The pope is right: the death penalty has no place in Catholicism


For those who often saw the cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires at anti-death penalty gatherings in the years before he became pope, his move to formally change official church teaching on the issue will have come as no surprise.

The official Vatican declaration that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” was all but inevitable since Francis’s speech in October on the 25th anniversary of the publication of the Catholic church’s summary of its teaching, the catechism.

It was time to state clearly, he said on that occasion, that “regardless of how it is carried out”, the death penalty is “per se contrary to the gospel, because it entails the willful suppression of a human life that never ceases to be sacred in the eyes of its creator and of which – ultimately – only God is the true judge and guarantor”.

The per se was important, because, despite Pope John Paul II’s vigorous campaigns against capital punishment, his 1983 catechism conceded it could be justified if it is “the only practicable way” to defend lives against an aggressor.

Even though he made clear that in reality “cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender today are very rare, if not practically non-existent”, that tiniest of cracks was used by Catholic death-penalty advocates from Nebraska to the Philippines to claim that the church wasn’t against it.

Even when Benedict XVI “rejoiced” in 2008 at a United Nations resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty, saying he hoped it would lead to “public debate on the sacred character of human life”, high-profile Catholic death-penalty advocates in the US, such as the late supreme court judge Antonin Scalia, continued to insist that, unlike abortion, it was not sinful to uphold or participate in the practice of capital punishment.

But as of now, that idea is flatly contradicted by the expressed teaching of the Catholic church.

The death penalty, regardless of the means of execution, “entails cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment” and must be rejected “due to the defective selectivity of the criminal justice system and in the face of the possibility of judicial error.”

What is no longer in doubt, in other words, is that Catholics always and everywhere must work to end the death penalty with at least the same vigour as they seek to end abortion or people-trafficking.

Some rightwing Catholics in America have been trying since the announcement to claim that Francis simply has no right to change what they claim has been “always” taught.

But that is to confuse a core teaching with its evolving expression. The church has always taught the defence of human life from conception to natural death, but the way that has been applied and expressed has developed. Continue reading

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