The Vatican Evolved on the Dealth Penalty. Are LGBTQ Rights Next?

Francis DeBernardo

Church teaching can change.

While many of us knew this before, we’ve just received news that is contemporary proof positive.  From The New York Times:


Pope Francis at August 1st audience in St. Peter’s Square

“Pope Francis has declared that the death penalty is wrong in all cases, a definitive change in church teaching that is likely to challenge faithful Catholic politicians, judges and officials in the United States and other countries who have argued that their church was not entirely opposed to capital punishment... The church also says it will work 'with determination' for the abolition of capital punishment worldwide.”

It’s important for Catholic advocates for LGBT equality to take note of this change because for decades Catholic opponents of LGBT equality argued that it is impossible to change church teaching. They often pointed to the fact that condemnations of  same-sex relationships were inscribed in the Catechism, and so were not open for discussion or change. Yet, the teaching on the death penalty is in the Catechism, too, and, in fact, to make this change in teaching, it was the text of the Catechism that Francis changed. Here’s the announcement from the Vatican press office

New revision of number 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the death penalty – Rescriptum “ex Audentia SS.mi”, 02.08.2018

The Supreme Pontiff Francis, in the audience granted on 11 May 2018 to the undersigned Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has approved the following new draft of no. 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, arranging for it to be translated into various languages and inserted in all the editions of the aforementioned Catechism.

The death penalty

2267. 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.

The New York Times explained what was changed by this revision:

“In the catechism promoted by St. John Paul II, in 1992, the death penalty was allowed if it was ‘the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.’ “

What is also interesting is how the Vatican news service explained the change. In their news story, they included the following section under an important subhead: Revision in continuity with preceding Magisterium

In the Letter to the Bishops, Cardinal Ladaria [prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith] explained that the revision of n. 2267 of the CCC  [Catechism of the Catholic Church] “expresses an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium” and said “these teachings, in fact, can be explained in the light of the primary responsibility of the public authority to protect the common good in a social context in which the penal sanctions were understood differently, and had developed in an environment in which it was more difficult to guarantee that the criminal could not repeat his crime”.

So, the change is not a contradiction, even though it is the opposite of what came before it? Hmmmm.

What does this death penalty news mean for Catholic advocates for LGBT equality?  A few things.

First, we now have a clear, explicit contemporary example of church teaching changing, and also a look into how it can be done: with a papal change to the Catechism.

Second,  we can see that the process that brought about this change has been decades of theological debate and discussion, and not just a papal whim.  That means the theological and even ecclesial discussions and debates right now about LGBT people have great potential to shape future changes in church teaching in regard to those topics.

Third, the death penalty is condemned because it violates the human dignity of a person.  In Ladaria’s “Letter to the Bishops” explaining the change in teaching, he quotes Pope Francis: “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.”  The dignity of the human person is the same foundation upon which many of the arguments for LGBT equality are based in theology, so seeing this teaching promoted more vigorously by Pope Francis and other church leaders is a positive step for Catholic LGBT topics.

Fourth, Pope Francis emphasis that human dignity is not eradicated despite whatever condition a person may be in highlights an important theme of his papacy which has been helpful for pastoral ministry to LGBT people: Because everyone has inherent human dignity, the Church should be open and welcoming to all people, regardless of whether or not their lives conform to church teaching in other areas.  The church should not leave anyone out.

Fifth, the quote from Ladaria in the indented excerpt above explains that one of the reasons for the change  in teaching is a new social context that has new understandings of punishment.  Again, this development bodes well for change in Catholic LGBT issues because society has been witnessing a tremendous change in social context of LGBT people, as well as new understandings of sexuality and personhood.

Sixth, and perhaps most directly related to this new and strong condemnation of the death penalty from the Catholic hierarchy, is that this new teaching can be used to protect the lives of LGBT people in nations where they are criminalized and subject to the death penalty.  This new teaching from Pope Francis comes with a promise that the Church will work “with determination” for the death penalty’s “abolition worldwide.”  Ladaria’s “Letter” concludes by reinforcing this point:

“The new formulation of number 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church desires to give energy to a movement towards a decisive commitment to favor a mentality that recognizes the dignity of every human life and, in respectful dialogue with civil authorities, to encourage the creation of conditions that allow for the elimination of the death penalty where it is still in effect.”

If church leaders in fact follow through with this promise, the result can greatly help the LGBT people who are most oppressed in our world.

Of course, what would be really good is if the Vatican simply condemned the criminalization of LGBT people, regardless of the punishment–a cause for which New Ways Ministry has been campaigning for several years.  Such a condemnation would not even require a change in church teaching, as  the church, even in the Catechism, forbids discrimination against and oppression of LGBT people.  It would only take the Vatican leaders developing the political will to do so.

That would be another great change to celebrate in the Church!

This op-ed originally appeared on the New Ways Ministry blog. FRANCIS DEBERNARDO is the executive director of the New Ways Ministry, which educates and advocates for justice and equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Catholics, and reconciliation within the larger church and civil communities.

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