Sunday, November 2, 2014

Pope Francis Is Right; Capital Punishment is Wrong

Late last month, Pope Francis spoke out against the death penalty. Addressing a delegation from the International Association of Penal Law, the Pope said this: "All Christians and men of good faith are therefore called upon today to fight . . . for the abolition of the death penalty--whether it is legal or illegal, and in all its forms . . . ."

Pope Francis also spoke out against life sentences. In fact, in the Pope's mind, opposition to the death penalty is linked to opposition to life sentences, since a sentence for life without the opportunity for parole "is a hidden death sentence."

God bless Pope Francis for speaking out on the issue on  capital punishment. Pope John Paul II also opposed the death penalty, which he condemned as "both cruel and unnecessary." In a 1999 homily, John Paul said that"[m]odern society has the means of protecting itself without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform."

Unfortunately, capital punishment has not yet been condemned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  As Kathy Schiffer pointed out in her thoughtful blog essay on Pope Francis's comments, the Catechism states as follows:
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 the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.
The Catechism goes on to say this:
If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
In short, as Kathy Schiffer correctly summarized, the Church's present position is that capital punishment should be used only rarely.  

As a Catholic, I hope Pope Francis will continue to publicly oppose the death penalty in all civil societies.  Surely both Pope Francis and Pope John Paul II are right to condemn this heartless practice, which dehumanizes society as a whole.

Catholics confront the reality of capital punishment every time they attend a Mass or contemplate the crucifixes that many Catholics display in their homes. Christ died a horrible, gruesome death--hung naked on a tree and forced to lift his nail-implanted feet just to breath until he finally died of blood loss and asphyxiation. 

Surely, as Catholics, we are called upon to oppose any kind of execution by the instruments of government, whether by hanging, firing squad, electrocution, or lethal injection. In the way that he died, our Savior calls on us to respect the dignity of life--every life, even the life of the most hardened criminal. After all, Christ reassured St. Dismas on the cross that he would join Christ in paradise on the day of his death.

Catholic opposition to capital punishment is also a way of honoring all our saints and martyrs who died horrible deaths for their faith. Indeed, some of them died deaths by methods even  more cruel than the cross.  During the rein of Queen Elizabeth I, Catholics were publicly hanged, drawn, and quartered, which meant that they were first hanged by the neck, taken down while still conscious, and then eviscerated and sometimes even castrated while still alive.  Their bodies were then pulled apart (quartered) to the delight of watching crowds. St. Edward Campion was executed in just this way.

St. Edward Campion
Capital punishment, whether in its most benign or most malevolent form, degrades the societies that practice it, including the United States.  Our detractors point out that Catholics are far more vociferous  when opposing abortion than we are when speaking out against capital punishment; and they are right.

Let us follow the examples of Pope Francis and Pope John Paul II and speak out publicly against the death penalty. And let us support an amendment to the Catechism that makes it clear that capital punishment is contrary to the Catholic faith.


Kathy Schiffer, Pope Francis Opposes Capital Punishment; Calls Life Sentences for Violent Criminals "A Hidden Death Penalty." Seasons of Grace blog site, October 23, 2014. Accessible at:

The Death Penalty and the Catholic Church. Accessible at: