Columns Opinion Thomas Reese: Signs of the Times

Pope Francis pushes Catholics to actively oppose the death penalty

Pope Francis speaks in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on June 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

(RNS) — Pope Francis has decided to change the catechism of the Catholic Church to make clear the church’s opposition to the death penalty. By including it in the catechism, the pope ensures that the church’s teaching against capital punishment will spread throughout the church.

But Francis is going beyond merely teaching that capital punishment is wrong. He is committing the church to working with determination for the abolition of the death penalty worldwide. While many countries have done this already, he will face fierce opposition in the United States, where  54 percent of the public supports capital punishment, according to the Pew Research Center, and 39  percent oppose it in 2018 [an earlier version of this column used statistics from 2016].

Among Catholics, a majority also favors the death penalty (53 percent for, 42 percent against). A larger majority of white Catholics (57 percent) supports the death penalty, but they are less supportive than white evangelicals (73 percent) and white mainline Protestants (61 percent).

It will be interesting to see if Francis can move these numbers.

The church’s teaching on the death penalty has been evolving over the last 25 years, especially since the catechism was first published. (Not the Baltimore Catechism used in Catholic primary schools before the Second Vatican Council, but the book-length one promulgated in 1992.) The first edition acknowledged that capital punishment had been approved by the church for centuries. In fact, popes had executed criminals in the Papal States before Italy took them over in 1870.

St. John Paul II, who was pope when the 1992 catechism was published, did not like capital punishment and would have liked to see it ended. But some in the Vatican were concerned about how the church would explain its change in teaching. As a result, John Paul had the catechism say that the death penalty was only permitted “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” The catechism quotes John Paul, who stated that cases requiring the execution of the offender “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”(#2267)

Francis has taken the final step and said that these cases are nonexistent. Capital punishment must end.

The hierarchy is always concerned about how to explain change in the church because, in the past, the church prided itself on being unchanging. In the case of capital punishment, John Paul and now Francis have argued that circumstances have changed — there are other ways of protecting the public — and therefore the death penalty is no longer necessary and should be abolished.

In addition, both of them thought that it was an affront to human dignity. As John Paul wrote, “Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this.” The new version of the catechism will state, “the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.” Respect for human life includes the lives of criminals.

Another reason for the church’s opposition is that the church always hopes that a sinner will repent and ask for forgiveness. An execution cuts off the time available to the sinner for repentance.

The U.S. bishops will now add opposition to the death penalty to their other lobbying issues. This list already includes controversial positions such as their support for comprehensive immigration reform, universal health care and programs to help the poor and their opposition to the Muslim ban, abortion and gay marriage.

Just as some Catholic politicians have parted from the bishops on these issues, there will certainly be some who oppose the bishops’ call for eliminating the death penalty. One of the things I like about the bishops is that they make both political parties uncomfortable.

As long as the discussion of the death penalty is conducted in the abstract, it can remain rather academic. But once it becomes focused on an individual criminal, passions will flare up. If the criminal is a serial killer, a rapist-murderer or someone who has shot schoolchildren, the bishops’ call for clemency will meet fierce opposition.

In the past, some bishops have opposed the execution of specific criminals in their states and called on governors to commute their sentences to life imprisonment. Now we can expect all the bishops to join in these efforts, and we can also expect vocal opposition. This is a fight the bishops will not win unless their people join them.

About the author

Thomas Reese

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, is a Senior Analyst at RNS. Previously he was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter (2015-17) and an associate editor (1978-85) and editor in chief (1998-2005) at America magazine. He was also a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University (1985-98 & 2006-15) where he wrote Archbishop, A Flock of Shepherds, and Inside the Vatican. Earlier he worked as a lobbyist for tax reform. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of California Berkeley. He entered the Jesuits in 1962 and was ordained a priest in 1974 after receiving a M.Div from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.

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  • The pope is losing his power. A Catholic US governnor has already said in more words…”so what….I’m proceeding with a planned execution”.
    That’s a one day after the Holy Father dropped this hot news item, clearly to deflect from his disasterous handling of the same sex clerical abuse problems, and other other sexual abuse problems.

    I am quite happy the lavender lobby is going to be this pope’s downfall.

    The pope’s favorability rating on this topic is LOWER than Trump’s handling of his presidency.

  • Good to see Good Christians (TM) acting like it. Mercy, forgiveness, compassion— who needs ’em? What fun are they, when you have power and revenge!

  • If you were pressed you couldn’t without google distinguish mercy, from forgiveness, from compassion. And even then you’d come up with some soft-headed answers.

    And then if I asked you to reconcile all that with justice, you’d ABEND.

  • “The pope’s favorability rating on this topic is LOWER than Trump’s handling of his presidency.”

    Reminds me that the church’s 1968 prohibition of artificial birth control would inaugurate a significant weakening of the hierarchs’ magisterium. JPII, of course, with Ratzinger’s help, tried to reinstate authoritarian control from Rome, but Traditionalist Humpty Dumpty is fatally cracked, and no ladders and tape and horses and all the king’s *men* are going to be able to patch Humpty back together.

