Pope Francis Ex Cathedra Death Penalty?


I am deeply troubled with what looks like a change in a clear Catholic teaching. With Pope Francis changing the catechism’s teaching on the death penalty, does this qualify as an ex cathedra teaching? I am not so much interested in a discussion on the death penalty but what bothers me is that it seems that the Pope did in fact change church teaching.


Teaching on the Death Penalty

Not everything that comes out of the Holy Father’s mouth is considered infallible.

To the best of my knowledge, Francis did not invoke the Doctrine of Infallibility. So no; it was not an ex cathreda statement.


I don’t think anyone really knows what the Pope truly thinks about the death penalty. I have seen probably a dozen different explanations and clarifications from people on why this change doesn’t contradict past teaching, isn’t infallible, or whatever. We will probably never know for sure.


An approval in a change of the wording of the CCC isn’t an infallible action or declaration.


I’m probably going above my pay grade here, but it’s my understanding that a formal statement that’s ex cathedra has only been done twice since it was defined at the first Vatican Council:

  • Pope Pius IX defined the Immaculate Conception on December 8, 1854, and
  • Pope Pius XII defined the Assumption of Mary on November 1, 1950.



They are not infallible, as they are not a definitive and irreformable judgment about a truth revealed by God to be believed with divine faith or one necessarily connected to such a truth to be definitively held. It is a purely a contingent judgment about how states should act today given our particular circumstances. It is by its very nature reformable, since circumstances can change.

Likewise, since the Pope is not omniscient, his consideration of the circumstances could be insufficient. He is not infallible in such natural facts. This is the very thing where our consciences can legitimately clash with the word of a Pope.

Since the Church’s doctrine that is irreformable (the Pope has no power to change the natural and moral law) is that the death penalty can licitly be used as a punishment to provide proportionate redress for a crime and to protect society according to the needs of the common good, and since care for the common good and infliction of punishment are properly within the orbit of the temporal power, the responsibility for deciding when to use the death penalty or not ultimately falls to that power (of which we citizens participate in most countries these days).


I’m not sure where the myth that it has only happened twice started–it’s likely because those two instances involved a lot of extraordinary ceremonial fanfare (FYI, the definitive judgment on the IC happened before Vatican I).

At the First Vatican Council, when some bishops wanted to condition papal infallibility on the Pope following some procedure or using some formula, the relator for the Commissio de fide (charged with providing official explanations of Council documents to the Council Fathers) said this could not be done, because there were already so many instances with various procedures or even none at all:

But, most eminent and reverend fathers, this proposal simply cannot be accepted because we are not dealing with something new here. Already thousands and thousands of dogmatic judgments have gone forth from the Apostolic See; where is the law which prescribed the form to be observed in such judgments?


“Thousands and thousands” might be a bit hyperbolic, but the point remains–it has been many times. Throughout history Popes have often intervened to provide definitive judgments in the areas of faith and morals, sometimes definitively condemning long lists of propositions (e.g. Coelestis Pastor of Bl. Innocent XI, Ex Omnibus Afflictionibus of St. Pius V, Unigenitus of Clement VI, Auctorem Fidei of Pius VI, etc., etc.; each condemned proposition is probably considered an individual judgment by the relator above accounting for the high number given) and sometimes definitively asserting a truth (e.g. like those definitions in Benedictus Deus of Benedict XII, Unam Sanctam of Boniface VIII, the dogmatic letter of St. Agatho, the Tome of St. Leo, etc.).

It also bears pointing out that Vatican I does not limit the infallibility of the Church and Pope to those truths revealed by God, which are to be “believed” with divine faith, but also morality (which can be known from reason) and those truths logically or necessarily connected to revealed truth which must be definitively “held.” For example, the definitive judgment on the Church’a power to only ordain men in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is not a definition of a dogma (properly called) to be believed, but rather the latter category of those to be “definitively held.” St. John Paul II also had similar definitive judgments on moral points in Evangelium Vitae (specifically on killing an innocent person and another on abortion).

There’s no set formula or document category–the Pope merely has to be making a definitive judgment for the whole Church on a matter of faith or morals to be believed or held.


Do not be troubled. Make a list of the top 100 ideas in the Catechism, let’s say the 100 passages most important to your salvation. The Church teaching on capital punishment wouldn’t even make my list. How about yours?


It seems to me that it’s a natural reaction that when the Pope says something we agree with we’ll stress his authority when talking to others. When he says something we don’t agree with we’ll stress how he is not always considered infallible, and we’ll find some other teaching which we prefer. Traditional or Liberal - it seems we all have our own personal yardstick we apply to what even a Pope says and we’ll find a way to justify our own beliefs.


His Holiness most certainly did not proclaim this teaching ex cathedra.


This is correct.

Papal infallibility is a very specific charism (gift) invoked in VERY rare cases.

Incidentally, Pope Saint John Paul II wanted to infallibly declare that women may not be ordained priests; but his then Prefect of the CDF, Cardinal Ratzinger, convinced him NOT to.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that what Pope Francis is teaching is wrong. It just means it does not rise to the highest level of teaching (which few things from the Pope ever do).

He is just extending the teaching of JP II that the use of the death penalty is practically non-existent to being completely inappropriate in all cases.


Only twice in history did the pope speak ex cathedra. This is not one of them.

The Holy Father never made the subject of the Death Penalty to be doctrinal or dogmatic. It is and was before a discipline, which can be altered according to circumstance and era.

When the death penalty was active and permitted by the Church, it wasn’t wrong. The word he used was inadmissible which means invalid. It is not intrinsically evil, like abortion. There is a difference.


This is a nice commentary on religious assent. Perhaps it will help you wort out the issues.


Read the Catechism…nothing hardly “clear” in regards to capital punishment, as we have seen in countless other threads on this topic…so why are you troubled? There has been to change.


The troubling thing for me is that he seems to have changed a teaching that was once considered moral.


A change to the catechism not being infallible seems strange also, if in fact that is the case.


Trusting the CCC would seem to be troublesome if so I would think.


So the change to the catechism is not ex cathedra?


The teaching seems to have been changed by the Pope in the catechism, this is what troubles me.


I am not concerned about this teaching in particular, just the thought of a teaching being CHANGED! I mean, what if he changed the teaching on same sex marriage? Do you see where I am coming from?

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.