In 2017, Pope Francis described capital punishment as "contrary to the gospel," saying, "However grave the crime that may be committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it attacks the inviolability and the dignity of the person."
It seems that the whole body of Catholic teaching on this matter for 2,000 years has been set aside, from the Old Testament to the New, from St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor, to St. Louis IX, king of France, to St. Catherine of Siena, Doctor of the Church.
True, Pope St. John Paul II spoke against the application of the death penalty, seemingly hoping that it would never be necessary to apply it, but he did not oppose it in principle, as it was part and parcel of Catholic teaching.
Pope Francis raised more questions than he may have intended when he modified the Catholic Catechism on the death penalty. Since the God of the Old Testament is the very same God of the New, has He changed His mind on the Fifth Commandment? That is the first question.
The questions could go on. Were all those in the Church who taught the lawfulness of capital punishment just plain wrong? Did they teach error and commit countless crimes against the Fifth Commandment? If Jesus promised to protect the Church until the end of days ("the gates of Hell will not prevail"), then how do you explain why so many popes allowed a dreadful error in the Church's teaching and practice?
If canonizations are infallible, how could those saints be canonized if their teaching on capital punishment was contrary to the gospel? Here is a problem for the theologians to solve. I would not dare even try.
I prefer to do a little Bible study on the New Testament — leaving aside the Old Testament, which is self-evidently in favor of the death penalty — and see what Our Lord actually says in the gospel.
In St. Matthew's Gospel, Our Lord says:
There was a man, a householder, who planted a vineyard ... and let it out to husbandmen and went into a strange country. And when the time of the fruits drew nigh, he sent his servants to the husbandmen that they might receive the fruits thereof. And the husbandmen, laying hands on his servants, beat one and killed another and stoned another (Matthew 21:33–35).
Furthermore, the husbandmen did the same with other servants, and then, in the end, killed the very son of the owner.
Jesus asked the disciples, "When therefore the lord of the vineyard shall come, what will he do to those husbandmen?" to which they replied, "He will bring those evil men to an evil end" (Matthew 21:40–41). Note well that Jesus accepted their judgment and did not correct them. He did not dismiss their desire to give an evil end to those evil men as "an attack on human dignity."
Again in the Gospel of St. Matthew, we read of Our Lord saying, "The Kingdom of Heaven is likened to a king, who made a marriage for his son. And he sent his servants, to call them that were invited to the marriage; and they would not come" (Matthew 22:2–3).
We know that the invited guests abused the servants, and even killed some. "But when the king had heard of it, he was angry, and, sending his armies, he destroyed those murderers, and burnt their city" (Matthew 22:7).
Yes, the king had them all killed, and their city was burned to the ground. No one remained to tell the story. It was a complete annihilation.
Elsewhere in the same Gospel (Matthew 18:23–35), we learn of a man who owed much to his lord, and begged to be given time to pay, which the lord, out of pity, agreed to. But the servant himself sent a fellow servant to prison for failing to pay him a much smaller debt. Here's what happened when the lord found out: "And his lord being angry, delivered him to the torturers until he paid all the debt" (Matthew 18:34).
Here, Jesus did not say that the unforgiving servant should be immediately killed, but should be tortured until he paid his debt. Torture is conceivably worse than death.
Our Lord once said, "But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin" (Mark 3:29). To be guilty of this sin incurs the eternal death, Hell, which is immensely worse than losing one's earthly life.
A whole city was condemned to Hell from Jesus' words, "And thou Capharnaum ... thou shalt go down even unto Hell. ... But I say unto you, that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the Day of Judgment, than for thee" (Matthew 11:23). And Sodom had been subject to capital punishment by Almighty God — through fire and brimstone, which killed everyone.
But if all of the above is still not enough to guarantee that capital punishment is demonstrably not contrary to the gospel, this is what Jesus said about someone who causes little ones to stumble: "It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones" (Luke 17:2).
Capital punishment by drowning in the sea is a lesser evil than offending little ones. What comes to mind is how pedophiles and homosexuals have infiltrated the priesthood and abused altar boys. It would be better for them to have a millstone tied to their necks and be cast into the sea, thus freeing the Church from their atrocious evil.
The conclusion seems to be evident: The death penalty, in principle, is not contrary to the gospel. One could argue that it would be better not to apply it in certain contexts. But one cannot say it is wrong in principle. The traditional teaching of the Church is correct, as always.