[Sept. 24, 2023] Back in June of 2019, Dr. Peter Kwasniewski published a piece at Rorate Caeli exploring on how pre-Vatican II catechisms treated the subject of capital punishment. Entitled "What Good is a Changing Catechism?", the article demonstrated a consistent teaching on the liceity of the death penalty going back to Council of Trent at least. I also published an article on the subject ("Pre-Vatican II Catechisms on the Capital Punishment") arguing the same. These collections of pre-Conciliar catechism quotes are important pieces of evidence displaying an indisputable continuity of the Church's teaching across the generations.
I recently came across another catechism pre-dating the modern Catechism of the Catholic Church that addressed capital punishment. I was surprised to see how much attention the subject was given and wanted to share the passage in full, as I think it adds an interesting twist to the discussion. The passage reads—
There are two situations where it has generally been held from time immemorial that it is lawful to take human life: in self-defense (which would include many wars) and in the infliction of judicial sanctions (capital punishment).If I willfully threaten the life of another—when the choice therefore has to be made between the aggressor and the victim—then the other may take my life. It is on this principle that the permissibility of fighting in war is deduced.
As regards to capital punishment, the traditional arguments for it are based on the notion that the community has powers which an individual has not. Such powers have never been extended to include the killing of the innocent. But they are said to include the killing of the guilty. This sanction includes elements of retribution.
But how Christian is all this? Christ did not condemn war or capital punishment in so many words. The Gospel would have certainly recorded it had He done so. But this does not mean that they are normally Christian, any more than slavery, which is also not abolished in the New Testament. Christ brought no organizational changes for which society was not yet morally or psychologically or organizationally ripe. But He implanted a spirit which would cause such changes to come about. It is our duty to work together with all our power for Jesus' doctrine of equality before the Father, of turning the other cheek, of love of enemies—to make it more and more concrete and real in milder and juster laws and institutions.
Very often, no doubt, the Church has been so closely identified with the established political order that it lacked the enterprise and energy to make war and judicial sanctions evolve as they might have. The time is perhaps more than ripe to cast judicial sanctions in a different mould. The element of retaliation should be excluded more and more from all "punishments," according to the Christian notion. But here we must be alert to the fact that the element of retribution at least treated the delinquent as a responsible human being. If he is merely given "treatment," he is treated as a sick man, and this can very soon mean that he is deprived of his human rights.
This passage is found on pages 423-424 in the English translation of the 1968 text, A New Catechism: The Catholic Faith for Adults, better known under its more infamous title "The Dutch Catechism," the first catechism written after Vatican II. A New Catechism, authored by the Dutch bishops and published by Herder & Herder, was widely panned as heretical and banned in many dioceses.
Yet even this catechism, deficient as it is, still affirms the fundamental right of the state to inflict capital punishment. The traditional teaching is stated: that "from time immemorial" it has been considered licit for the state to inflict the death penalty by the legitimate authority. It also (correctly) identifies a retributive aspect to this penalty. It correctly notes that this is fundamentally different from the killing of the innocent, which would be murder.
It then raises the question of whether the death penalty exemplifies the spirit of Christian charity. Ethically, the Dutch Catechism locates the death penalty alongside slavery as a practice permitted in Scripture but which nevertheless fails to reflect the perfection of charity to which Christ calls us. It admits that there is no strict prohibition of the death penalty in the Gospel, but says this is because of the imperfect moral development of society at the time. Even as individuals grow in Christian maturity, so should society develop to become more humane, gradually reducing recourse to the death penalty in order to better reflect the gentleness of Christ.
Finally, the Dutch Catechism quite interestingly observes that, while motives of vengeance should be purged from judicial punishment, this does not imply that retributive justice is evil per se, as retributive justice recognizes the inherent moral quality of human actions and assigns responsibility accordingly. We are warned that, while the retributive aspect of justice should be minimized, we must be wary of viewing punishment too clinically, in such a way that would deny the moral nature of human actions.
Now, this take is obviously very flawed. You can tell by its tone that it admits the traditional teaching only grudgingly, barely convinced of the historical teaching that it wants men to outgrow.
Furthermore, it makes the common mistake of ignoring or forgetting that the death penalty was positively commanded by God, instituted by Him after the Flood. In other words, God did not merely tolerate the death penalty; He instituted it by positive decree—which puts the death penalty in a different category than slavery, as God never instituted slavery. The comparison to slavery thus fails (for more on the biblical institution of the death penalty, see my 2015 piece, "A Reminder About Capital Punishment").
Also, retributive justice isn't equivalent with "vengeance," nor is it necessary to remove all aspects of retribution from criminal punishment. I refer the reader to my essay "The Death Penalty and Retributive Justice" for more on the subject of retributive justice.
So the presentation of the Dutch Catechism is obviously bad. In the end, however, what it ultimately says is that while the death penalty remains a legitimate option, we can do better and we should try to do better.
The great irony here is that the teaching of the heretical Dutch Catechism is far more orthodox than what is found in the current Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Dutch Catechism at least states the traditional teaching and its justification; the new CCC passage does not. The Dutch Catechism at least admits that nothing in the Gospel prohibits the death penalty; the new Catechism teaches that the death penalty is inadmissible "in light of the Gospel" (CCC 2267). The Dutch Catechism at least recognizes that the right of the state to execute is not contrary to human dignity because the state possesses powers it wields on behalf of the community that could not be exercised by private citizens; the CCC says "it is an attack on the inviolability of the dignity of the human person." The Dutch Catechism at least recognizes the fundamental difference between the killing of the guilty and the killing of the innocent; the CCC ignores this distinction entirely.
What a strange time to be alive when the Dutch Catechism hits closer to the mark on something than the official Catechism of the Catholic Church.