Death Penalty

Catholic Church Changes Doctrine To Oppose Death Penalty

The church's catechism now calls capital punishment "inadmissible" and says it's "an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person."


Evandro Inetti/ZUMA Press/Newscom

The death penalty is "inadmissible" because it attacks human "dignity," the Roman Catholic Church says.

In the past, the Catechism of the Catholic Church has supported the death penalty "if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor." But in May, Pope Francis approved a major change to the doctrine that says capital punishment is wrong in all cases. The update was published today, the Associated Press reports.

"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," the catechism's new text reads.

The catechism acknowledges that capital punishment has long been seen as a "means of safeguarding the common good." But there is now "an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes," the doctrine says. "In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption."

According to Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church's teachings on capital punishment have simply evolved. "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," Ladaria says in a letter explaining the change.

Though the church's teachings have evolved, Francis' views on the subject have not. During a 2015 trip to the United States, where the death penalty is legal, he told Congress that "from the beginning of my ministry," he has advocated for it to be abolished.

Previous popes have had differing opinions. Francis' immediate predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, did not oppose the death penalty in all cases, according to the BBC. But Pope John Paul II, who came before Benedict, generally advocated for imprisonment instead.