On Thursday, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis has revised the catechism to hold that the death penalty is “inadmissible” in all cases, and that the church must advocate “for its abolition worldwide.” The change comes amid news of the resignation of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who has been accused of abusing men and boys during his decades of service. There may never have been a more poignant time for an announcement like this: With a disgraceful abuse tempting many to leave the church, the Vatican’s clarity on capital punishment offers a well-timed reminder of what is pure and holy in the Christian tradition. In the church, earthly institution that it is, good and evil are inevitably entangled.
The church had previously made clear its general opposition to the death penalty. Vatican statements framed the latest shift more as a clarification reflecting evolution in papal thought than a change in teaching. In its letter to bishops, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith noted that Francis’ decision followed logically from developments introduced by his two predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II. Both popes had emphasized the affront the death penalty represents to human dignity, and had called for its abolition, but stopped short of formalizing their entreaties in doctrine.
Prior to this clarification, the catechism allowed for the death penalty only within narrow parameters. “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined,” it read, “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.” Determining identity is difficult enough; assessing responsibility is even harder, implying not only criminal fault but also full moral culpability. And having the state take a life is rarely the only way of defending innocents from the predation of a known assailant.
At different times, under different circumstances, the church’s tolerance of executions has been more enthusiastic. But the church inclines to life. Even in periods traditionally imagined as its bloodiest - the Dark Ages, that (arguably unfairly) maligned era between the end of antiquity and the Renaissance - it was the church that brought about sanctuaries, both in the literal sense and in the figurative that followed from it. Criminals condemned to be executed could take shelter inside church properties; sometimes, clergy would negotiate their release on the condition that they be allowed to live, often in exile.
Maybe that seemed unsatisfying, then. It would very likely seem unfair now, in an era with little tolerance for mercy in public policy. A colder justice can be attractive. I can understand - especially having been raised in conservative Texas - why someone might support the death penalty. It isn’t solely the province of the simplistic or the cruel. Hannah Arendt’s imagined speech to the condemned Adolf Eichmann in her book “Eichmann in Jerusalem” offers a moving rationale: “Just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations … no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.” Hang Eichmann did.
Arendt, herself an excellent chronicler of popes and saints, believed in good and evil, and knew the one from the other. It’s impossible not to sympathize with her desire to live in a world at least somewhat cleansed of evil. I imagine the same motives, along with some less noble, motivate most who advocate for the death penalty. But killing to rid the world of evil is an empty errand. It doesn’t work, in the end.
In the world we encounter evil. Our impulse is to destroy it. But here in the world, good and evil are hopelessly entwined; you contain evil, bring it to account, heal injuries and make restitution for wrongs - but it is impossible to finally destroy all evil without also taking the good with it. This is because good and evil are tangled in the hearts of human beings and cannot be sorted out in this life. And since the goodness in us - the humanity - is worth preserving, we ought not inflict death as a punishment, but rather cling to life, even unto the very last moment of hope.
Elizabeth Bruenig is an opinion columnist at The Washington Post, focusing on politics, religion and morality in public life.