Catholic leaders and anti-death penalty advocates welcomed the announcement on Thursday that Pope Francis has revised the church’s catechism to state that the death penalty is no longer admissible.
In a statement released Friday, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said, "Today, we welcome the Holy Father’s decision to revise the Catechism and its explanation of the Church’s teaching on the death penalty. All human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, and the dignity bestowed on them by the Creator cannot be extinguished, even by grave sin.”
They added: “For decades, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has called for the end of the death penalty in the United States. As the revised Catechism states, ‘more effective systems of detention…which ensure the due protection of citizens: exist, ones that also maintain the human dignity of all.’”
Pope Francis has revised the church’s catechism to state that the death penalty is no longer admissible.
In Chicago on Thursday Cardinal Blase Cupich noted that the announcement “does not come as a surprise” to close observers of the pope—adding that such a change has been in the works for a number of decades.
“By adding this language to the Catechism, the pope has made official a development of church teaching that gained steam under Pope John Paul II, who repeatedly described capital punishment as virtually never acceptable, and called for an end to state-sanctioned executions the world over,” the cardinal said.
The Chicago archbishop made his comments during an event at the annual meeting of the American Bar Association in Chicago, on the same day the Vatican announced the changes.
Cardinal Cupich highlighted the “wide range of systemic injustices” involved in carrying out the death penalty, including racism, the execution of innocent people and “evolving standards of decency” that have made the death penalty anachronistic.
“We have to do all we can to make sure that no one is excluded, and we are especially to be attentive to those who live at the margins of society, the poor, the vulnerable, the weak, those whose lives are at risk, including those on death row,” he said, “because God’s plan is to bring people together and leave no one behind.”
Saying that “we live in an era when the dignity of human life is threatened,” the cardinal tied the church’s opposition to the death penalty to a range of other issues that the church says threaten human life, including the selling of organs, hostility to immigrants, abortion and terrorism. He said defending life more broadly is easier in “a state that rejects in principle the execution of even those individuals whose crimes are unspeakable bears powerful witness to the unconditional nature of the right to life.
Cardinal Cupich highlighted the “wide range of systemic injustices” involved in carrying out the death penalty.
“For if we protect the sanctity of life for the least worthy among us, we surely witness to the need to protect the lives of those who are the most innocent, and most vulnerable,” he said.
The head of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Archbishop José Gomez, said in a statement that he has long opposed the use of the death penalty and welcomed the change.
“The Church has come to understand that from a practical standpoint, governments now have the ability to protect society and punish criminals without executing violent offenders,” the archbishop said in a statement. “The Church now believes that the traditional purposes of punishment—defending society, deterring criminal acts, rehabilitating criminals and penalizing them for their actions—can be better achieved by nonviolent means.”
But he disputed the notion that the death penalty is now on the same moral plane as other issues important to pro-life activists.
“The Catechism is not equating capital punishment with the evils of abortion and euthanasia,” he said. “Those crimes involve the direct killing of innocent life and they are always gravely immoral. By definition, the lives of almost all those on death row are not ‘innocent.’”
But he said showing mercy even to those who “have committed evil” is “how we are called to follow Jesus Christ.”
According to a 2016 poll, 46 percent of U.S. Catholics oppose the death penalty.
The pope’s changes to the catechism includes a line that the church works “for its abolition worldwide.” He may have his work cut out for him in the United States, where Catholics are split on the issue.
According to a 2016 poll by the Pew Research Center, 46 percent of U.S. Catholics oppose the death penalty for those convicted of murder, while 43 percent support it. (Among white Catholics, 54 percent support the death penalty while 39 percent oppose it.)
Writing in First Things, Edward Feser said the pope’s announcement “appeared to contradict two millennia of clear and consistent scriptural and Catholic teaching.”
He said the revised teaching might lead to other changes.
“A reversal on capital punishment is the thin end of a wedge that, if pushed through, could sunder Catholic doctrine from its past—and thus give the lie to the claim that the Church has preserved the Deposit of Faith whole and undefiled,” he wrote.
Still, a number of anti-death penalty groups also welcomed the pope’s news on Thursday.
“This revision affirms that every person, no matter the harm they have suffered or caused, has God-given dignity,” the anti-death penalty group Catholic Mobilizing Network said in a statement.
Hannah Cox, of the group Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, said in a statement, “The pope’s announcement reflects what we are seeing in our work with conservative Catholics who increasingly understand the death penalty is a failed and unnecessary policy that does not value life and does nothing to make our society safer.”
And the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty said it was “heartened” by the pope’s decision.
“The death penalty is cruel and beneath our collective humanity,” Gregory Joseph, the group’s communications director, said in a statement. The pope’s words, he said, “express the heart and soul of our struggle.”