The death penalty is an attack on the inherent dignity of all humans and officially “inadmissible,” Pope Francis said Thursday morning.
The new policy comes after Francis said last October that he intended to change the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings about the issue. In the past, the church taught that the death penalty was acceptable if it was “the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”
Now, however, the church says there is “an increasing awareness” that even the most serious crimes do not deprive a person of their humanity.
The policy states, “[…] A new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. … More effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.”
The new teaching concludes by saying that the death penalty is “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” The church says it will work “with determination” for the abolition of capital punishment around the world.
Cardinal Luis Ladaria, the head of the Vatican’s doctrine office, said the policy change was an evolution of the church’s teachings.
“If, in fact the political and social situation of the past made the death penalty an acceptable means for the protection of the common good, today the increasing understanding [is] that the dignity of a person is not lost even after committing the most serious crimes,” Ladaria said in a letter.
Last December, a report from the Death Penalty Information Center concluded that there was significant evidence of mental illness, brain damage, intellectual disability, severe trauma, or possible innocence in nearly 90 percent of capital punishment executions in the United States.
Additionally, the report found that five of the 23 people executed by the state in 2017 received “glaringly deficient legal representation” or were denied substantial judicial review.
The change in Roman Catholic teaching comes during a fraught moment for the church. Last week, Francis accepted the resignation of Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick after allegations of decades of sexual abuse. Additionally, on Wednesday, a Pennsylvania bishop released a list of 71 priests and church personnel who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors since the 1940s.
Special prosecutors in Chile are also currently investigating nearly 70 members of the clergy — including three bishops — and other church personnel who have been accused of abuse involving as many as 104 potential victims.
Francis has also faced criticism for flip-flopping on LGBTQ rights. In May, the church made headlines after a Chilean man, Juan Carlos Cruz, said the pope told him his sexual orientation didn’t matter. The statement was praised by human rights activists who called the pope’s stance progressive, but a day later, local media in Italy reported that Francis had warned a group of Italian bishops not to allow anyone who may be gay into the priesthood.
Not long after, Francis also found himself the subject of scrutiny after he referred to “the family [as] man and woman” and said such a family structure was “the only one.”