Pope Francis has changed Catholic Church teaching to fully reject the death penalty, the Vatican announced Thursday, saying it would work to abolish capital punishment worldwide.
The revision to several sentences of the catechism, the compendium of Catholic beliefs, has the potential to recast debates around the world on how to handle those accused of the most heinous crimes. It adds a new wrinkle to the question of what it means to be pro-life — particularly in the United States, where Catholics who support the death penalty sit on the Supreme Court and govern states that permit executions. At the same time, it will test the church’s ability to influence with a moral authority weakened by decades of sex abuse scandals.
The church’s updated teaching describes capital punishment as “inadmissible” and an attack on the “dignity of the person.” Previously, the church allowed for the death penalty in very rare cases, only as a means of “defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”
Francis has for years been a vocal critic of the death penalty, calling it an “inhuman measure.” The Argentine pontiff has pointed to the church’s stance on the death penalty as evidence of how the Vatican can evolve: The church for centuries permitted executions, but in 1997, John Paul II dramatically narrowed the standards for when the punishment was permissible.
Francis’s latest move places the issue toward the forefront of his own efforts to overhaul and modernize the Roman Catholic Church’s approach to social justice.
“There is no doubt the pope wants politicians to pay attention to this,” said John Gehring, the Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington. “He is not just speaking internally. The pope wants to elevate this as a definitive pro-life issue.”
The full political significance of the new teaching stands to emerge slowly, as priests and bishops speak more clearly about the death penalty to planet’s 1.2 billion Catholics. But in part because the practice has already been abolished in most countries with large Catholic populations — including throughout the European Union and across nearly all of South America — the United States is among the places where the shift could have the greatest consequence.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Catholic, presides over the state that carries out the highest number of executions. Several states have recently opened new discussions about abolishing the punishment. And in New Hampshire, one of the most heavily Catholic states, Gov. Chris Sununu in June vetoed a legislature-backed repeal of the death penalty, saying he didn’t want to send a message that the worst criminals might be “guaranteed leniency.”
The fact that Abbott or Sunnunu get jammed up over the politics of this is just icing on the cake.