Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Death Penalty Is against Church Teaching, Pope Says

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Death Penalty Is against Church Teaching, Pope Says

Article excerpt

VATICAN CITY * When Pope Francis visited the United States two years ago, he spoke out against the death penalty in speeches to Congress and the United Nations.

He has gone a step further, calling for a revision of official church teaching that would make capital punishment "inadmissible." It was a historic shift, given that the death penalty has, until now, been allowed by the church in certain circumstances.

The death penalty, Francis explained during a speech at the Vatican Oct. 11, is "contrary to the Gospel, because it entails the willful suppression of a human life that never ceases to be sacred in the eyes of its Creator."

With these words, the pope is also reshaping what it means to be "pro-life." He is moving it away from primarily opposing abortion and stressing that it means protecting life at every stage, from womb to natural death.

It is in the U.S. where the pope's words may have the most impact, since punishment by death is still legal in more than 30 states and is supported by close to half of all Catholics. According to a 2016 Pew Research poll, 43 percent of American Catholics support the death penalty, while 46 percent are opposed.

Among those welcoming the pope's words was St. Joseph Sr. Helen Prejean, whose work on death row was dramatized in the Oscar-nominated film "Dead Man Walking," with her role played by Susan Sarandon.

"At last, a clear, uncompromising stance of moral opposition to the death penalty by the highest authority of the church," Prejean told America magazine.

There are many more-traditional Catholics who argue forcefully in favor of the death penalty. Joseph Bessette and Edward Feser argue that "for extremely heinous crimes, no lesser punishment could possibly respect this Catholic principle that a punishment ought to be proportional to the offense."

Defenders of the death penalty on religious grounds also point to the argument from St. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century Dominican theologian, that sometimes it is permissible in order to promote the common good and keep people safe.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the death penalty is allowed if it is "the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor." Yet it goes on to say that the times when the death penalty is "absolutely necessary" are "very rare, if not practically nonexistent."

A number of liberal Catholics are also uncomfortable with the idea of a church ban on capital punishment, said Massimo Faggioli, a church historian and theology professor at Villanova University.

"The Europe-America divide on the death penalty is deeper than we think," Faggioli told RNS.

In realitx the pope's ruling had been a long time coming. Both Benedict XVI and John Paul II condemned its use, although they stopped short of making any change to official teaching. …

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