U.S. Catholic bishops, advocacy groups welcome change on death penalty

Father Chris Ponnet, chaplain at the St. Camillus Center for Spiritual Care in Los Angeles, speaks during a rally protesting the death penalty in Anaheim, Calif., Feb. 25, 2017. (CNS photo/Andrew Cullen, Reuters) Father Chris Ponnet, chaplain at the St. Camillus Center for Spiritual Care in Los Angeles, speaks during a rally protesting the death penalty in Anaheim, Calif., Feb. 25, 2017. (CNS photo/Andrew Cullen, Reuters) 

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.”

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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.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Tim Donovan
2 weeks 3 days ago

As a pro-life advocate who has since youth in different ways worked to protect the innocent unborn from the violence of legal abortion as well as contributed to groups that offer compassionate, practical alternatives -to-abortion to pregnant women in need, I 'm glad that Pope Francis has made the Church's opposition to capital punishment unequivocal. I'm opposed to capital punishment for several reasons. First, because I think we as a society should find humane ways to address difficult social problems. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 159 prisoners sentenced to death in modern times were exonerated before their execution. I also agree with a 2014 ruling in which the Supreme Court stated that defendants who are mentally impaired have a "lesser ability" to defend themselves . As a Special Education teacher (now retired) who instructed children with brain damage, I 'm particularly concerned that people who are mentally disabled will be treated unfairly in our criminal justice system. Also, I 'm a pen pal with a man serving life imprisonment for a serious crime. During our years of correspondence, I 'm convinced that my friend, who is a devout Jehovah's Witness, has reformed his life. I believe that providing criminals with the opportunity to reform their lives rather than deliberately killing them is worthwhile. Finally, the American Civil Liberties Union (which I fairly often disagree with, particularly regarding their support for legal abortion) notes that many studies confirm that the race of the victim often drives death penalty decisions. Prosecutors are far more likely to seek the death penalty and juries are far more likely to return death sentences when the victims are white than when they are black. Such discrimination in our criminal justice system is surely immoral, especially when the issue involves deliberately taking the life even if a convicted criminal.

Christopher Lochner
2 weeks 3 days ago

But ...Francis also does not believe in life without parole, life sentences, extended sentences, or solitary confinement. It is interesting, as he speaks against capital puunishment, he actually favors little if any punishment. Does society not have a duty to defend itself? Apparently not.

Vincent Gaglione
2 weeks 2 days ago

I do not agree with Bishop Gomez’ distinction between abortion and capital punishment. He gives a kind of false emotional support to those who feel that their anti-abortion attitudes are somehow purer than those opposed to capital punishment. Does he also “give a pass” to anti-abortion legislative activists perhaps, that they need not seek legislation against capital punishment?

May I suggest that war also takes innocent human lives. Why won’t the Bishop then suggest that there is some equivalence between war and abortion?

I repeat what I have said elsewhere, in this pluralistic and diverse nation, seeking legislation to enforce our Catholic moral standards is not the way to proceed. Given the fact that we have so many Catholics who vehemently disagree with Church positions on abortion, capital punishment, war, etc., may I also suggest that the Bishops work to evangelize our own before we try to enforce our moral standards on others.

Al Cannistraro
2 weeks 2 days ago

It would be interesting and enlightening if someone would put the decision by Pope Francis to drop Catholic support for capital punishment into broad historical/doctrinal context.

For example, I notice that St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa discussion of murder, advocates killing sinners to protect the common good, which I take to be aimed at heretics and apostates (ST II-II, Q64. A2). Aquinas is more explicit regarding capital punishment in his discussion of heresy (ST II-II, Q11. A3). Likewise, the "Capital Punishment" entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia, written in 1911, seems to neither approve nor condemn it, but writes more or less approvingly of its imposition in the past by civil authorities with the cooperation of the Church. Also, to my knowledge, past Church approval of the imposition of capital punishment for heresy and apostasy, including the various Inquisitions, has not yet been officially renounced.

And unless I am mistaken, neither has torture for the purpose of eliciting confessions from heretics and apostates been properly renounced. As we know, torture was part of the procedures of the Inquisitions. Needless to say, torture disrespects human dignity as much as does capital punishment -- probably more so.

I think the new teaching on capital punishment would carry more weight with Catholics and others who are of a more authoritarian inclination if it were placed into the wider historical/doctrinal context that I am suggesting.

rose-ellen caminer
2 weeks 2 days ago

I'm not going to disagree with the Church's position opposing the death penalty; I'm deferring in obedience to the Pope on this one. But in my heart of hearts there is something offensive to me about a state that does NOT have a death penalty. It smacks of a survival of the fittest, only the strong survive, and only the strong aught to survive, ethos. At least that the penalty is on the books seems just to me, even if I WOULD want there to be a commutation of each condemned persons sentence, at the last minute, say. The notion of life in prison is truly inhuman[IMO] . If you are not capable of defending yourself against a stronger more powerful opponent out to kill you, well then too bad for you, you die, but he/she lives. There is something, if not almost complicit with, then almost in solidarity with, the powerful over the weak, with the perpetrator rather then the victim, about this.

