Pope Francis’ new encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti,” does something that some Catholics believed could not be done: It ratifies a change in church teaching. In this case, on the death penalty.
In 2018, Pope Francis ordered a change in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the official compendium of church teaching, when he termed the death penalty “inadmissible.” Today the pope placed the full weight of his teaching authority behind this statement: The death penalty is inadmissible, and Catholics should work for its abolition. A papal encyclical is one of the highest of all documents in terms of its authority, removing any lingering doubt about the church’s belief.
“There can be no stepping back from this position,” says Francis, referring to the opposition to capital punishment expressed by St. John Paul II. “Today we state clearly that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible’ and the Church is firmly committed to calling for its abolition worldwide.”
In “Fratelli Tutti,” the pope grounds his opposition to capital punishment not only in mercy, perhaps his most characteristic spiritual theme, but also in opposition to revenge. “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,” he writes.
Moreover, he bases the teaching in the inviolable dignity of each person—including the person on death row. “Let us keep in mind that ‘not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this,’” he says, quoting “The Gospel of Life” (“Evangelium Vitae”). Francis continues: “The firm rejection of the death penalty shows to what extent it is possible to recognise the inalienable dignity of every human being and to accept that he or she has a place in this universe.”
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Rev. James Martin SJ is a Jesuit priest, author and editor at large at America.
With thanks to America Magazine and Fr James Martin SJ, where this article originally appeared.