Pope Francis has ruled that capital punishment is always unacceptable and called for its abolition in a major revision to Catholic teaching.
The death penalty should be rejected because, regardless of the means of execution, it entails “cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment” and the possibility of judicial error, said the Vatican in an explanatory letter to bishops on Thursday announcing the change in doctrine.
Announcing the change, the Vaticans said it would work “with determination” for the abolition of capital punishment worldwide.
Sergio D’Elia, of Hands Off Cain, a group that works to abolish capital punishment globally, said that it was “a reform of extraordinary significance” by “an extraordinary pope” that could put pressure on Catholic lawmakers around the world. “[The reform] will have a universal impact as a sign to faithful Catholics to work towards the abolition of the death penalty,” he said.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church — the body of Catholic beliefs — will be updated to state that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person”.
Previous church teaching said the death penalty could be justified “assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined . . . if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor”.
The revision takes into account changes in contemporary society, including today’s focus on rehabilitation and social reintegration and the efficiency of modern detention systems, which render the death penalty unnecessary as protection for the innocent, the letter to bishops said.
Since his accession in 2013, Francis has taken the toughest stance against capital punishment of any pope. While his predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, spoke out against the death penalty, both stopped short of making an absolute ban part of church doctrine.
But Francis has made prisoners’ rights a pillar of his papacy. He has often included prisons in his papal tours and held special events for prisoners in his “Extraordinary Year of Mercy” in 2016, appealing to Catholic leaders not to hold executions during that year.
Before instituting the reform Francis had repeatedly spoken out against the death penalty including in 2015 when he addressed Congress during a visit to the US, saying that human life is always sacred. This year, after his Easter visit to Rome’s Regina Coeli prison, he said “the death penalty is neither human nor Christian”.
The new provision may meet opposition from countries such as the US, where the death penalty has support from 55 per cent of the population, according to a Gallup poll.
Capital punishment is still used in more than 50 countries including Japan, China and India. According to Amnesty International, at least 993 people were put to death in 23 countries last year.