The Catholic Church has long supported the death penalty as appropriate in cases where it is “the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”
This week, Pope Francis announced a change to the Catechism that condemns the death penalty and urges the Church to work towards ending capital punishment. The change appears in Catechism No. 2267.
Pope Francis has long sought to change Church policy on the death penalty – which he views as the voluntary killing of a sacred human life.
Francis first announced plans to alter Church teachings on capital punishment last October. The change was approved in May and announced this Thursday, with Francis describing the death penalty as an “inadmissible” attack on the inherent dignity of mankind.
Vatican official Cardinal Luis Ladaria described the altered stance on capital punishment as an “evolution” of prior teaching rather than a contradiction of 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.”
The change is also designed to aid the anti-death penalty movement and “to encourage the creation of conditions that allow for the elimination of the death penalty where it is still in effect.”
While the death penalty has been outlawed in most of Europe and South America, it continues to be used in Asia, Africa, the Mideast, and the United States.
According to a 2016 Pew Research Poll, capital punishment is supported by 43% of Catholics, 60% of white mainline Protestants, and 69% of white evangelical Protestants. Overall, close to 50% of Americans support the death penalty.
Critics on the Catholic right argued that Francis has no right to change the Catechism.
“[Pope Francis] is in open violation of the authority recognized to him. And no Catholic has any obligation of obedience to abuse of authority,” tweeted Rorate Caeli, a traditionalist Catholic blog.
Others questioned the timing of the announcement given the recent sex abuse accusations against prominent cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
“Coming in the midst of the sex abuse revelations, the timing is curious…and more fury is not what the Church needs at this moment,” said radio host Raymond Arroyo.