Pope Francis Changes The Church's Stance On The Death Penalty

It's a sharp divergence.

Pope Francis has declared the death penalty "inadmissible" in all cases, a significant change in Catholic teachings that could send shockwaves through judicial systems across the globe. 

Though the Pope has previously expressed opposition to capital punishment, the Vatican's announcement that the teaching would be added to the Catechism has large-scale ramifications: it means capital punishment is now prohibited in the teachings that more than one billion Catholics follow worldwide. The church says it will work to end capital punishment across the globe. 

"There is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes," the Vatican's new teaching says. "In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption." 

OSWIECIM,AUSCHWITZ, POLAND - JULY 27, 2016: Pope Franciszek during the visit in the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz - Birkenau. Poland
OSWIECIM,AUSCHWITZ, POLAND - JULY 27, 2016: Pope Franciszek during the visit in the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz - Birkenau. Poland Shutterstock / praszkiewicz

Because of these changes, the Church said, it now teaches that "'the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person', and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide."  

In the United States, the death penalty is legal in 31 states, according to The New York Times. Amnesty International estimates that more than 20,000 people are on death row worldwide and that more than 80 percent of the 993 executions carried out in 2017 occurred in the Arab world. In 2017, 23 inmates were executed in the United States, according to Death Penalty Information Center

Other civil rights groups have long been opposed to the death penalty because of its irreversible nature. One controversial study carried out in the United States estimated that as many as 4.1 percent of the people on death row were innocent, according to TIME. In 2014, that translated to about 120 of the approximately 3,000 people on death row in the United States. In 2016, just 54 percent of the country supported the death penalty for someone convicted of murder, the lowest recorded approval rating ever in the United States. 53 percent of Catholics supported it as well, according to Pew, a number that may change after the Vatican's most recent declaration. 

"I think what this does is get people to reexamine their own attitudes and convictions," John Carr, the director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, told The Washington Post. "The death penalty in the United States probably will not come to an end through an act of Congress or a Supreme Court decision. It will essentially fade away as prosecutors don't ask for it, juries don't recommend it, and the rest of us don't support it."

Cover image via Philip Chidell / Shutterstock.com.

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