VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Building on the development of the Catholic Church’s teaching against the death penalty, Pope Francis has ordered a revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to affirm that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” and to commit the Church to work for its abolition throughout the world.
The catechism’s paragraph on capital punishment, 2267, had already been updated by Saint John Paul II in 1997 to reinforce his skepticism about the need to use the death penalty in the modern world and, in particular, to affirm the importance of protecting all human life.
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Announcing the change on August 2, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said: “The new text, following in the footsteps of the teaching of John Paul II in ‘Evangelium Vitae’, affirms that ending the life of a criminal as punishment for a crime is inadmissible because it undermines the dignity of the person, a dignity that is not lost even after committing the most serious crimes”.
“Evangelium Vitae” (“The Gospel of Life”) was Saint John Paul’s 1995 encyclical on the dignity and sanctity of all human life. The encyclical led to an update of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which he originally promulgated in 1992 and which recognized “the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish wrongdoers with penalties proportionate to the seriousness of the crime, without excluding, in extremely serious cases, the death penalty.
At the same time, the original version of the catechism still advocated the use of “bloodless means” when possible to punish criminals and protect citizens.
The catechism will now say: “The use of the death penalty by legitimate authority, after a fair trial, has long been considered an appropriate response to the seriousness of certain crimes and an acceptable means, although extreme, to safeguard the common good.
“Today, however, there is a growing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the importance of state-imposed criminal sanctions. Finally, more effective detention systems have been developed, which ensure the protection due to citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption”, continues the new section.
The modification of the text by Pope Francis concludes: “Accordingly, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person’, and she works with determination for its abolition throughout the world.
In his statement, Cardinal Ladaria noted that St. John Paul, retired Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis had all spoken out against capital punishment and called for clemency for those on death row on numerous occasions. .
The development of Church doctrine away from seeing the death penalty as a possibly legitimate punishment for the most serious crimes, the Cardinal said, “focuses primarily on the clearer awareness of the Church of the respect due to all human life.In this line, John Paul II affirmed: “Even a murderer does not lose his personal dignity, and God himself undertakes to guarantee it.
Pope Francis specifically called for the catechism to be changed in October during a speech at the Vatican commemorating the 25th anniversary of the text’s promulgation.
The death penalty, however it is carried out, he said, “is in itself contrary to the gospel, because one willfully decides to take away a human life, which is always sacred in the eyes of the Creator. and of which, in the final analysis, only God can be the true judge and guarantor”.
Cardinal Ladaria also noted that the popes were not the only Catholics becoming increasingly aware of how the modern use of the death penalty conflicts with Church teaching on dignity. of human life; the same position, he said, has been “expressed more and more widely in the teaching of pastors and in the sensitivity of the people of God.”
In particular, he said, Catholic opposition to the death penalty is based on an “understanding that a person’s dignity is not lost even after committing the most serious crimes”, a deeper understanding that criminal sanctions should be aimed at the rehabilitation of the criminal and a recognition that governments have the ability to effectively detain criminals, thereby protecting their citizens.
The cardinal’s note also cites a letter Pope Francis wrote in 2015 to the International Commission Against the Death Penalty. In the letter, the pope called capital punishment “cruel, inhuman and degrading” and said it “does not bring justice to the victims, but only foment revenge.”
Moreover, in a “modern state of law, the death penalty represents a failure” because it obliges the state to kill in the name of justice, had written the pope. On the other hand, he said, it is a method frequently used by “totalitarian regimes and fanatical groups” to eliminate “political dissidents, minorities” and anyone else considered a threat to their power. and their goals.
Furthermore, Pope Francis noted that “human justice is imperfect” and said the death penalty loses all legitimacy in penal systems where miscarriage of justice is possible.
“The new formulation of number 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church,” said Cardinal Ladaria, “wishes to energize a movement towards a decisive commitment to foster a mentality that recognizes the dignity of all human life and, in a respectful dialogue with civil authorities, to encourage the creation of conditions allowing the abolition of the death penalty where it is still in force.