2018-08-09 09:14:45 UTC
Pope Francis said that the
Roman Catholic Church would
work "with determination" for
the abolition of capital
By Elisabetta Povoledo and Laurie Goodstein
Aug. 2, 2018
ROME -- Pope Francis has declared the death penalty wrong in
all cases, a definitive change in church teaching that is
likely to challenge Catholic politicians, judges and
officials who have argued that their church was not entirely
opposed to capital punishment.
Before, church doctrine accepted the death penalty if it was
"the only practicable way" to defend lives, an opening that
some Catholics took as license to support capital punishment
in many cases.
But Francis said executions were unacceptable in
all cases because they are "an attack" on human
dignity, the Vatican announced on Thursday, adding
that the church would work "with determination" to
abolish capital punishment worldwide.
Francis made the change to the Catechism of the Roman
Catholic Church, the book of doctrine that is taught to
Catholic children worldwide and studied by adults in a church
with 1.2 billion members. Abolishing the death penalty has
long been one of his top priorities, along with saving the
environment and caring for immigrants and refugees.
[Read about how the decree complicates Nebraska's plans for
its first execution in more than 20 years.]
A majority of the world's countries -- including nearly every
nation in Europe and Latin America, regions that are home to
large Catholic populations -- have already banned the death
penalty, according to Amnesty International.
The pope's decree is likely to hit hardest in the
United States, where a majority of Catholics
support the death penalty and the powerful
"pro-life movement" has focused almost exclusively
on ending abortion -- not the death penalty. The
pope's move could put Catholic politicians in a new
and difficult position, especially Catholic
governors like Greg Abbott of Texas and Pete
Ricketts of Nebraska, who have presided over
"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," said John
Gehring, the Catholic program director at Faith in Public
Life, a liberal-leaning advocacy group in Washington. "There
isn't any loophole for you to wiggle through now."
The new ruling could also complicate the lives of American
judges who are practicing Catholics.
President Trump's nominee to the Supreme Court, Judge Brett
M. Kavanaugh, is Catholic, as are Chief Justice John G.
Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr.
and Sonia Sotomayor. One of the other finalists for the
vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Anthony M.
Kennedy was Judge Amy Coney Barrett, who is also Catholic.
She wrote a 1998 law review article suggesting that Catholic
judges should consider recusing themselves in some death
penalty cases that might conflict with their religious
In a 2002 article, Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in 2016,
said, "I do not find the death penalty immoral," and added
that he was confident that Catholic doctrine allowed for its
use in some cases.
He wrote that it would be a bad idea if Catholic
judges had to recuse themselves in death penalty
cases or if Catholic governors had to promise
commutations of death sentences, and commented,
"Most of them would never reach the governor's
Chester L. Gillis, professor of theology at Georgetown
University, described Francis's new teaching on the death
penalty as "part of the regular teaching of the church" and
"binding." But that does not mean that Catholics who believe
differently will face penalties or be denied the sacraments.
"There are lots of other teachings in the Catholic church
that not everybody abides by," he said. "Is practicing birth
control a mortal sin? If true there would be a lot of couples
in mortal sin."
A majority of American Catholics favor capital punishment, 53
percent, while 42 percent oppose it, according to a poll that
the Pew Research Center conducted this spring. Among
Americans as a whole, 54 percent are in favor and 39 percent
Cara H. Drinan, a professor of law at Catholic University of
America in Washington and an expert on criminal justice
reform, said Catholics should be able to accept this
development because it is "perfectly consistent with Catholic
teaching on a consistent ethic of life."
And yet, she said, there may be resistance.
"The land of the free has become the world's
biggest jailer," Ms. Drinan said, "and even
practicing Catholics have a hard time setting aside
this knee-jerk reaction of 'you do the crime, you
do the time.' It's part of who we are."
The new teaching builds on the teachings of Francis' two
immediate predecessors. For example, in 1992, in the
catechism promoted by John Paul II, who has since been
canonized, the death penalty was allowed if it was "the only
practicable way to defend the lives of human beings
effectively against the aggressor."
