The National Catholic Review
Feb 21 2016 - 2:52pm | Frances D'Emilio - Associated Press

Pope Francis on Sunday urged Catholic leaders to show "exemplary" courage by not allowing executions this year, while expressing hope that eventually the death penalty will be abolished worldwide.

Francis told tourists and pilgrims in St. Peter's Square that "the commandment 'do not kill' holds absolute value and applies to both the innocent and the guilty."

He added that there is "an ever more widespread opposition in public opinion to the death penalty, even only as an instrument of legitimate social defense."

"I appeal to the conscience of those who govern so that international consensus is reached for the abolishment of the death penalty," the pope said. "And I propose to all those among them who are Catholic to make a courageous and exemplary gesture: may no execution sentence be carried out in this Holy Year of Mercy."

Francis is using the church's Holy Year, which runs through Nov. 20, to encourage efforts for more reconciliation and mercy in the world.

The pope is building on church teaching, laid out by St. John Paul II, that there's no justification for capital punishment.

"In effect, modern societies have the possibility to efficiently repress crime without taking away definitely the possibility to redeem oneself from those who committed" the crime, Francis said.

The pope said "even criminals hold the inviolable right to life" given by God.

Francis called on all Christians and all those of good will to work not only to abolish capital punishment but also to improve prison conditions.

From the start of his papacy, he has expressed concern that inmates in jails and prisons should be treated with dignity. He has often visited prisons during his trips throughout Italy and abroad, including last week while in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

While the pope insists he doesn't interfere in the political sphere, he has also made clear people must follow what he calls a "well-informed" conscience, and that local bishops can give guidance to Catholics, including voters, on political issues.

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Matt Nannery | 2/22/2016 - 7:15pm

The seminary priest/professors had to tread lightly on this topic when I was in the seminary under Benedict. The priest teaching moral theology would say something like this: "Regarding life, there is difference between the death penalty and abortion. In the case of abortion, the fetus is innocent. In the case of the death penalty, the prisoner is not. Therefore, this is a gray enough area that the death penalty can be justified." And this argument is exactly what Francis is dismantling. He goes right to the major catholic argument immediately, leaving no room for interpretation by those looking for a justification to support the death penalty.