Pope Francis used his superpowers for good today, declaring the death penalty to be wrong in all cases. It’s not just rhetoric. He changed the Catechism of the Catholic Church — the religion’s official rulebook — to reflect the new belief. That’s no small thing. If you’re familiar with papal infallibility, this is one of those cases in which it actually applies.
Previously, the Church had said execution was permissible in some circumstances, like if someone’s death meant other lives could be saved. That’s no longer good enough, said the pope. (The pope is infallible. His predecessors? Wrong wrong wrong.)
The catechism now will read: “Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.
“Today, however, there is an increasing 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 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,” the new section continues.
Pope Francis’ change to the text concludes: “Consequently, the church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, 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.”
This is what being “pro-life” ought to reflect. The Church obviously takes it too far in the other direction, jeopardizing the health of women in order to save fetuses, but in this case, they got it right.
Critics of the death penalty have long argued that executing even an objectively horrific person doesn’t solve the root problem. Beyond that, the death penalty disproportionately affects people of color and there are examples of people who have been killed despite evidence pointing in the other direction. It’s good to see religion finally catching up to the facts.
Will it create a change among Church members? They certainly have a long way to go. In 2016, the Pew Research Center found that 43% of Catholics (and 54% of white Catholics) supported the death penalty for people convicted of murder. If Pope Francis’ declaration moves people in the other direction, that’s wonderful. Then again, Catholics are notorious for ignoring Church rules — half of them say abortion should be legal in all or most cases despite the Church saying it’s forbidden. More than half of Catholics in the U.S. also support same-sex marriage despite the Church fighting against it.
So Catholics don’t listen to the pope when they know the pope is wrong. Religious rules be damned. But when it comes to the death penalty, Pope Francis is right, and Catholics would be wise to follow his lead.
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