By Christopher Zoukis
Pope Francis has approved a restatement of Roman Catholic doctrine so that it now unconditionally declares capital punishment morally wrong in all cases. This marks a significant change in the church’s beliefs and, coupled with the announced intention to work “with determination” for abolition of the death penalty, could influence the political debate on the issue in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Previous pontiffs had criticized capital punishment, but none had held the death penalty to always be counter to church teachings. In 1992, during the papacy of John Paul II, Catholic doctrine held a death sentence was morally acceptable when it was the “only practicable way” to defend human lives effectively” against an aggressor.
Pope Francis, however, had on several notable occasions shown his complete opposition to capital punishment. In September 2015, addressing a joint session of Congress, he declared “every life is sacred … and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.”
He also wrote to the International Commission against the Death Penalty, arguing the death penalty amounts to an “attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” and fails to “render justice to the victims, but rather fosters vengeance.”Even more recently, in a major speech to church leaders last year, he called capital punishment “contrary to the Gospel.”
The new rewriting of church teachings, contained in an addition to the universal catechism by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith unveiled on August 2, now describes capital punishment as “inadmissible” and declares the Catholic church is committed to abolishing the capital punishment everywhere.
According to Amnesty International, 103 nations have already abandoned capital punishment, including most European and South American nations. (Ironically, the laws of Vatican City authorized capital punishment as recently as 1969, but only as punishment for assassinating a pope, and the provision was never used.)
Of the 53 nations allowing capital punishment, more than 90% of the world’s executions occur in five nations – China, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan – unlikely to be much persuaded by Vatican activism. But elsewhere, like in the Philippines, a heavily Catholic nations whose President Rodrigo Duterte is trying to bring back capital punishment, the church’s opposition could be a major political factor.
In the United States, polls taken before the Vatican’s new stance was announced showed a majority of Catholics supported capital punishment, so it’s unclear whether the Vatican’s position will have a significant political impact. Catholics comprise about a third of the House of Representatives and a quarter of the Senate; four Supreme Court justices (Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Sotomayor and Thomas) are Catholics, as is Brett Kavanaugh, nominated for the court’s current vacancy.
In this nation, the laws of 31 states allow capital punishment, although the governors of four states (Colorado, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington) have imposed moratoria on executions.
The Pope’s new teaching goes beyond the death penalty. The message the Vatican sent to bishop explaining the new doctrine added that criminal punishments ought to seek to rehabilitate inmates and promote their integration back into society, instead of casting them aside as irredeemable. It added that modern societies have other ways to deter would-be offenders, so the death penalty was unneeded to protect human life.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.