The church’s updated teaching describes capital punishment as “inadmissible” and an attack on the “dignity of the person.” Previously, the church allowed for the death penalty in very rare cases, only as a means of “defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”
Francis has for years been a vocal critic of the death penalty, calling it an “inhuman measure.” The Argentine pontiff has pointed to the church’s stance on the death penalty as evidence of how the Vatican can evolve: The church for centuries permitted executions, but in 1997, John Paul II dramatically narrowed the standards for when the punishment was permissible.
Francis’s latest move places the issue toward the forefront of his own efforts to overhaul and modernize the Roman Catholic Church’s approach to social justice.
“There is no doubt the pope wants politicians to pay attention to this,” said John Gehring, the Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington. “He is not just speaking internally. The pope wants to elevate this as a definitive pro-life issue.”
The full political significance of the new teaching stands to emerge slowly, as priests and bishops speak more clearly about the death penalty to planet’s 1.2 billion Catholics. But in part because the practice has already been abolished in most countries with large Catholic populations — including throughout the European Union and across nearly all of South America — the United States is among the places where the shift could have the greatest consequence.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Catholic, presides over the state that carries out the highest number of executions. Several states have recently opened new discussions about abolishing the punishment. And in New Hampshire, one of the most heavily Catholic states, Gov. Chris Sununu in June vetoed a legislature-backed repeal of the death penalty, saying he didn’t want to send a message that the worst criminals might be “guaranteed leniency.”
John Carr, the director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, said the Vatican change could have a somewhat indirect effect. “I think what this does is get people to reexamine their own attitudes and convictions,” Carr said. “The death penalty in the United States probably will not come to an end through an act of Congress or a Supreme Court decision. It will essentially fade away as prosecutors don’t ask for it, juries don’t recommend it, and the rest of us don’t support it.”
According to the Pew Research Center, public support for the death penalty in the United States has ticked up slightly since hitting a four-decade low in 2016, with 54 percent now approving of the punishment for those convicted of murder. The attitudes of Catholics mirror those of the nation, with 53 percent favoring the death penalty.
“We’re not at the point where the church will deny communion to somebody who votes to uphold the death penalty,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a clearinghouse for data on the issue. “But I think it is getting harder and harder for the pro-death penalty Catholic legislators to reconcile their religious beliefs with their political beliefs.”
The decision to change the catechism was approved in May but not announced until Thursday.
Some traditionalist Catholics reacted with anger on social media, saying that Francis was trying to rewrite the church’s teaching to meet his personal views.
“I think a lot of the pro-life people will feel that [Pope Francis] has undercut us,” said Bill Donohue, who calls himself a social conservative and is president of the New York-based Catholic League. “Why the need for the change? I see nothing in the comments coming from the Vatican that explains why something broke. This will only add to the confusion in the laity.”
Others noted that the Catholic Church has long played a role advocating against the death penalty. In the United States, bishops have frequently petitioned for stays of execution. In 2001, Pope John Paul II even urged President George W. Bush to spare the life of Timothy McVeigh, whose Oklahoma City bombing killed 168 people.
More recently, in the predominantly-Catholic Philippines, the church has been at the center of a fight to prevent President Rodrigo Duterte from reinstituting the death penalty.
The pope had said last year that the death penalty is “contrary to the Gospel,” noting that the faith emphasized the dignity of life from conception until death. Speaking before Congress in 2015, Francis said he was advocating for the “global abolition of the death penalty,” that “society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.”
In a letter released Thursday that had been sent to bishops from the Vatican’s doctrine office, Cardinal Luis Ladaria noted the church’s stance on the death penalty stemmed from a “new understanding” of modern punishment, which should aim to rehabilitate and socially reintegrate those who have committed crimes.
“Given that modern society possesses more efficient detention systems,” Ladaria wrote, “the death penalty becomes unnecessary as protection for the life of innocent people.”
Ladaria said the church’s new teaching aims to “give energy” to a movement that would “allow for the elimination of the death penalty where it is still in effect.”