With Vatican death penalty announcement, Pope focuses church on life

The Aug. 3 Vatican announcement of the church’s rescinding of its conditional acceptance of the death penalty serves as a shout for life that should awaken the consciences of Catholics, especially in the United States.

Pope Francis ordered that the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” be revised to assert “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” and committed the church to working toward its abolition worldwide.

The change in the catechism reinforces the church’s place as the pre-eminent voice promoting a culture of life and as a champion of the vulnerable in today’s throwaway culture, where life is seen as something easily discarded. In making the decision to unequivocally proclaim that capital punishment is never an answer – and to pledge to work to eradicate the death penalty worldwide  – Pope Francis has broadened the church’s inviolable stand for the sanctity of human life.

This change should not come as a surprise, as the Holy Father signaled his intention in marking the catechism’s 25th anniversary last October. The death penalty “is, in itself, contrary to the Gospel,” he said at the time, adding that capital punishment “heavily wounds human dignity” and is an “inhuman measure.”

  The catechism had provided political leaders and judges throughout the U.S., including Louisiana as one of 31 states where the death penalty is legal, with cover for a position that seems at odds with the presumption of the right to and respect for life from womb to tomb.  The catechism had proclaimed the “inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual” as “a constitutive element of a civil society” (No. 2773), noted that the “Fifth Commandment forbids direct and intentional killing as gravely sinful” and states that the “murderer and those who cooperate voluntarily in murder commit a sin that cries out to heaven for vengeance” (No. 2268). And, yet, it did not “exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor” (No. 2267).

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.

“Consequently,” the text concludes, “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.”

As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said, in noting its decades-long opposition to the death penalty, “the new section in the catechism is consistent with the statements of Pope Francis’ teaching on the death penalty … as well as his predecessors. Pope Benedict XVI urged ‘the attention of society’s leaders to the need to make every effort to eliminate the death penalty,’ and Pope St. John Paul II observed that ‘not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this.’”

In the case of capital punishment, it is the state that commits “murder” that was, until this announcement, sanctioned, though only in extreme cases, by the catechism. But that sliver of acceptance of state-sanctioned killing became a wedge to open American society to actively choosing death broadly where other solutions were and are possible to protect society and served as another way of indicating that some segments of society were not worthy of their lives being respected and protected.

The death penalty became yet another nail in a societal foundation built, in part, on disrespect for life, whether it is for those incarcerated on death row, the unborn through abortion or the ill and elderly through euthanasia. 

Make no mistake about it, when we make active choices against any human life, we make it easier as a society to draw distinctions between those fully human and connected to us, and those not. Drawing distinctions of who is worthy of the fruits of society and respect is even playing out today in the U.S. in the debate on immigration and whether and how to welcome and assimilate the stranger in our midst.

In making this pronouncement on the death penalty, the Holy Father is aligning the church closer to what Jesus is calling us to in giving “to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Mk 12.17, Mt 22.21). 

In those Gospel words, Jesus frames how we should think about civil authority and appropriate obedience to the state, even in the world today. The state has rights for ordering temporal affairs and upholding social order, and we as citizens have responsibilities to the state. But those rights and responsibilities are only for what is “Caesar’s” and not that which belongs to God. 

When the state attacks human dignity and threatens human life, which is God’s, then Christians have a duty to stand with God to demand respect and protection of all life.

As the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” points out, “the citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel” (No. 2242).

In standing against capital punishment and pledging the church’s efforts to eradicate it worldwide, the Holy Father, while accepting we live in a world of injustice and brutality, calls Catholics and non-Catholics alike to see that the answer is not to cede absolute authority over life to the state, but rather to demand of our political and judicial leaders that the world must be built in accordance with God’s justice where everyone has a right that is accepted to a full, human life.

Mark Lombard is the business manager of the Clarion Herald and a contributing writer. He can be reached at mlombard@clarionherald.org.

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