The Vatican announced today that the Catechism of the Catholic Church – the compilation of official Catholic Church teaching – now teaches that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” and that the Church “works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”
A Letter to the Bishops announcing the change to Catechism 2267 explains that the revision evolved from the teachings of Pope Francis’s two predecessors, who called for a consensus to end the death penalty and condemned it as cruel and unnecessary.
Pope Francis has repeatedly spoken out against capital punishment, including in an address to the United States Congress in 2015 in which he urged global abolition of the death penalty “since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.”
He also strongly condemned capital punishment in a letter to the International Commission Against the Death Penalty, calling the death penalty “inhumane” and “unacceptable” regardless of the crime. Observing that capital punishment “does not render justice to the victims, but rather fosters vengeance,” Pope Francis also wrote that capital punishment must be rejected because it is discriminatory and unreliable.
Pope Francis asked for the change “so as to better reflect” the clearer awareness of the church “for the respect due to every human life.” The revised Catechism acknowledges that while the Church countenanced capital punishment in limited circumstances in the past, times have changed.
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 major shift in the Church’s teaching puts increased pressure on elected officials worldwide to end executions, and Vatican experts predict that abolition of the death penalty will become a “banner social justice issue” for the Catholic Church.
As Sergio D’Elia, the secretary of Hands Off Cain, an association that works to abolish capital punishment worldwide, told the New York Times, “Now even the most far-flung parish priest will teach this to young children.”