VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has decreed that the death penalty is “inadmissible” under all circumstances and the Catholic Church should campaign to abolish it, a change in church teaching that could influence Catholic politicians and judges in the U.S. and across the globe.
The change, announced Thursday, was hailed by anti-death penalty activists and scorned by Francis’ frequent conservative critics, who said he had no right to change what Scripture revealed and popes have taught for centuries.
The Vatican said that Francis had amended the Catechism of the Catholic Church — the compilation of official Catholic teaching — to say that capital punishment can never be sanctioned because it constitutes an “attack” on the dignity of human beings.
Previously, the catechism said the church didn’t exclude recourse to capital punishment “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” Past popes have upheld that position, though St. John Paul II began urging an end to the practice and stressed that the guilty were just as deserving of dignity as innocents.
The new teaching says the previous policy is outdated because there are new ways to protect the common good, and the church should instead commit itself to working to end capital punishment.
“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,” reads the new text.
Today “there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes,” it said, adding that society now has effective ways to detain prisoners so they aren’t a threat and even provide the possibility of rehabilitation.
“Consequently, the church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide,” reads the new text, which was approved in May but only published Thursday.
The death penalty has been abolished in most of Europe and South America, but it is still in use in the United States and in countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. This week Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said the death penalty could soon be reinstated in Turkey, where it was abolished in 2004 as part of its bid to join the European Union.
Within hours of Thursday’s announcement, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo vowed to introduce legislation to remove the death penalty from New York state law.
Francis’ new teaching is also likely to feature in the confirmation process for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, a church-going Catholic who, if confirmed, would join four other Catholic justices on the bench.
One of their former Catholic members, the late Justice Antonin Scalia, famously said that he didn’t find the death penalty immoral, and that any judge who did should resign.
Sister Helen Prejean, the anti-death penalty campaigner whose ministry to a death row inmate inspired the book and film, “Dead Man Walking,” said the pope’s new teaching would be more acutely felt in an upcoming planned execution in Nebraska under Gov. Pete Ricketts, who Prejean called “a pro-life Catholic.“.
“If we say we are for dignity of all life, that includes innocent and guilty as well,” she said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
She said she was “high as a kite” over Francis’ decision to close what she said were loopholes in previous church teaching that failed to recognize that when a prisoner is strapped to a gurney, he is rendered completely defenseless before his executioner.
“We can’t claim anymore that’s the only way you can defend society,” she said.
Francis has long denounced the death penalty and even opposes life sentences, which he has called “hidden” death sentences.
He has also made prison ministry a mainstay of his vocation, and on nearly every foreign trip he visits inmates to offer words of solidarity and hope. He remains in touch with a group of Argentine inmates he ministered to during his years as archbishop of Buenos Aires.
In an accompanying letter explaining the change, the head of the Vatican’s doctrine office, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, said the pope wasn’t contradicting prior church teaching on capital punishment but was “reformulating” it to express “an authentic development of doctrine.”
The Rev. Robert Gahl, a moral theologian at Rome’s Pontifical Holy Cross University, agreed.
“With this new text the pope is not rejecting past teaching regarding the death penalty. He’s not referring to the inherent morality or immorality of it, but to political expedience within new circumstances to emphasize the possibility of redemption for all, including the most guilty,” he said.
In addition to Sister Prejean, other Catholic organizations are active in the anti-death penalty campaign, including the Sant’Egidio Community, which together with Italian authorities always lights up Rome’s Colosseum whenever a country abolishes capital punishment.
In a statement Thursday, Sant’Egidio said the change served “as another push to the church and Catholics, based on the Gospel, to respect the sacredness of human life and to work at all levels and on every continent to abolish this inhuman practice.”
It was precisely Francis’ citation of the Gospel, however, that sparked criticism from some on the Catholic right, who cited Scripture in arguing that Francis had no authority to change what previous popes taught.
“He is in open violation of the authority recognized to him. And no Catholic has any obligation of obedience to abuse of authority,” tweeted the traditionalist blog Rorate Caeli.
Some on social media questioned the timing of the announcement, given that the Vatican and the Catholic Church are under extraordinary fire over clerical sex abuse and how bishops around the world covered it up for decades. The U.S. church, in particular, is reeling from accusations that one of the most prominent U.S. cardinals, Theodore McCarrick, allegedly abused minors as well as adult seminarians.
“Coming in the midst of the sex abuse revelations, the timing is curious… and more fury is not what the Church needs at this moment,” noted Raymond Arroyo, host of the Catholic broadcaster EWTN.
Francis announced his intention to change church teaching on capital punishment in October, when he marked the 25th anniversary of the catechism itself. First promulgated by St. John Paul II, it gave Catholics an easy, go-to guide for church teaching on everything from the sacraments to sex.
Amnesty International, which has long campaigned for a worldwide ban on the death penalty, welcomed the development as an “important step forward.”
“Already in the past, the church had expressed its aversion to the death penalty, but with words that did not exclude ambiguities,” said Riccardo Noury, Amnesty Italia spokesman. “Today they are saying it in an even clearer way.”