Contrary to the Gospel
Last week Washington became the twentieth US state to ban the death penalty. This is the first such change in US law since the August 2018 revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in which Pope Francis, building on the teaching of St. John Paul II in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, declared the death penalty to be inadmissible.
The Holy Father has spoken repeatedly on this issue during his pontificate. In 2015 he asserted, “No man ever, not even the murderer, loses his personal dignity, because God is a Father who always awaits the return of the son who, knowing that he has done wrong, asks pardon and begins a new life.” His predecessors from St. John XXIII onward have expressed similar convictions. Their development of Church doctrine on this matter led to a 1997 revision of the CCC, completed by St. John Paul II with the assistance of then-Cardinal Ratzinger. Pope Francis further clarified Church teaching earlier this year. The newly updated version of the CCC now states:
The Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.
In its decision the Washington State Supreme Court placed special emphasis on the racial disparities evident in the imposition of the death penalty. The Catholic Mobilizing Network identifies these disparities as a particular concern for Catholics, since a preferential option for the vulnerable is a core tenet of Catholic social teaching. The death penalty has raised concerns for citizens from across the political spectrum; a conservative perspective, for instance, is articulated at the site Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty.
As the Vicar of Christ, Pope Francis follows in the footsteps of the One who with his dying words extended mercy to a condemned criminal. Small wonder, then, that he has declared capital punishment to be “contrary to the gospel.” St. John Paul II, pray for us to heed the call of Evangelium Vitae: to be “unconditionally pro-life,” and to see the intrinsic dignity and value of every human life.