Pope Francis: A new death penalty teaching
As a traditional Catholic, “I have learned to wince when I hear the phrase ‘news from Rome,’” said Liam Warner in NationalReview.com. Once again, Pope Francis has broken with centuries of Church teaching—this time, to formally declare the death penalty “inadmissible” in all cases. Capital punishment, the pope argues, “attacks the inviolability and the dignity of the person, a dignity that is not lost even after having committed the most serious crimes.” This flies in the face of Catholic doctrine. Previous popes, the great Catholic theologians, and Scripture itself “testify to the righteousness of the death penalty” in certain extreme cases to alert the criminal to the depravity of his crime and to protect the common welfare from evil. Francis is undermining his own credibility, said Edward Feser in FirstThings.com. “If the Church has been so wrong for so long about something so serious, then there is no teaching that might not be reversed.”
Mercy is also part of the Christian tradition, said Elizabeth Bruenig in The Washington Post. During the medieval period, for example, “criminals condemned to be executed could take shelter inside Church properties.” Francis’ revision of the catechism is more an “evolution in papal thought” on the death penalty that began under his predecessors, Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II, than “a change in teaching.” Both expressed grave doubts about the morality of killing people to rid the world of evil. Francis is absolutely right, said The New York Times in an editorial. The death penalty “is an arbitrary and hugely expensive barbarism whose victims in the United States are often black, poor, or mentally disturbed.” Over the past 45 years, 162 people sentenced to death have been exonerated. It’s likely that at least some of the 1,479 other people executed during that time were innocent as well.
Clearly, the pope is directing his message to the U.S., said Noah Feldman in Bloomberg.com. More specifically, the pope is talking to conservative American Catholics “who take seriously the Church’s teaching against abortion but either support capital punishment or are doing nothing against it.” In the shorter term, he’s unlikely to change the minds of older Catholic conservatives, like three of the four Catholic Supreme Court justices. But generations of Catholic children will grow up being taught that the death penalty is wrong. “The Catholic Church thinks in terms of centuries and millennia. It can wait.”