Pope Francis: “The death penalty is inadmissible”


When Pope Francis declared last week that “the death penalty is inadmissible,” because it is “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” and vowed that the church will work for its “abolition worldwide,” he made it impossible from this point forward for Catholic supporters of this barbaric punishment to stake their position on the moral high ground of the Church. His statement is now official doctrine and has been added to the Catechism, the Catholic Church’s official guide to its beliefs and practices.

“This is huge. In every death-penalty trial, the district attorney argues that because of the gravity of this particular crime the death penalty is required. So when the pope says it’s never admissible, it pulls the whole rug out from that kind of argument,” Sr. Helen Prejean, author of “Dead Man Walking,” and a leading voice in the abolitionist movement, told Commonweal magazine.

Catholic Mobilizing Network Executive Director Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy pointed out that “Catholic bishops in every state that has the death penalty have taken stands to see an end to this practice. [The Pope’s] action further clarifies any remaining ambiguity about the Church’s teaching against the death penalty and strengthens the global resolve to bring an end to this practice.”

This is not the first time a Pope has spoken out against the death penalty. “Catholics have been encouraged by Papal and Church authority to seek abolition of the death penalty for over 20 years,” Murphy said. In a visit to St. Louis in 1999, Pope John Paul II called the death penalty “cruel” and “unnecessary,” and in 2011, Pope Benedict XVI echoed Pope John Paul II’s call for repeal. In fact, it’s not the first time Francis has spoken out. In an address to the U.S. Congress in 2015, Francis called for abolition of the death penalty worldwide. 

“Francis has always been an ally, but last week he took a firm and dramatic step forward in the fight for abolition. He has firmly clarified the Church’s opposition to all executions,” DPF Executive Director Magdaleno Rose-Avila says. 

The backlash from death penalty supporters has been more muted than expected. A guest column in the Wall Street Journal this week by Joseph M. Bessette is one notable exception. Bessette co-wrote a book, By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, that was harshly criticized in our October 2017 issue by Florida death row chaplain (and lawyer) Dale Recinella because of sections of the book that he found “horrendously false,” including its insistence that, “Nobody on death row is innocent. The real threat to justice is that so many people who should be getting the death penalty aren’t.” Or “Those who deny that the death penalty deters overestimate the significance of statistical evidence. All these statistics that say it’s not a deterrent are irrelevant.”

A more credible conservative voice, the American Conservative, published an article, “The Conservative Case Against the Death Penalty,” in which Stephen Beale argues that to write off Francis’ recent announcement as an example of his “perceived leftism would be a mistake not only from a theological perspective but also from a conservative one.” He dismisses the two main  conservative arguments that the death penalty deters (because it’s clear it does not), or that it is proportional, i.e., that the punishment corresponds to the offense, because proportionality “does not demand equivalence or exactitude” (we don’t cut off the hands of thieves or torture sadists), and says that instead what Francis has done is in line with conservative thought: human life is inviolable. 

Still, the fight is far from over. Three Catholic governors, Pete Ricketts (Nebraska), Greg Abbott (Texas), and Butch Otter (Idaho), are all staunch death penalty supporters, and have not indicated that the fact that their spiritual leader has declared it “inadmissible,” will change their minds or their actions in allowing executions to proceed in their states. 

But, for abolitionists, it was a welcome and well-timed announcement. As Sr. Helen said in Commonweal, “We have been waiting for this for a long time. . . . The church was behind on human rights. Now faith is aligned with human rights on the death penalty, and that is a powerful thing.”

You might also be interested in...

Arizona governor and state Supreme Court in a showdown over executions

(Update: Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs and the Arizona Supreme Court ended a standoff over the execution of Aaron Gunches on...
Read More

While we’re on the subject. . . 

“It is not for nothing that some critics refer to it as the ‘criminal legal system.’ The word ‘justice’ must...
Read More

Crossing the River Styx: The Memoir of a Death Row Chaplain

“I was haunted by Russ before I even knew him. I tried to wrap my mind around what it was...
Read More