Pope Francis changes Catholic Church's teachings to fully oppose death penalty

Pope Francis has said the death penalty is “inadmissible” and that the Catholic Church would work for its abolition across the world.

Capital punishment was “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”, Francis said in a change to Catholic teaching which leaves the Vatican at odds with countries, such as the US and China, which carry out executions.

The church previously viewed the death penalty, carried out by a legitimate authority after a fair trial, as an “appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good”, according to a Vatican statement.

But it said there was an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person was not lost even after “the commission of very serious crimes”. The Catholic Church will now teach that there are more effective systems of detention could ensure the protection of citizens without depriving “the guilty of the possibility of redemption”.

"Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good," the Catechism will now say.

But an "increasing awareness" that criminals don't lose their human dignity, a "new understanding" of prison systems and the development of "effective systems of detention" have led the church, under Pope Francis, to revise its official views, the Vatican said.

"The death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person," the Catechism will now say.

Pope Francis has previously spoken out against the death penalty, saying last year it “heavily wounds human dignity” and is an inhuman measure. Capital punishment was “in itself, contrary to the Gospel”, he said.

But on Thursday he went further by making a formal change to the universal catechism, or church teaching.

The Vatican defended the policy, saying it wasn’t contradicting past teaching but evolving it.

“If, in fact the political and social situation of the past made the death penalty an acceptable means for the protection of the common good, today the increasing understanding that the dignity of a person is not lost even after committing the most serious crimes,” said Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Francis has long been an opponent of the death penalty, saying it could never be justified no matter how bad the crime is.

Among Americans, 54% favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder, while 39% are opposed, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in April and May. Among Catholics, the survey found that 53% of Catholics favor capital punishment, while 42% oppose it.
Death penalty opponents celebrated the Vatican's announcement, calling it the culmination of years of planning and work, while hoping it could change more attitudes among lay Catholics.

"For people in the pews, it is a challenge to actively build a culture of life by abolishing the death penalty, especially in the 31 states that still have it on the books in this country," said Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, who leads Catholic Mobilizing Network, an anti-death penalty group.

Many conservative Catholics, meanwhile, were mostly quiet on Thursday. Several prominent legal and political figures did not respond immediately for comment. But in the past, several Catholic governors had said that the Catechism gave them leeway to enforce the death penalty.

Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, whose state overwhelmingly supports capital punishment according to polls, told journalists in 2014 that there's no conflict between his Catholic faith and state law on the issue.

"Catholic doctrine is not against the death penalty, and so there is no conflict there," he said.

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