Where the Death Penalty Is Legal in the United States
Capital punishment is legal in 31 states. Governors have
imposed moratoriums on the death penalty in four of those
"This didn't come out of nowhere," said John Thavis, a
Vatican expert and author. "John Paul II and Benedict laid
the ground work; he's taking the next logical step."
"I think this will be a big deal for the future of
the death penalty in the world," he added. "People
who work with prisoners on death row will be
thrilled, and I think this will become a banner
social justice issue for the church."
Sergio D'Elia, the secretary of Hands Off Cain, an
association that works to abolish capital punishment
worldwide, said, "Now even the most far-flung parish priest
will teach this to young children."
Mario Marazziti, the coordinator of the global anti-death
penalty campaign of the Community of Sant'Egidio, a Catholic
organization in Rome, said Francis had shifted the church's
teachings from "the practical opposition" of the old
catechism, which acknowledged the church's historical
acceptance of the death penalty, to "absolute rejection,"
which "becomes a normal part of teaching and commitment on
the part of the faithful."
"It becomes binding for bishops, defense of life from the
initial state through all its phases to the very end, even
for those who are guilty," he said.
"If you don't accept this, you are disobedient, as you would
be if you didn't accept other teachings," he said. "There is
no margin for disagreement."
It could set off a backlash among American Catholic
traditionalists who have already cast Francis as dangerously
inclined to change or compromise church teaching on other
issues, like permitting communion for Catholics who have
divorced and remarried without getting a church annulment.
The majority of the world's executions take place in five
countries: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan. The
United States was No. 8 on the list in 2017, according to
Recently, there have been calls in some countries to restore
the death penalty. In the Philippines, a primarily Catholic
country, for example, President Rodrigo Duterte has been
pushing to reimpose it.
In Africa, capital punishment exists in several countries,
but a 2009 synod of African bishops called for a "total and
universal abolition of the death penalty."
In 2015, four Catholic media outlets in the United States
published a joint editorial calling for the death penalty to
be abolished. They included the liberal-leaning National
Catholic Reporter and the conservative-leaning National
But many conservative Catholics took exception. The Rev. C.
John McCloskey III, an influential teacher and confidant of
countless American politicians and civic leaders, has written
that the church's doctrine "does not and never has advocated
unqualified abolition of the death penalty."
Francis spoke about his opposition to the death
penalty when he visited the United States in 2015,
saying in his address to the United States Congress
that "every life is sacred, every human person is
endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society
can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those
convicted of crimes."
On that trip, he visited a Pennsylvania prison and met with a
few inmates and their families. He also wrote a detailed
letter that year to the International Commission against the
Death Penalty, arguing that capital punishment "does not
render justice to the victims, but rather fosters vengeance."
In it, he made two arguments that specifically spoke to the
American context: The death penalty is illegitimate because
many convictions have later been found to be in error and
have been overturned, and because executions of prisoners in
some states have been badly botched.
Sister Helen Prejean, whose advocacy for prisoners
on death row was portrayed in the film "Dead Man
Walking," said that Francis had once written a
letter that helped spare a man on death row in
Oklahoma, and that she was certain he was well
aware of the death penalty debate in the United States.
She said the only time she met Francis -- attending Mass with
him in the small chapel in his guesthouse in January 2016
-- he asked what had happened to a prisoner in Texas whom she
had enlisted his help in trying to save from execution. She
told him the man had been put to death the night before.
On Thursday, she said: "It's a happy day. I'm clicking my
heels. What I'm particularly delighted about is there's no
loopholes. It's unconditional."
But she added: "This is just a change in the
doctrine, and it's on paper. We've still got to
move it into the pews and make it active."
Elisabetta Povoledo reported from Rome, and Laurie Goodstein
from New York. Adam Liptak contributed reporting from
Washington, and Sewell Chan from New York.
A version of this article appears in print on Aug. 3, 2018,
on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Pope
Declares Death Penalty Always Wrong.