Death penalty is 'contrary to the Gospel,' pope says

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

The death penalty, no matter how it is carried out, “is,
in itself, contrary to the Gospel,” Pope Francis said.

Marking the 25th anniversary of the Catechism of the
Catholic Church at the Vatican Oct. 11, Pope Francis said the catechism’s
discussion of the death penalty, already formally amended by St. John Paul II,
needs to be even more explicitly against capital punishment.

Capital punishment, he said, “heavily wounds human
dignity” and is an “inhuman measure.”

“It is, in itself, contrary to the Gospel, because a
decision is voluntarily made to suppress a human life, which is always sacred
in the eyes of the Creator and of whom, in the last analysis, only God can be
the true judge and guarantor,” the pope said.

The death penalty, he said, not only extinguishes a human
life, it extinguishes the possibility that the person, recognizing his or her
errors, will request forgiveness and begin a new life.

The church’s position on the death penalty, he said, is one
example of how church teaching is not static, but grows and deepens along with
a growth in faith and in response to modern questions and concerns.

In the past, when people did not see any other way for
society to defend itself against serious crime and when “social maturity”
was lacking, he said, people accepted the death penalty as “a logical
consequence of the application of justice.”

In fact, he said, the church itself believed that, and the
death penalty was a possible punishment in the Papal States. It was only in 1969
that Pope Paul VI formally banned the death penalty, even though it had not
been imposed since 1870.

“Let us take responsibility for the past and
recognize” that use of the death penalty was “dictated by a mentality
that was more legalistic than Christian,” Pope Francis said.
“Remaining neutral today when there is a new need to reaffirm personal
dignity would make us even more guilty.”

The first edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church,
published by St. John Paul II in 1992, recognized “as well-founded the
right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of
penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases
of extreme gravity, the death penalty.” At the same time, it said,
“bloodless means” that could protect human life should be used when

But the language was formally changed in 1997 after St. John
Paul II issued his pro-life encyclical, “Evangelium Vitae.” Since
then, the catechism has specified that the use of the death penalty is permissible
only when the identity and responsibility of the condemned is certain and when capital
punishment “is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives
against the unjust aggressor.”

The development of church teaching, Pope Francis insisted,
is not the same as contradicting or changing church teaching. “Tradition
is a living reality and only a partial vision would lead to thinking of ‘the
deposit of faith’ as something static.”

“The word of God,” he said, “cannot be saved in mothballs as if it were an old blanket to protect against insects.”

The Christian faith, he said, always has insisted on the
dignity of human life from the moment of conception to natural death. So, the
church has a continuing obligation to speak out when it realizes something that
was accepted in the past actually contradicts church teaching.

“Therefore, it is necessary to reiterate that, no matter
how serious the crime committed, the death penalty is inadmissible, because it
attacks the inviolability and dignity of the person,” Pope Francis said.

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Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden.

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