last spoke to capital punishment in 2000, when it adopted a resolution supporting “the fair and equitable use of capital punishment by civil magistrates as a legitimate form of punishment for those guilty of murder or treasonous acts that result in death.”
The resolution “urge[d] that capital punishment be administered only when the pursuit of truth and justice result in clear and overwhelming evidence of guilt.” It also “urge[d] that capital punishment be applied as justly and as fairly as possible without undue delay, without reference to the race, class, or status of the guilty.”
In 2015, the Pew Research Center reported that the SBC and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod were two of the largest Protestant denominations to support the death penalty. Joining the Catholic Church in opposing capital punishment are the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the American Baptist Churches USA and the Presbyterian Church (USA) among other denominations.
Overall support for the death penalty among Americans has ticked upward slightly since 2016, according to Pew. But support has fallen notably over the past two decades. Fifty-four percent of Americans favor the death penalty today for people convicted of murder, whereas 78 percent favored it in 1996, Pew reported in June. Two years ago, 49 percent supported the death penalty.
Catholics appear divided over the pope’s latest pronouncement, as illustrated by divergent essays published on the conservative website National Review. Nicholas Frankovich, deputy managing editor of National Review, claimed the change in Catholic teaching is acceptable as “a prudential judgment related to affairs of state.” In contrast, National Review editorial intern Liam Warner called the catechism change “a blatant contradiction of Catholic doctrine.”
Lenow speculated that in the years to come, “we will see fewer executions in this country as people struggle with how to apply capital punishment equitably and as humanely as possible.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press. Reprinted from Baptist Press, baptistpress.com, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.)