By Father Gerald D. Coleman, P.S.S.
Adjunct professor, Graduate Department of Pastoral Ministries, Santa Clara University
A little noticed titanic change took place on Oct. 11 in a major talk to cardinals, bishops, priests, nuns, catechists and ambassadors from around the world. Pope Francis declared that the death penalty is “contrary to the Gospel,” and ordered a revision in the Catechism to reflect this change in Catholic teaching.
While the scales of public opinion have shifted in recent times favoring the abolition of the death penalty, numerous people still hold to its necessity, usefulness and morality for punishing serious crimes. On the global scene, 99 countries have abolished the death penalty, outnumbering those who permit it. Including California, 32 states in the U.S. consider capital punishment legal.
Francis is challenging those who affirm capital punishment to see it as an inhuman measure that humiliates personal dignity in whatever form it is carried out. Suppressing a human life that is always sacred, no matter what crimes a person might commit, is always wrong and an affront to an individual’s inherent human dignity. Putting a person to death, Francis asserts, amounts to cutting off a criminal’s “possibility of a moral and existential redemption.”
According to a 2016 Pew Research poll, 43% of U.S. Catholics support the death penalty. Francis’ teaching addresses a flock divided especially since Popes and Catholic teaching in the past allowed for a difference of opinion on this issue.
The Pope explained that this teaching is not in contradiction to Catholic tradition as the church has come to a higher understanding of the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. Francis’ pro-life challenge will create consternation and rejection from those who support the death penalty and those who maintain he is contradicting an age-old teaching of the Catholic Church.
Supporting capital punishment, secular and religious traditions have drawn from centuries-old reasoning rooted in scripture, Saint Augustine, and Saint Thomas Aquinas. The death penalty was contemplated for murder (Exodus 21:24), blasphemy (Lev 24:16), idolatry (Ex 22:19), working on the Sabbath (Ex 31:15), kidnapping (Ex 21:16), homosexual activity (Lv 20:13) bestiality (Ex 22:19) and adultery (Lv 20:10). Saint Paul is cited as Augustine’s authority that a governing authority is the “servant of God to execute God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Rm 13:1-4) Aquinas argued that the criminal was akin to a poisoned limb and could be cut off to safeguard the community.
While biblical and moral reflection generally affirmed the legitimacy of capital punishment, early Christianity affirmed the Mosaic precept against all killing. Capital punishment was considered irreconcilable with Christian faith. Judaic and Islamic traditions share this belief as “God only is the lord of life.”
This revised teaching of Pope Francis reiterates recent papal statements by affirming that a deeper understanding of the Gospel sees a contradiction between the death penalty and the Gospel of life. In line with Pope John Paul II’s teaching in The Gospel of Life (1995), Francis is summoning us to view the death penalty “in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity.”
The promotion of human dignity should lie at the heart of a just civilization. To bring about a culture of life, all persons and societies must proclaim the inalienable worth of every individual.
Such a proclamation demands a concerted effort at the level of family, schools, media, and the churches to attack the root of crime and moral decay, which includes the abolition of the death penalty which devalues human life and cancels the entire dynamic of hope for repentance, conversion and at least some attempt at reparation.