Changes in the law and public opinion had their part to play in the quest to end capital punishment in the United States, but Catholic teaching also played a role, according to Robert Dunham, executive director of the Center. information on the death penalty.
“Pope Francis visited there last year, while Pope Francis says the question is not whether there is a humane way to carry out executions. to carry out executions, he said,” Dunham told Catholic News Service in a Dec. 19 article. 13 telephone interview. “At the same time, Pope Francis was insisting on what he called inadmissibility because it is inherently in conflict with human dignity.”
The revised article 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which came into force on August 2, calls capital punishment “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” and commits the Church to work “with determination” for global abolition. of the death penalty.
It was not the first time that the catechism was revised on the occasion of capital punishment.
The 1992 Catechism originally said: “Traditional Church teaching has recognized as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish wrongdoers with penalties proportionate to the gravity of the crime, without excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty.” At the same time, he said that “bloodless means” that could protect human life should be used when possible.
However, following the publication of Saint John Paul II’s encyclical “Evangelium Vitae” (“The Gospel of Life”) in 1995, section 2267 was revised in 1997 to say that cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”
“Catechism revisions are very important to abolitionists. And they are important both symbolically and practically. Symbolically, Pope Francis has become a moral beacon on this issue, even more so than John Paul,” Dunham said. .
“I was talking with Cardinal (Blase J.) Cupich (from Chicago); we did a podcast with him. He and I were on a panel in Chicago – the date, coincidentally, the date the catechism was changed – and Cardinal Cupich was explaining the evolution of Catholic theology on this issue. What Pope Francis has done is not only consistent, but is a logical extension of John Paul’s teaching on the death penalty and statements by Pope Benedict XVI against the death penalty,” he added.
“What I think is extremely different about Pope Francis’ statement and the new catechism is that it closes the door to excuses or exceptions that would have allowed the death penalty to take place,” he said. he continued. “The practical importance of the new catechism is that it commits the Church itself as an institution to formally oppose capital punishment. And on the ground this will mean more active involvement of bishops, cardinals , priests and laity.”
Dunham told CNS the real effects of the overhaul are being felt.
“We have already heard stories of officials trying to fight their moral scruples about capital punishment and their previous public stance on the death penalty as policy,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to see a change overnight; it’s not like Pope Francis is brandishing an encyclical and the laws will change. But we were already witnessing a dialogue, and it is a dialogue that changes mentalities. and seen one at a time among those in power who will make life and death decisions.”
Dunham added: “I think what we’re going to see is a continued erosion of support for the death penalty among former pro-death penalty Catholics, and although that’s not a large part of the population in the United States, it is a party that is disproportionately on the bench, in prosecutors’ offices, and in the halls of Congress and the legislature.”
The difference between “abolition and non-abolition,” he said, is “changing a few votes in a few states.”
“So one state at a time we could see the death penalty abolished,” he said. “In retrospect, we can speculate how many changed votes are the product of the new catechism. We will never know for sure. But we can be sure it will have an effect, because it has already had an effect. We know, through discussions with public officials, that it has already had an effect.”
On December 14, the center published “The Death Penalty in 2018: Year-End Report”. It notes that only Oklahoma, Missouri, and the U.S. government increased the number of death row prisoners in 2018. The number of death row prisoners nationwide declined, a streak that began in 2001.
Even in states where the death penalty is permitted, it requires county prosecutors to seek it in criminal trials. According to the report, 11 county prosecutors from the 30 counties where capital punishment is most often sought have been removed from their positions since 2015, including six this year in Dallas and Bexar (San Antonio) counties in Texas, the counties of ‘Orange and San Bernardino in California, St. Louis County in Missouri and Jefferson County (Birmingham) in Alabama.
Washington became the 20th state to ban capital punishment when a court banned it on October 11.