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Roman Catholic Church throws its weight behind efforts to outlaw the death penalty

02 August 2018


Pope Francis with a participant in the international pilgrimage of altar boys and girls, in St Peter’s Square on Tuesday 31 July 2018.  

Pope Francis with a participant in the international pilgrimage of altar boys and girls, in St Peter’s Square on Tuesday 31 July 2018.

THE Roman Catholic Church has revised its catechism to declare the death penalty “inadmissible” in all circumstances.

The change was approved on Thursday. The text of the new clause 2267 of the catechism reads:

“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’ [a quotation from Pope Francis, 11 October 2017] and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

The catechism’s previous wording was: “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”

The issuing of the new text was accompanied by a letter to the bishops from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which states: “The new formulation of number 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church desires to give energy to a movement towards a decisive commitment to favour a mentality that recognises the dignity of every human life and, in respectful dialogue with civil authorities, to encourage the creation of conditions that allow for the elimination of the death penalty where it is still in effect.”

Pope Francis signalled his abolitionist views early in his papal ministry. In September 2015, he addressed a joint session of the US Congress, quoting St Matthew 7.12: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” seeing it as a “clear direction” to protect and defend human life at every stage.

“This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, 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.”

Last month, Church of England bishops criticised the Home Office for failing to seek assurances from the United States that two jihadis brought up in the UK would be spared the death penalty.

Beside the moral arguments, there is no empirical evidence that capital punishment is an effective deterrent. A survey of homicide rates in the US over the two decades between 1980 and 2000 showed homicides in states that retained the death penalty to be 48 per cent to 101 per cent higher than in states that had abolished it.

The death penalty has been abolished in every state in Europe save Belarus.

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