    Long overdue at this time in the history of the Church of Rome.

    Thank God!

  • “clearly to deflect from his disastrous handling of the same sex clerical abuse problems”
    That is cynical but, sadly, you are probably right. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has just approved the release of the grand jury report. That will probably further damage the Church’s credibility in the US and shine more light on the Pope’s failure to clean house. The US bishops should have let Keating do his job.

  • Keating was a loose bolt whose training and career pointed him towards making headlines with a trail of scalps.

    Like General Douglas MacArthur, his clear vision of the problem was defeated by his autocratic confrontational demeanor.

  • Funny how god often fails to point his followers towards the right person to execute. Francis might be taking that into account.

  • “The hierarchy is always concerned about how to explain change in the
    church because, in the past, the church prided itself on being
    unchanging” is nonsense.

    What the Church states is unchanging is the Revelation, which began with the natural law written in the hearts of mankind, through the Covenant with the Jews, and which ended with the death of the last Apostle.

  • This particular Pope is not losing any power that he actually possesses.

    He just demonstrating what happens when you get someone in charge who’s weak in theology (not unlike the author of the article) and who was known as “the weasel” in Argentina when he ran the seminary there.

  • Here’s what the pope needs to address ASAP before his religion implodes:

    The inadequate response to the inappropriate conduct of many priests, the emotional
    stress on the victims, the resultant $1 billion in lawsuits and bankrupt
    dioceses.

    The lack of talent in the priesthood, the lack of Vatican response to the historic
    Jesus movement, the Church’s continuing to cling to original sin and the
    resulting subsets of crazy ideas like baptism and limbo.

    The denial of priesthood to women, the restriction of priesthood to single men (unless
    they are former Episcopalian priests), the continued chain of Vatican
    “leadership” by old white men and natural “birth control”
    leading to many unplanned pregnancies and resultant abortions.

    Uncontrolled suffering of the elderly and infirm that need not be and unrealistic
    dogmas such as the Immaculate Conception, Assumption, atonement and papal
    infallibility.

  • No it’s a disorder of the natural complementarity between the sexes.

    It’s no different than pedophilia, and other forms of buggery. It’s no different than bestiality, necrophilia, threesomes, you name it.

  • Are those all things that you are into? Because they certainly don’t spring into my mind quite so readily.

  • I love it when I run across one of these teens..or persons who haven’t matured beyond teenhood…who say things like “no I’m not but so are you…”

  • The last two popes danced around the issue. Now that Francis has made it official, so to speak those who supported the last two popes are up in arms. Why am I not surprised?

  • Just out of curiosity, what “power” do you think popes used to have that Francis is losing? Religious leaders don’t lead by consensus or by popular opinion. They lead by moral witness. If you want to argue that Francis lacks that, feel free. But the “power” argument is silly.

  • Odd how liberals press the pope to (or hope that the pope will) make changes in this or that stance of the Church, but if he has no power, why do they engage in such lobbying or hoping?

    It’s the irrationality of the left that is so entertaining.

  • I’m not a liberal and I have never expressed the opinion that the pope should make unilateral changes. I approach each issue independently.

    You might benefit by keeping your ignorance to yourself.

  • Odd how you inserted yourself into my words.

    What does that say about your self-focus?

  • Odd how you begin so many of your posts with “odd how…”

    You responded to my message. Clearly, you were implying that I’m a liberal. If not, then you lack the ability to maintain a coherent theme. Either way, I’ve had enough of this. Moving on.

  • I have to disagree, Alexandra. The last two popes made a strong dialectic case for capital punishment being outmoded in contemporary society. I wouldn’t characterize that as dancing around the issue. And the fact that they chose to put that language in the catechism when the safer path would have been to sidestep it, isn’t insignificant.

    Popes and theologians build on the work of one another. Without John Paul and Benedict laying the groundwork for this, Francis probably wouldn’t have made this pronouncement.

  • In the case of Catholicism the Pontiff leads by divine institution.

    That means the “power” argument is not silly.

  • Laid the groundwork for what?

    This is simply another prudential judgment, nothing more, and changes nothing.

  • To the best of my recollection, both of them said that capital punishment was OK in certain situations.
    But I may not be remembering accurately.

  • What they said was that the only morally justifiable occasion to exercise the death penalty is if it’s the only way to protect the innocent from a dangerous person, but that modern means of incarceration render such occasions practically non-existent. It’s basically an expansion of the moral argument for self-defense, and it represented a major shift from the traditional Catholic position that capital punishment could be used by the state to maintain social order.

  • Thanks for the correction. But the “practically on-existent” phrasing apparently gives pro-death penalty people a sufficient opening to insist that the death penalty can be acceptable.

  • So much for the RCC being infallible – the bible teaches capital punishment, but now the RCC says it’s an ‘affront to human dignity.’ Believe God, or the RCC??