Francis drew loud applause for saying the Golden Rule urging people to treat others as they would want to be treated gives people “responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of development,” a comment interpreted as his statement on abortion. The pope quickly followed by saying he feels this rule extends to those who have been sentenced for crimes, and when he called for the abolition of the death penalty, a smaller round of cheers again broke out.
His remarks arrived at a time when capital punishment on the United States is receiving renewed scrutiny, as botched executions over the last year and a high-profile Supreme Court ruling on lethal injection have focused more attention on how the country executes inmates. States across the country continue to wrestle with how to carry out executions and whether they should be putting inmates to death.
The death penalty is on the decline in the United States, with far fewer executions and death sentences last year than previous years. Still, the United States remains among the world’s leaders in capital punishment, ranking among the five countries that carry out the most executions worldwide, according to Amnesty International.
A majority of Americans support the death penalty, though that majority has been steadily declining since the mid-1990s. In the United States, a majority of Catholics also favor the death penalty, though by slightly smaller numbers than the broader American public, a Pew Research Center poll found in March. While 56 percent of Americans support the death penalty, 53 percent of Catholics support it, both figures that have fallen in recent years.
Six in 10 Americans believe the death penalty itself is morally acceptable, according to Gallup, but there is a wide partisan gulf in how the death penalty is viewed. Gallup also found that while 76 percent of Republicans say the death penalty is morally okay, only 43 percent of Democrats feel the same way. The Pew survey conducted earlier this year, meanwhile, showed that while most Republicans support the death penalty, most Democrats now oppose it.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), a GOP presidential candidate, told Politico after the pope’s speech that he disagrees with him on this issue.
“I spent a number of years in law enforcement dealing with some of the worst criminals, child rapists and murderers, people who’ve committed unspeakable acts,” said Cruz, a former Texas solicitor general. “I believe the death penalty is a recognition of the preciousness of human life, that for the most egregious crimes, the ultimate punishment should apply.”
The federal government and 31 states still have the death penalty on the books, but that number has sharply decreased in the last decade. A third of the states without the death penalty have banned it since 2007.
Most recently, Nebraska lawmakers voted earlier this year to make it the 19th state without the death penalty, though a group supporting the death penalty in that state says it has collected more than enough signatures to put the issue onto a ballot next year. Meanwhile, there are other states where the death penalty is effectively suspended due to moratoriums that have been declared, so relatively few states actually carry out executions.
Francis has called for the eradication of the death penalty before. In a letter to the International Commission Against the Death Penalty in March, Francis spoke out strongly against capital punishment, calling the practice “inhumane” and “unacceptable” regardless of the crime.
“It is an offense to the inviolability of life and to the dignity of the human person which contradicts God’s plan for man and for society and his merciful justice, and it fails to conform to any just purpose of punishment,” he wrote. “It does not render justice to the victims, but rather foments revenge.”
Francis wrote in March that the death penalty focuses on people “whose capacity to cause harm is not current…and who are deprived of their freedom.” The pope also said that the death penalty loses its legitimacy due to what he called the imperfection of human justice, noting that there could be errors in the process leading to a person’s execution.
In this argument, Francis is echoing the views of many who have questioned a death penalty system that has resulted in numerous innocent people sentenced to death. When the Supreme Court considered the issue of lethal injection earlier this year, the case turned into a larger debate over the death penalty itself. Justice Stephen G. Breyer said in a highly-publicized dissent that it appeared “highly likely” the death penalty itself was unconstitutional, pointing to innocent people who have gotten death sentences and a seemingly arbitrary system.
While Francis called for the death penalty’s abolition on Thursday, the four Supreme Court justices seated in front of him — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor — did not join the applause or visibly react. Ginsburg joined in Breyer’s dissent questioning the constitutionality of the death penalty earlier this year, while she and Sotomayor dissented from a decision upholding a controversial lethal injection protocol.
Catholicism generally opposes the death penalty. However, according to Catholic teaching, the death penalty is acceptable if needed to defend human lives. Such conditions in modern times are “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent,” Pope John Paul II said.
Charles Chaput, the archbishop of Philadelphia who will host Francis when the pope makes his way there this weekend, has called for an end to the death penalty. In a column he wrote a decade ago, Chaput also noted the church’s longtime acceptance of the practice in some cases.
“The death penalty is not intrinsically evil,” he wrote in the 2005 column, published while he was archbishop of Denver. “Both Scripture and long Christian tradition acknowledge the legitimacy of capital punishment under certain circumstances. The Church cannot repudiate that without repudiating her own identity.”
Still, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has called for the abolition of the death penalty. The group’s chairmen issued a statement earlier this year renewing a stance Catholic bishops took in 2005.
“The Church’s opposition to the death penalty should not be seen as indifference to the sinfulness of crime and attacks on human life, but as an affirmation of the sacredness of all life even for those who have committed the most heinous of crimes,” Thomas G. Wenski, Archbishop of Miami, and Seán Cardinal O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston, said in the statement this summer.
In his address Thursday, Francis directly referenced this statement by the U.S. bishops and said he stood by their efforts. His comments also seemed to touch on the issue of sentencing people to life in prison without parole, which can be an alternative sentence in some capital cases.
“Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation,” the pope said Thursday.
Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.
[This post has been updated. First published: 10:35 a.m.]