Pope Francis’s condemnation of capital punishment is simple and unambiguous: It is inadmissible. No exceptions for especially heinous crimes; no loopholes allowing execution when other lives might be in jeopardy, as in past Catholic teachings. No, declared the pope; state-sanctioned killing is always an unjustifiable attack on the dignity of human life, it’s always wrong.
That it is. It is an arbitrary and hugely expensive barbarism whose victims in the United States are often black, poor or mentally disturbed — and sometimes innocent. Over the past 45 years, when 1,479 people were executed in this country, 162 people sentenced to death have been exonerated. All the arguments for executing criminals have been debunked: It is useless as a deterrent and it does not save lives by getting rid of murderers. Many countries, including nearly all Western democracies with the shameful exception of the United States, have rejected it.
Since his election to the papacy five years ago, Francis has introduced a less formal, more pragmatic and progressive approach to his ministry, taking strong stands on issues like climate change and consumerism.
The church’s new position on the death penalty carries no formal punishment for defying it, but in eliminating any ambiguity it does compel Catholic officials at least to find concrete reasons to not abide by it. Four Supreme Court justices are Catholic, as is Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s nominee for the court; among governors, Pete Ricketts of Nebraska, a Catholic and staunch supporter of the death penalty, has already declared that he will not block an execution scheduled for this month.
There will also be conservative Catholics who reject the pope’s reasoning for changing his church’s teaching on capital punishment after centuries in which it was tolerated. A letter to bishops accompanying the revised teaching explained at length that it was a development of the teachings of the last two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, reflecting changes in awareness that had taken place in recent times.
Yet the importance of the pope’s definitive rejection of capital punishment is not solely for Catholics, or for Christians, as the Vatican made clear in saying that the church would work “for its abolition worldwide.”
Capital punishment has been long abandoned across Europe and indefinitely suspended in Russia, and even in the United States its use has been declining for years. …And though 31 states still allow the death penalty, only 10 have carried out executions since 2014.
The man awaiting execution in Nebraska is a prime example of the absurdity of capital punishment. Carey Dean Moore, now 60, has been on death row for 38 years and few Nebraskans remember what he was condemned for. How taking his life would serve justice is a mystery even to many state legislators, who voted to repeal the death penalty in 2015, only to have Governor Ricketts lead a campaign to restore it.
President Trump would most likely be on Mr. Ricketts’ side, not the pope’s. …
In fact, very few of those who have been executed or are on death row committed anything as monstrous as that terror attack by Sayfullo Saipov, who is awaiting trial. Yet even the most serious crimes, in Pope Francis’s view, do not deprive the perpetrator of the “dignity of the person,” and modern prisons are fully capable of protecting citizens from him or her.
For those who have long opposed capital punishment as cruel and pointless, as has this page, the only lingering question is why the Catholic Church or any religious denomination that still condones executions would take so long to recognize that they are simply inadmissible. The same can be asked of Americans, whose Constitution so clearly prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.
— The New York Times, Aug. 3