Vatican City — Pope Francis has brought the Catholic Church’s stance on capital punishment and life imprisonment to the end of a centuries-long evolution, calling for their total abolition in his new encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti,” according to America Magazine.
“Let us keep in mind that ‘not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this,’” said Pope Francis, citing St. John Paul II’s “Evangelium Vitae” (The Gospel of Life). “The firm rejection of the death penalty shows to what extent it is possible to recognize the inalienable dignity of every human being and to accept that he or she has a place in this universe,” he added.
An encyclical is a papal letter of ultimate authority issued to instruct and clarify official Church teaching. With more than one billion Catholics across the globe, Pope Francis’s new encyclical could influence social teaching on mercy and reconciliation everywhere.
San Quentin’s former Catholic chaplain, Father George Williams, S.J., praised the Pope’s stance. San Quentin is home to California’s death row, where Father Williams saw the damage done to the human spirit first-hand. He told the America Magazine reporter that people living under life sentences without hope of ever getting out is crueler than outright execution.
Pope Francis also called life sentences the “secret death penalty,” and condemned its use.
“Fear and resentment can easily lead to viewing punishment in a vindictive and even cruel way, rather than as part of a process of healing and reintegration into society,” Pope Francis said in “Fratelli Tutti,” urging the removal of revenge from the criminal justice equation.
For hundreds of years, the church officially supported the death penalty, or at least did not oppose it. The original Roman catechism, written in the 1500’s, endorsed capital punishment on two grounds:
“…lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities… [to] punish the guilty and protect the innocent,” said the Roman catechism.
Historically, however, there has always been opposition to the taking of a person’s life as a means of punishment.
“From the earliest centuries of the church, some were clearly opposed to capital punishment,” Pope Francis wrote, referring to St. Augustine’s plea for mercy on behalf of two assassins.
In 1995, Pope John Paul II challenged rational Church teaching on the death penalty, saying crimes warranting capital punishment were “very rare, if not practically non-existent,” according to the article. Then in 1999, he revised this position and sought to eliminate the death penalty altogether — a stance reiterated in 2011 by his successor, Pope Benedict XVI.
In “Fratelli Tutti,” Pope Francis said “There can be no stepping back from this position. “Today we say clearly that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible’ and the church is firmly committed to calling for its abolition worldwide.