In his first ever visit to the U.S. and first speech ever to Congress, Pope Francis called on the nation’s hundreds of representatives to make the death penalty a thing of the past.
“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,” he said. “Recently my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty. Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.”
Pope Francis said his stance on the issue stems from belief in the Golden Rule, continuing: “If we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us. The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.”
Sitting in the House chambers listening to the speech were several members of the U.S. Supreme Court, which earlier this year issued an opinion upholding the use of a controversial lethal injection drug used in several drawn out, painful, botched executions. The decision went beyond allowing the continued use of a method some consider torture, but defended the entire concept of the death penalty as immune to legal challenge.
Yet one of the Court’s most devout Catholic members, Justice Antonin Scalia, recently suggested they could soon reconsider. Speaking to students at Rhodes College, Scalia said at least four of his colleagues believe the death penalty to be unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment, which bans cruel and unusual punishment.
The Holy See’s call for death penalty abolition is also likely to energize the millions of American church-goers who agree with him, and who have been pushing across the country for a more humane criminal justice system. Faith-based activism, particularly from Catholics, played a major role in Nebraska passing a bill to end the death penalty earlier this year.
Many members of Congress took issue with Pope Francis' progressive stances on climate change, immigration, capitalism, and the death penalty. Just after Wednesday's address, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) cited his time as a prosecutor of "people who’ve committed unspeakable acts," to argue that "the death penalty is a recognition of the preciousness of human life."
"For the most egregious crimes, the ultimate punishment should apply," said the candidate for president and son of an Evangelical pastor.