No, according to this article from Catholic World Report, a superb response to the several decades of trying to change that support, which hearkens to Genesis.
A demonstration that it has been infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium of the Church that the death penalty is not intrinsically wrong. Not even a pope can reverse this teaching.
When discussing Church teaching on the death penalty, two questions have to be carefully distinguished. First, is capital punishment legitimate at least in principle, or is it always and intrinsically wrong? Second, even if capital punishment is legitimate in principle, does Catholic teaching allow for it in practice today, and if so, under what conditions? In this article, I will be addressing only the first question. What I will show is that it has been infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium of the Church that the death penalty is not intrinsically wrong. Not even a pope can reverse this teaching.
This is a proposition that Joseph Bessette and I defend at length in our book By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment. Among our key arguments is the argument from scripture. The Church holds that scripture is divinely inspired and therefore cannot teach error on matters of faith and morals. She also holds that the Fathers of the Church cannot be wrong when they agree about some matter of scriptural interpretation. But as we show in the book, scripture clearly teaches that capital punishment can be legitimate in principle, and the Fathers are agreed that scripture teaches this. It follows that the legitimacy in principle of capital punishment is a divinely inspired and thus irreformable teaching.
Some critics of our book resist this conclusion. Catholic theologian E. Christian Brugger has long argued that the Church could condemn the death penalty as wrong always and in principle, and defends this position in a response to our book. Catholic theologian Robert Fastiggi also claims that “there is no definitive, infallible teaching of the Church in favor of the legitimacy of capital punishment” and that a condemnation of the practice as “intrinsically evil… is theoretically possible.” Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart argues that, whether or not the death penalty is in principle permitted by natural law, the higher demands of the Gospel nevertheless rule it out absolutely.
The focus of these critics has been on attempts to reinterpret various passages from scripture or statements from the Fathers, and to minimize the significance of individual papal and other magisterial statements of the past. In earlier articles responding to Brugger, Fastiggi, and Hart, I have shown that these attempts fail. But there is also a forest the critics miss when they fixate on these individual trees. That forest is the ordinary magisterium of the Church – the everyday teaching of popes, bishops, and ecclesiastically approved theologians as they convey the Faith in encyclicals, sermons, books, and the like. Yes, unambiguous scriptural passages and ex cathedra papal declarations are among the places to look for irreformable Church teaching. But they are by no means the only places. The Church holds that the ordinary magisterium can also teach infallibly under certain circumstances.
What I will show in what follows is that the ordinary magisterium of the Church clearly teaches not only that the death penalty is legitimate in principle under natural law, but also that even the Gospel does not rule it out absolutely. And again, I will show that the ordinary magisterium has taught these things infallibly. (Of course, a non-Catholic theologian like Hart will not be moved by an appeal to the ordinary magisterium of the Catholic Church. But Catholic theologians like Brugger and Fastiggi cannot dismiss such an appeal.)
When does the ordinary magisterium teach infallibly?
The 1990 document Donum Veritatis, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, allows that there are cases when the ordinary magisterium does not teach infallibly. However, in section 24 it also points out:
But it would be contrary to the truth, if, proceeding from some particular cases, one were to conclude that the Church’s Magisterium can be habitually mistaken in its prudential judgments, or that it does not enjoy divine assistance in the integral exercise of its mission. (Emphasis added)
A “prudential judgment” involves the application of a general principle of faith or morals to a concrete situation. What the document is saying is that though the magisterium can err in an individual prudential judgment, the “divine assistance” that it enjoys precludes its being “habitually mistaken” in its prudential judgments.
Now, if the divine assistance enjoyed by the Church precludes habitual error even in prudential applications of general principles of faith and morals, then a fortiori it precludes any habitual error in the teaching of general principles of faith and morals themselves. Hence the clear implication of Donum Veritatis is that if the Church has been teaching something for two thousand years, then that teaching cannot be mistaken. For such an error would be of the “habitual” kind ruled out by the divine assistance enjoyed by the Church.
In 1998, the CDF under Cardinal Ratzinger issued a doctrinal commentary on the profession of faith required of those assuming an office in the Church. Sections 5 and 6 of the commentary make it clear that there are “teachings belonging to the dogmatic or moral area” which, even though they have “not been proposed by the Magisterium of the Church as formally revealed,” nevertheless “can be taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Church.” The commentary draws the conclusion that:
Every believer, therefore, is required to give firm and definitive assent to these truths, based on faith in the Holy Spirit’s assistance to the Church’s Magisterium, and on the Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the Magisterium in these matters. Whoever denies these truths would be in a position of rejecting a truth of Catholic doctrine and would therefore no longer be in full communion with the Catholic Church. (Emphasis in original)
Note that the commentary is not speaking here of doctrines which have been explicitly and solemnly defined as divinely revealed, such as the doctrine of the Trinity. Obviously, firm and definitive assent is due doctrines of that sort, but what the commentary is saying is that such assent is also due many teachings which have not been defined in this way. In section 9, the commentary adds:
[W]hen there has not been a judgment on a doctrine in the solemn form of a definition, but this doctrine, belonging to the inheritance of the depositum fidei, is taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, which necessarily includes the Pope, such a doctrine is to be understood as having been set forth infallibly.
In footnote 17 the commentary adds the further remark:
[T]he infallible teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium is not only set forth with an explicit declaration of a doctrine to be believed or held definitively, but is also expressed by a doctrine implicitly contained in a practice of the Church’s faith, derived from revelation or, in any case, necessary for eternal salvation, and attested to by the uninterrupted Tradition… [T]he intention of the ordinary and universal Magisterium to set forth a doctrine as definitive is not generally linked to technical formulations of particular solemnity; it is enough that this be clear from the tenor of the words used and from their context. (Emphasis added)
In section 11, the commentary gives several examples of teachings of the sort to which it is referring. One particularly noteworthy example is “the declaration of Pope Leo XIII… on the invalidity of Anglican ordinations.” Another is “the doctrine on the illicitness of euthanasia,” which the commentary says is binding even though “Scripture does not seem to be aware of the concept.”
The reason these examples are noteworthy is that they concern teachings that are relatively recent and not directly grounded in scripture. If even these teachings must be given “firm and definitive assent” by the faithful on pain of breaking “full communion with the Catholic Church,” then it follows a fortiori that a teaching which is directly grounded in scripture and has been consistently taught for two millennia would also require such assent.
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