Pope declares death penalty inadmissible, changing Church’s stance

(Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images)

Pope Francis has declared that the death penalty is never admissible and that the Catholic Church will work towards its abolition around the world, the Vatican formally announced Thursday.

The change, which has been added to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, makes official a position that the Pope has articulated since he became pontiff.

The Church now teaches that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” and states that it will “work with determination towards its abolition worldwide,” the Vatican said.

The Catholic Church’s teaching on the death penalty has been slowly evolving since the time of Pope John Paul II, who served from 1978 to 2005.

In his Christmas message in 1998, he wished “the world the consensus concerning the need for urgent and adequate measures … to end the death penalty.”

His successor Benedict XVI, in a document published in November 2011, called on society’s leaders “to make every effort to eliminate the death penalty.”

Francis then wrote in a letter to the President of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty in March 2015 that “today capital punishment is unacceptable, however serious the condemned’s crime may have been.”

He added that the death penalty “entails cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment” and said it was to be rejected “due to the defective selectivity of the criminal justice system and in the face of the possibility of judicial error.”

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke told CNN that the change was important but should not come as a surprise.

“It was expected for a long time starting with John Paul II,” he said. “He had a document, the Gospel of Life, in which he said it is essentially the conditions with which were once considered okay for allowing the death penalty, have basically disappeared.

“The key point here is really human dignity, the Pope is saying that no matter how grievous the crime, someone never loses his or her human dignity. One of the rationales for the death penalty in Catholic teachings historically was to protect society.

“Obviously, the state still has that obligation, that is not being taken away here, but they can do that in other ways.”