What also bothers me is how too often opponents of the death penalty marginalize the family of victims. The narrative goes that ;of course the family is morally outraged at the murder of their loved ones; but that is no reason for the rest of us to be so equally outraged. The innocent family of the murdered , become in this narrative themselves morally compromised. As if the murder of the innocent, and their suffering, is not an outrageous violation of all of us , as if we should not be as outraged and offended as the family is. That is disingenuous and rather callous. Also when the sanctity and dignity of human beings made in Gods image in invoked [ and should be],even of guilty people, we never hear this said when it comes to killing" terrorists", or just "suspected terrorists" or innocent people around the terrorists who we send seal teams to kill or drop bombs on! Innocent people are dismissed as "collateral damage", while we are reminded of the dignity of people who are not innocent but have committed first degree murder. If the seamless garment of life is to be a credible moral bases of opposing the death penalty[ which I can subscribe to] then the issue of marginalizing and "othering" family victims has to go, as does acceptance of collateral damage, killing terrorists for revenge have to go too. That in wars innocent people are deliberately killed to hasten victory or to prevent more deaths down the road, treats human beings made in Gods image, innocent ones, as means to ends, and violates what we claim to be true for murderers, is their their inherent dignity as sacred beings. If you are going to talk about seamless garment of life [ which I can subscribe to] then do that. But if you oppose killing only for people who you feel some human connection to or are committed to feeling a connection to but allow it for those you don't, then there is a double standard goin on and its not about the sanctity of life or even about the commandment thou shalt not kill!

Vincent Gaglione
2 weeks 2 days ago

May I suggest that the example of the families of those murdered in the Charleston church, forgiveness for a man who has shown no remorse, is probably the best example of Christian response to outright evil that I have ever witnessed. Never heard praise for it from my Bishop or in my parish. Bet you didn't either. Sometimes I think that we Catholics have lost our Faith in the basic message of Jesus Christ because it is so difficult.

Tim Donovan
2 weeks 1 day ago

I agree that the families who forgave the unrepentant man who murdered their loved ones at the Charleston church is an exemplary example of Christian forgiveness (and mercy). Years ago, when I was more active in the pro-life movement (I've lived in a nursing home since late 2015) I knew a physician and his wife who were very compassionate and loving. The doctor's wife had become pregnant after being a victim of rape and released her baby for adoption. I admire this good woman for her willingness to show forgiveness by giving life to an innocent child who was conceived by the violence of a horrible crime. This couple demonstrated their faith in God, who created all life, in several ways. The doctor in the early 1980's founded the first crisis pregnancy center in our suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania County. The couple also welcomed into their home and sheltered pregnant women regardless of their race or religion. Also, the doctor wisely persuaded a local Catholic hospital administered by the Sisters of Mercy to provide (relatively ) low cost childbirth care to low income women. Finally, the couple adopted an infant who had anecephaly (I may have spelled the word wrong, but it's a severe disability when most of the human beings brain is missing). They lovingly cared for the infant until he peacefully passed away.

Vincent Gaglione
2 weeks 1 day ago

@TimDonovan Thank you for that beautiful and moving description of two very fervent anti-abortion opponents. Their behaviors match their beliefs. Their beliefs inform their behaviors. Were that we all are so faithful!

I had someone tell me yesterday that I am too generous to people, that the people I help need to make do for themselves, that some of them are probably scamming me. I say it not to praise myself but to illustrate the cynicism of fellow Christians and Catholics. That's why I am more interested in evangelizing Catholic Christians to give us members such as you describe than getting laws passed that half of our members don't and won't even observe. Our Bishops, clergy, religious, Catholic schools, and laity have failed us in that regard and no amount of political action will change my mind.

rose-ellen caminer
2 weeks ago

Absence remorse; a prerequisite for any authentic truth and reconciliation, perhaps the families who stunningly forgave Dylan Roof, saw what the jury failed to see perhaps in their blindness for wanting retribution for such atrocious crimes; that this was someone suffering from severe mental illness. He did not learn to hate from his parents and was not part of some hate group cell, so likely he was already on the fringe of mental health and got radicalized online. He looks just like that Newtown mass shooter, someone who we all acknowledge was clearly suffering from mental illness. If the death penalty is wrong for even those not mentally ill who commit atrocities, then how much more wrong for young people like Dylan Roof who due to youthful age alone ,his judgment moral and prudent is not mature, AND who are suffering from severe mental illness! That the jury could not see him as the families who forgave him saw him, is a true miscarriage of justice.

Tim O'Leary
1 week 6 days ago

Unlike many commentators on the left and right (for opposite reasons/hopes), I do not read any substantial change in the teaching, just an emphasis. But, I still have concerns re the wording. While it retains the prudential language (today, however...methods of incarceration...), I think it is the first instance of an introduction of a political objective "she works with determination for its abolition worldwide" into the Catechism. So, while the wording against abortion is much starker ("the moral evil of every procured abortion...unchangeable moral law...excommunication" etc.) it hasn't included a political objective.

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