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Abbot Peter Novecosky, OSB


Abbot Peter Novecosky

Pope ‘kills’ death penalty

Pope Francis has made a major statement regarding the death penalty. He said no matter how it is carried out, “it is, in itself, contrary to the Gospel.”

He made the statement Oct. 11 on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Vatican correspondent Christopher Lamb said, “It was a historic shift given that the death penalty has, until now, been allowed by the church in certain circumstances.”

It is not the first time the church’s teaching on capital punishment has evolved. Pope Francis noted the church has taught that the death penalty was “a logical consequence of the application of justice.” There are consequences to any crime.

The death penalty was on the books in the Papal States — the lands controlled by the papacy from around the eighth century until the late 19th. However, it was not acted on since 1870. It was only in 1969 that Pope Paul VI formally banned the penalty.

Pope Francis explained that the church’s position on the death penalty is an example of how church teaching is not static, but grows and deepens along with a growth in faith and in response to modern questions and concerns. Both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI condemned the use of the death penalty, although they stopped short of making any change to official teaching. 

The first edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, published by Pope John Paul II in 1992, recognized “the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime.” That included “in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty.” At the same time, it said, “bloodless means” that could protect human life should be used when possible.

But the language was formally changed five years later, in 1997, after Pope John Paul II issued his pro-life encyclical, “Evangelium Vitae.” Since then, the catechism has taught that the use of the death penalty is permissible only when the identity and responsibility of the condemned is certain and when capital punishment “is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”

In response to our changing times, Pope Francis said capital punishment “heavily wounds human dignity” and is an “inhuman measure.”

“It is, in itself, contrary to the Gospel, because a decision is voluntarily made to suppress a human life, which is always sacred in the eyes of the Creator and of whom, in the last analysis, only God can be the true judge and guarantor.” The death penalty, he continued, not only extinguishes a human life, it extinguishes the possibility that the person, recognizing his or her errors, will request forgiveness and begin a new life.

The pope’s position won’t be readily accepted by North Americans. While the death penaly was abolished in Canada in 1976, a 2012 survey conducted by Angus Reid Public Opinion in partnership with the Toronto Star found that 61 per cent said capital punishment is warranted for murder. But given the choice of supporting the death penalty or life imprisonment, 50 per cent chose the latter, the survey found.

In the United States, capital punishment is still legal in more than 30 states. It is supported by close to half of all Catholics.

Sister Helen Prejean, whose work on death row was dramatized in the Oscar-nominated film Dead Man Walking, supports the pope’s decision: “At last,” she told America magazine, “a clear, uncompromising stance of moral opposition to the death penalty by the highest authority of the church.”

The task now will be to help this message filter down to people in the pew. No doubt, bishops and clergy will need to play a key role here.