Does Fratelli Tutti Change Church Teaching about the Death Penalty?

by Gregory Caridi

Not moments after Pope Francis’ encyclical Fratelli tutti was published, many began pointing to its statements on the death penalty. In particular, Fr. James Martin appears to believe that, with this document, Church teaching has been “definitively” changed on this question. He writes:

Pope Francis’ new encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti,” does something that some Catholics believed could not be done: It ratifies a change in church teaching. In this case, on the death penalty.

There are many things wrong with this statement, particularly canonically, but we should focus on the most fundamental problem: Church teaching cannot be “changed” in the way he and many others regularly imply. The Church is not an authority that creates truth. It does not write down a rule book of what has been made true and what has now been made false. The Church identifies something as true, in a way an historian or a mathematician may do so. In other words, the Pope could not change a moral truth any more than he could change an historical one. The Pope, along with the bishops, certainly have the power above all others to identify truth in this way, but no one has power to make a thing false which was once true. What is true, particularly with this issue, is of course complex, but one can be absolutely certain that whatever is true cannot one day be made false, or vice versa.

The problem with Fr. Martin’s position is not merely that it’s incorrect; it’s that it undermines itself. If the teaching can be “changed” from X to Y, then there is no reason that it couldn’t be changed from Y back to X, turning the Teaching Office of the Church into something like an adversarial political process where sides lobby for their position to win out. This is not only entirely contrary to the basic fundamentals of the Church’s teaching authority, it runs afoul to the entire theme of fraternal love, submission and cooperation that carries throughout the document. The kind of thinking employed here has unfortunately plagued our civil law for generations, and it is truly disheartening to see it be promoted in the ecclesiastical space.

What’s perhaps most unfortunate about Martin’s comments and framing is that Pope Francis expresses his most nuanced approach to the question of the death penalty in this document. He moves beyond the bare question of whether capital punishment is, in principle, permissible as a matter of a moral fact to whether it is adequate in recognizing the fullness of Christ’s love. The Holy Father does not directly engage the long-established tradition that recognizes its legitimacy; he instead moves beyond, appealing to a tradition within the Church which transcends bare moral truth, to love beyond the minimal, especially when it comes to something that so cuts off the other.

This is not a “change” in Church teaching any more than “love thy neighbor” is a “change” from “the Lord’s curse is on the house of the wicked.” Opposing the death penalty is to love despite and beyond any underlying moral truth, which by itself would be inadequate in expressing Christ’s unending outpouring of forgiveness and mercy.

It is unquestionable that Pope Francis, and so the Church, is opposed to capital punishment in both the personal and the political, especially when rooted in vengeance or a desire to derive pleasure from another’s punishment, but the Holy Father does not appear to be writing any sort of philosophical treatise or “definitively” defining some sort of new church teaching. He calls on us instead to dig into why he wants us to oppose the practice and to recognize that the tradition of doing so has always existed in the Church. Any statements about a “change” in Church teaching, on either side, are to miss his point entirely.