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Criminal Justice

Human Dignity, Capital Punishment, and the Pope

By A.G. Holdier
6 Aug 2018

Since his elevation to the papal seat in 2013, Pope Francis has repeatedly made international headlines with comments suggesting a desire to change Roman Catholic doctrine on matters ranging from marriage to contraception to the nature of the afterlife and more. The beginning of August saw Francis make more than a remark with the publication of a revision to the Catechism of the Catholic Church officially labeling the death penalty “inadmissible” in all cases.

Historically, this sets a new precedent for Catholic dogma which, until now, has always preserved some theological justification for capital punishment in at least some extreme cases. However, as detailed by the simultaneously released letter to the bishops regarding the amendment, this change is but the culmination of a trend within Catholic teaching that has been gently shifting for decades. While I’ll leave it to others to argue elsewhere about the theological ramifications of this sea change (theologian Anna Rowlands and philosopher Edward Feser have written about this for those so inclined), Francis’ description of the death penalty merits some brief philosophical reflection here.

In an address delivered in October of 2017, Francis described the death penalty as “an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity,” and called for a reassessment of the Church’s position on the matter. While recognizing that criminals – even of the most violent crimes – must be held accountable for their actions, Francis argued that “No man, not even a murderer, loses his personal dignity” and insisted that the Catholic attitude should perpetually anticipate forgiveness and redemption. He finished with the line that has now entered obligatory Catholic teaching: “no matter how serious the crime that has been committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.”

Critics of capital punishment often make arguments for its abolition borne from post hoc evidence of practical matters such as its lack of deterrence on crime, its strongly unequal distribution along racial, gender, and socioeconomic lines, and the high financial costs of death penalty proceedings that far outpace the average cost of a life sentence in prison. But the language of “dignity” suggests that Francis and the Catechism are more concerned about a fundamental element of human existence that precedes any particular set of statistics: human rights. By grounding its position in the very makeup of the human person, Roman Catholicism now appears to reject the possibility that a person could disqualify themselves from moral consideration by some particularly heinous act. If the proposition “All humans always deserve to live” is true, as Francis seems to believe, then capital punishment becomes, in principle, impossible to support.

This shift may mark a relatively new approach in the debate over capital punishment insofar as it elevates concern for the offender to resemble the more typical concern for their victims. Historically, defenders of capital punishment (including previous Popes) have argued that justice for victims – particularly in cases of extreme wrongdoing – sometimes demands extreme punishment, even the execution of the guilty. But, Feser has argued elsewhere that the defender of capital punishment need not actually reject the “All humans always deserve to live” proposition if the guilty person is genuinely deserving of extreme punishment proportional to their offense – in fact, true proportional punishment, Feser says, sometimes requires a more extreme option beyond life imprisonment:

“To claim that no crime could justify capital punishment—to claim, for instance, that a cold-blooded genocidal rapist can never even in principle merit a greater punishment than the lifelong imprisonment inflicted on a bank robber—is implicitly to give up the principle of proportionality and, with it, any coherent conception of just punishment.”

And while this rejoinder focuses only on questions of the death penalty’s intrinsic justification (not any of the procedural concerns raised above), it remains to be seen how Pope Francis and Roman Catholicism as a whole will continue to navigate the murky rhetoric separating “justice for victims” and “the rights of the criminal” — two value sets that are both, indeed, quite important.

One element of the Catechism’s new language may offer some helpful ambiguity, particularly for Roman Catholic politicians like Governor Pete Ricketts of Nebraska who has campaigned repeatedly in defense of capital punishment legislation: the word “inadmissible” is not clear in exactly how it restricts the conscience of the faithful. Would a Catholic judge be “admitting” capital punishment if a jury imposes the death penalty on a convict? Would a Catholic voter tacitly “admit” the death penalty by supporting a candidate like Ricketts? At this time, such questions may be unanswerable. What is certain: the conversation about the ethics of capital punishment was complicated long before this new injection of religious commitments into the fray.


A.G. Holdier is a doctoral student in philosophy and public policy at the University of Arkansas interested in cultural capital, social and political epistemology, and the intersection of ethics with philosophy of language. More info available at www.agholdier.com
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