Pope Francis: Death penalty is ‘inadmissible’

His remarks signal a possible change in the Catholic catechism.

Pope Francis. CREDIT: AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino
Pope Francis. CREDIT: AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino

Pope Francis roundly condemned the death penalty on Wednesday, calling it “contrary to the gospel” and signaling a possible change to the Catholic teaching that would completely prohibit the practice.

According to America Magazine, a Jesuit publication, the pontiff delivered the remarks to a gathering of church leaders, including cardinals, bishops, nuns, priests, and teachers of the Catholic catechism. The event, which was designed to mark the 25th anniversary of the promulgation of the catechism, suggested the Catholic Church may soon revise the document’s existing treatment of the death penalty.

“It is necessary therefore to restate that, however grave the crime that may be committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it attacks the inviolability and the dignity of the person.”

“One has to strongly affirm that condemnation to the death penalty is an inhuman measure that humiliates personal dignity, in whatever form it is carried out,” Francis said. “And [it] is, of itself, contrary to the Gospel, because it is freely decided to suppress a human life that is always sacred in the eyes of the Creator, and of which, in the final analysis, God alone is the true judge and guarantor.”

Although Catholics have long opposed the death penalty in most instances, Francis’ remarks are significant in that they appear to suggest a complete prohibition on the practice without exceptions. Controversy over the issue led to a revision of the catechism in 1997, but the text still did not rule it out, noting only that “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically non-existent.’”

The pope, who has spoken out against the death penalty for years, addressed the past in his remarks, acknowledging the Church has utilized the death penalty before.

“In past centuries, when faced with a poverty of instruments of defense and social maturity had not yet reached a positive development, recourse to the death penalty appeared as the logical consequence of the application of justice which had to be adhered to,” Francis said. “We assume responsibility for the past, and we recognize that those means were dictated more by a legalistic than a Christian mentality. The concern to fully preserve the powers and the material riches led to an overestimation of the value of the law, preventing a going in depth into the understanding of the Gospel.”

He then added: “Today, however, to remain neutral [on the death penalty] in the face of new demands for the reaffirmation of personal dignity, would render us guiltier… It is necessary therefore to restate that, however grave the crime that may be committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it attacks the inviolability and the dignity of the person.”

James Martin, America Magazine’s editor at large and a Jesuit priest, echoed the pontiff’s sentiment.

“It’s a strong and necessary statement of what we have long held in the church: every life is sacred,” he told ThinkProgress.

Francis’ message tracks with a long history of other faith groups opposing the death penalty in the United States. In addition to Catholic groups, several Christian denominations — such as the The United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church, and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — have issued statements opposing the death penalty over the years, as have Jewish groups and other religious organization. Advocates from across the religious spectrum have scaled up their criticism of the death penalty in recent years.

The U.S. public is also deeply divided over the practice. As of last year, only 49 percent of Americans said they supported capital punishment, the lowest in roughly 45 years. Only 43 percent of Catholics backed using the method in the same survey, compared to white evangelical Protestants (69 percent) and white mainline Protestants (60 percent).

The debate issue even came up during the 2016 vice presidential debate. When then-Democratic candidate Tim Kaine was asked to explain a time when he struggled to balance his Catholic faith with his position as a public official, he listed wrestling with whether to invoke the death penalty while governor of Virginia (he did).