Pope Francis has stepped into the perennial debate among theologians, jurists, and human rights advocates over the use of the death penalty. At the Vatican on March 20, the pontiff met with Federico Mayor Zaragoza – Spanish diplomat, poet, and politician – who presides over the International Commission against the Death Penalty. After giving thanks to Mayor and other members of the delegation, the Pope him a letter in which he reflected on the death penalty and human dignity.
Pope Francis wrote, “The Church's Magisterium (ed. teaching authority), based on the Sacred Scripture and the thousand-year experience of the People of God, defends life from conception to natural end, and supports full human dignity inasmuch as it represents the image of God. Human life is sacred as, from its beginning, from the first instant of conception, it is the fruit of God's creating action.”
“States kill when they apply the death penalty, when they send their people to war or when they carry out extrajudicial or summary executions. They can also kill by omission, when they fail to guarantee to their people access to the bare essentials for life. … On some occasions it is necessary to repel an ongoing assault proportionately to avoid damage caused by the aggressor, and the need to neutralise him could lead to his elimination; this is a case of legitimate defence.”
The Pope said that legitimate defense is not something that can be applied to “the social level, without risk of misinterpretation. When the death penalty is applied, it is not for a current act of aggression, but rather for an act committed in the past. It is also applied to persons whose current ability to cause harm is not current, as it has been neutralised – they are already deprived of their liberty.” In this, Pope Francis echoed the word of his predecessor Pope John Paul II who in 1995 wrote in Evangelium Vitae “The dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform.”
Said Pope Francis, “Nowadays the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed. It is an offence against the inviolability of life and the dignity of the human person, which contradicts God's plan for man and society, and his merciful justice, and impedes the penalty from fulfilling any just objective. It does not render justice to the victims, but rather fosters vengeance.”
“For the rule of law, the death penalty represents a failure, as it obliges the state to kill in the name of justice. … Justice can never be wrought by killing a human being. … With the application of the death penalty, the convict is denied the possibility of to repent or make amends for the harm caused; the possibility of confession, by which a man expresses his inner conversion, and contrition, the gateway to atonement and expiation, to reach an encounter with God's merciful and healing justice. It is furthermore frequently used by totalitarian regimes and groups of fanatics for the extermination of political dissidents, minorities, and any subject labelled as 'dangerous' or who may be perceived as a threat to its power or to the achievement of its ends.”
The use of the death penalty is something that has sparked intense debate within the Catholic Church for centuries. Indeed, less than 200 years ago, the death penalty was imposed at the Vatican itself for crimes such as the murder of priests. There was at the Vatican at one time a special fraternity dedicated to offering the sacrament of penance to the condemned before the carrying out of the sentence.
The leader of the Catholic Church also condemned the use of life sentences since it means that there is no possibility of freedom for prisoners. A life sentence, said the Pope, serves to “deprive detainees not only of their freedom, but also of hope.” Moreover, he said, a life sentence is a “covert death penalty.”
The Pope was not speaking with his full moral authority since he did not invoke the principle of infallibility or speak ex cathedra – from the chair of St Peter. The doctrine of infallibility was formalized in 1870 during the First Vatican Council, but the clearest use of the ex cathedra principle did not come until 1950.
Catholic thinkers have cited holy scripture and subsequent theologians to support the use of capital punishment. For example, the well-known priest Rev. C. John McCloskey recently wrote “Most importantly, the Catholic Church's Magisterium does not and never has advocated unqualified abolition of the death penalty. The U.S. bishops have conceded that Catholic teaching has accepted the principle that the state has the right to take the life of a person guilty of an extremely serious crime. Even the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin – hardly a conservative – never stated that every criminal has a right to continue living, nor did he deny that the state has the right in some cases to execute the guilty. St. John Paul II, although opposed to most applications of the death penalty, thought the same.”
The bishops of the United States have frequently applauded the abolition or attenuation of the death penalty in the United States. Most recently, for example, Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston and Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami applauded an announcement by the U.S. Supreme Court to review the protocols used in administering lethal injections to convicted criminals. Said Cardinal O'Malley, “Society can protect itself in ways other than the use of the death penalty,” He added that he hoped that the action of the Supreme Court will lead to "the recognition that institutionalized practices of violence against any person erode reverence for the sanctity of every human life. Capital punishment must end.”