Pope Francis changed the Catholic Church's stance on the death penalty in a new policy published Thursday, saying it is “inadmissible” because it “attacks” the inherent dignity of all humans.
The Vatican said the pontiff approved a change to the catechism, which gives worshippers a go-to guide for official Catholic Church teachings on subjects ranging from the sacraments to sex. Previously, the catechism said the church didn’t exclude capital punishment “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”
Francis announced his intention to change church teaching on capital punishment in October. The new text was approved in May and published Thursday.
The new text, contained in Catechism No. 2267, says the previous policy is outdated and that there are other ways to protect the common good.
It says: "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 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."
The text is taken from Francis’ address to a meeting organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization that took place on October 11 last year, the Catholic Herald reports.
In an accompanying letter explaining the change, the head of the Vatican’s doctrine office said the development of Catholic doctrine on capital punishment didn’t contradict prior teaching, but rather was an evolution of it.
“If, in fact the political and social situation of the past made the death penalty an acceptable means for the protection of the common good, today the increasing understanding that the dignity of a person is not lost even after committing the most serious crimes,” said Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
According to a 2016 Pew Research poll, U.S. Catholics are more opposed to the death penalty than most major religious groups. Only 43 percent of Catholics supported capital punishment, compared with a majority of white mainline Protestants (60 percent) and white evangelical Protestants (69 percent).
The same poll showed that 49 percent of Americans overall support the death penalty, the lowest in more than four decades.
Francis has long railed against the death penalty, insisting it can never be justified, no matter how heinous the crime. He has also long made prison ministry a mainstay of his vocation. On nearly every foreign trip, Francis has visited with inmates to offer words of solidarity and hope, and he still stays in touch with a group of Argentine inmates he ministered to during his years as archbishop of Buenos Aires.
Contributing: The Associated Press; Religion News Service