Vatican Death Penalty Ruling Challenges American Policies

August 14, 2018
Pope Francis

In early August, the Vatican released a notice that Pope Francis has changed the catechism of the Catholic Church to reflect a zero-tolerance policy toward the death penalty.

Declaring capital punishment “inadmissible,” Pope Francis closed a loophole that other popes—many of whom also opposed the death penalty—left open for exceptional cases.

“Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good,” the updated Catechism reads. “Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.”

Pointing to “more effective systems of detention” that ensure the protection of citizens, the Catechism indicates that there is no longer a need for the death penalty as a method of keeping citizens safe from serious criminals. It declares that the Catholic Church will work “with determination for [the death penalty’s] abolition worldwide.”

Pope Francis’s firm stance against the death penalty builds on previous popes’ strong condemnation of the practice as contrary to the Church’s “culture of life” and commitment to forgiveness and reconciliation. In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II wrote that capital punishment should only be exercised in “cases of absolute necessity”—cases which he suggested were “practically non-existent.”

Pope Benedict XVI, too, praised a United Nations resolution calling for a “moratorium on the use of the death penalty,” expressing his hope that the initiative would “lead to public debate on the sacred character of human life.”

What makes Pope Francis’s rewritten catechism a significant change in the Catholic Church is that it erases any potential for Catholics to argue the validity of the death penalty from the perspective of their faith tradition. By officially deeming capital punishment inadmissible in the official catechism, the pontiff not only makes opposition to the death penalty a requirement of the Catholic faith, but he also encourages all Catholics to work alongside the Church to end the death penalty where it is still applicable.

Catholics around the world hold a range of personal opinions regarding the morality of the death penalty. In most majority-Catholic nations—including Mexico and almost the entirety of Central America, South America, and Europe—the death penalty has already been nationally outlawed.

In the United States, however, where Catholics make up more than 20 percent of the American populace, Catholics’ views on the death penalty do not vary significantly from that of the broader American populace. Whereas 54 percent of the American public supports the death penalty according to a 2018 Pew study, Catholic support for the death penalty comes in just a notch below, at 53 percent.

Many Catholics have argued that, because the Church had previously not released an unequivocal censure of the practice, supporting the death penalty did not conflict with their Catholic faith.

Catholic governor of Nebraska Pete Ricketts had previously defended the death penalty on the grounds that “the Catholic Church does not preclude the use of the death penalty under certain circumstances: That guilt is determined and the crime is heinous.”

Following Pope Francis’s update to the catechism, Ricketts told the New York Times that his job remains to carry out the will of his constituents.

“[Capital punishment] is an important tool to protect our corrections officers and public safety,” Ricketts said.

Other American Catholics have taken issue with the change more directly. On LifeSiteNews, Catholic writer Peter Kwasniewski bemoaned the updated catechism as “the boldest and most reckless move to date in a pontificate that was already out of control and sowing confusion on a massive scale.”

“It is God, always God, who has the right of life and death, and if the State shares in His divine authority, it has, at least in principle, the authority to end the life of a criminal,” Kwasniewski argued. “Orthodox bishops of the Catholic Church must oppose [Pope Francis’s] doctrinal error.”

American Catholics that have long lobbied for an end to the death penalty, on the other hand, greeted the change happily. Sister Helen Prejean, who was featured in the film “Dead Man Walking” for her work to end capital punishment, said of the news, “Now all the loopholes are shut off; it’s the pure gospel of Jesus: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’”

For Catholic Americans of a variety political and social leanings, the lack of loopholes in the updated catechism on the death penalty might necessitate a second look at the political and spiritual motivations behind their stance on capital punishment. John Gehring, the Catholic program director at advocacy group Faith in Public Life, told the New York Times that he sees the new catechism as pushing Catholic Americans to clarify their position.

“If you’re a Catholic governor who thinks the state has the right to end human life, you need to be comfortable saying you’re disregarding orthodox church teaching,” Gehring said. “There isn’t any loophole for you to wiggle through now.”

 In the United States, over 2,000 inmates sit on death row. One of 53 countries that still has the death penalty, the United States’s execution rate is only exceeded by China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.

--by Caroline Matas

Image Source: Pope Francis. Aleteia Image Department, Flickr Creative Commons.