I just finished reviewing two letters where Pope Francis calls for the abolition of capital punishment:
I am saddened by the very poor analysis which led to the conclusion to call for abolition—not only from Francis, but also from Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II—as it goes against the teaching of the Church from the beginning and, as noted by Avery Cardinal Dulles, the danger of reversing doctrine is severe;
“The reversal of a doctrine as well established as the legitimacy of capital punishment would raise serious problems regarding the credibility of the magisterium.” (p. 26)
Dulles, A. Cardinal. (2004). Catholic teaching on the Death penalty. In E.C. Owens, J.D. Carlson & E.P. Elshtain (Eds.). Religion and the death penalty, (pp. 23-30). Cambridge, England: Eerdmans Publishing.
I wrote a book about this which goes into great detail rebutting all of the arguments used to call for abolition, and each one of our books is a response to a likely objection to Catholicism that will be encountered when doing ministry to professional criminals; and for links to all of the Lampstand books which are available at Amazon, go to http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=david+h+lukenbill
This wonderful article from Thomistica puts it clearly.
Christopher Tollefsen writes arguing the intrinsic evil of the death penalty, here. He forwards reasons that he deems sufficient to relegate the consensus of the fathers and doctors, and prior ecclesial judgments regarding the death penalty, to the dustbin of history along with prior acceptance of slavery, and buttresses his argument with an analysis of intention (in support of the proposition that God cannot intend death),
Here I will argue that his analysis of the tradition (e.g., the oath required of the Waldensians to re-establish ecclesial communion), and the likenesses he draws of the death penalty with slavery in terms of the tradition simply cannot be sustained. To be unequivocal, I will put it straightforwardly: any claim that the death penalty is absolutely and intrinsically unjust contradicts the consensus of the Fathers and Doctors and numerous prior papal teachings. The likeness drawn with support for slavery is unsustainable. The teaching that the death penalty is intrinsically evil seems very directly to contradict Scripture and Tradition. The claim that the death penalty is intrinsically evil also poses profound challenges to–perhaps even contradiction of–the Church’s teaching regarding the nature of the redemption; the nature of penalty as such including the penalty of final damnation; and the Church’s traditional understanding of human dignity itself as defined by the teleological ordering of the imago dei of representation to the imago dei of conformity with God. …
Thus it becomes clear how grave are the implications cascading from misunderstanding of the unified voice of scripture and tradition regarding the principled legitimacy of the death penalty for grave crime. To say that the death penalty is a malum in se requires: negating the high theological note present in the Church’s requirement that the Waldensians admit the principled legitimacy of a judgment of blood (for so long as imposed “advisedly” and “not incautiously”–language wholly incompatible with any thought that the application of the death penalty is always and everywhere unjust); revoking the Council of Trent with respect to the role of the Fathers with respect to the interpretation of Scripture (e.g., Romans 13:4); contradicting numerous pontificates upholding the essential validity of the penalty; contradicting Scripture itself; and accepting a novel account of human dignity according to which the chief dignity of man is merely his inceptive dignity, the imago dei of representation, as opposed to the teaching that man’s chief dignity consists in the divine ordering of man to common good both natural and supernatural whose summit is the imago dei of conformity to God in beatific vision. For the very thing that constitutes our initial rational dignity, is precisely its ordering to noble good naturally and supernaturally; and so it is that dignity itself that requires the application of penalty when man culpably rejects and falls from the divine good. Because the acquired dignity is ultimately more determining and perfective than our inceptive dignity–because that inceptive dignity is a dignity only because it is ordered to noble good naturally and supernaturally–culpable defect contrary to this order requires penalty. Such penalty is not unjust: it is due.
One must recall, that our merely human penalties are more medicinal than retributive: but divine penalty, howsoever much knowledge of it may and does deter man from sinning in this life, is in its application in the next life fully retributive. Thus Summa theologiae, II-II, q. 66, art. 6, ad 2:…
“To the second it should be said that punishments of this life are more medicinal than retributive. For retribution is reserved to the Divine judgment which is pronounced against sinners “according to the truth” . And thus, according to the judgment of the present life the death punishment is inflicted, not for every mortal sin, but only for such as inflict an irreparable harm, or again for such as contain some horrible deformity.”
It is, then, difficult to reconcile the claim that the death penalty is absolutely and universally contrary to human dignity with the Catholic faith. For the Catholic faith affirms the justice of retributive penalty far exceeding any just terrestrial penalty, and has always acknowledged the principled legitimacy of the death penalty. This is not to say that any grave penalty should lightly be imposed, nor that there may not be general reasons of prudential restraint–although as prudential these may vary, not least because deterrence is a valid further end of just penalty; but it is to say that grave penalty, including penalty of death for the gravest crimes, is not intrinsically evil or invalid.