Q. I have always been against the death penalty — since the prisoner is behind bars and removed from doing further harm to the public. But a recent piece in The Wall Street Journal included statements by criminals who said that they were not as aggressive with victims when they knew there was a death penalty — so it does seem to have served as a deterrent and to have saved some lives.
I still, though, don’t believe that society should take a life of someone who might need more time to turn to God and I’m wondering whether the pope’s recent pronouncement removes the death penalty completely from the Catholic conversation. (Chesapeake, Virginia)
A. According to a revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church ordered by Pope Francis in early August 2018, the use of the death penalty is now a settled question in Catholic moral teaching: The church stands unalterably opposed to it.
The text of the catechism will now say that the death penalty “is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the human person.” That language replaces a text in place since 1997 (No. 2267) that had permitted capital punishment in exceptional cases “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”
The new text will note that, in present-day society, “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.”
Far from marking a radical change in the church’s position, the new revision simply elucidates what has been a developing church teaching over a number of years. St. John Paul II in his 1995 encyclical “Evangelium Vitae” (“The Gospel of Life”) had written in opposition to the death penalty, and he, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis had regularly pleaded for clemency and stays of execution for inmates on death row.
In 2015, Pope Francis had called capital punishment “cruel, inhumane and degrading” and said that it “does not bring justice to the victims, but only foments revenge.”
The Catholic Church, with this latest clarification, makes clear that no matter how horrendous the crime perpetrated, civil society has no right to “play God” and decide that a prisoner’s life on earth is over.
The death penalty, said Pope Francis in announcing the revised text, “is, in itself, contrary to the Gospel, because a decision is voluntarily made to suppress a human life, which is always sacred in the eyes of the Creator and … in the last analysis, only God can be the true judge and guarantor.”
The Vatican announcement reflects a worldwide trend. Today, more than 140 countries have eliminated the death penalty or simply stopped executions by de facto moratoriums.
Q. Our parish uses the Nicene Creed at Mass, which includes the phrase “for us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven.” Why isn’t the phrase gender-neutral? It makes me feel marginalized as a woman.
Christ gave us an example of how to pray in the Lord’s prayer: “Give us this day … forgive us our trespasses.” Why doesn’t the church follow his example on deciding the wording of the creed? (Bloomington, Indiana)
A. The English wording of the Nicene Creed — “for us men” — is actually a mistranslation. The Latin wording is “propter nos homines,” and in Latin the word “homo” is generic; it means “person” or “human being.” (By contrast, the Latin word “vir” is used when one wishes to denote a male individual.)
At the Masses I celebrate, I resolve the issue in a pastoral way by simply skipping over the word “men” and saying “for us … and for our salvation he came down from heaven.” (The other option, of course — permitted by the liturgical guidelines — is to use the Apostles’ Creed instead of the Nicene Creed.)
Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org and 30 Columbia Circle Dr., Albany, New York 12203.
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