In 2018, Pope Francis formally revised the Catechism of the Catholic Church—its core teachings—to oppose the death penalty. Characterizing capital punishment as “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” he wrote that the Catholic Church “works with determination for its abolition worldwide.” This revision updated a 1997 Catechism edit by Pope John Paul II that permitted the death penalty in rare cases where it was deemed “the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” In the five years since Pope Francis affirmed the Church’s abolitionist stance, OSV News reported that Catholic activists have seen “renewed momentum” to end the practice in the United States. 

“We’ve seen an impressive and growing number of Catholics come out in full force with consistent opposition to scheduled executions, faithful advocacy that would limit or eliminate the death penalty, and fervent prayer that the dignity of life will be upheld for all people, even those among us who have committed grave harm,” Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, executive director of Catholic Mobilizing Network, told OSV News. She noted that since 2018, three states abolished the death penalty and six imposed a moratorium on executions. She also argued that Pope Francis’ revision restored “a long history of the Catholic Church’s opposition to the death penalty” and provided “crystal clarity” on the Church’s stance: “there are no more ‘rare cases,’ no more loopholes…the death penalty is inadmissible in all instances, full stop.”  

In 2020, Pope Francis affirmed the revision in a published letter that cited centuries of death penalty opposition by leading Catholic scholars and clergy. He called upon “all Christians and people of good will” to work for “the abolition of the death penalty, legal or illegal, in all its forms.” Pope Francis and other Catholic leaders have publicly supported clemency efforts and called on state executives to exercise mercy in individual cases. In 2021, Archbishop and Apostolic Nuncio Christopher Pierre delivered a message from Pope Francis to Missouri Governor Mike Parson asking for clemency for Ernest Johnson. He asked Governor Parson not to allow “the atrocity of…crimes to feed a desire for vengeance” and instead seek to restrain all types of violence, including “the violence of legal execution.” However, Missouri proceeded with the execution. Last September, the Vatican urged Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards to use his executive authority to commute the sentences of the state’s entire death row; the effort stalled as Governor Edwards faced opposition from Attorney General and Governor-elect Jeff Landry and the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Committee on Parole. 

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,” Pope Francis wrote in his 2020 letter. He issued a renewed call for prayer in 2022 in which he declared that “the death penalty is morally inadmissible, for it destroys the most important gift we have received: life.”  


Kate Scanlon, Activists see renewed momen­tum’ to end death penal­ty, OSV News/​Arkansas Catholic, January 4, 2024; Press Release, Vatican Calls on Louisiana Governor to Grant Clemency for Death Row Population, Catholic Mobilizing Network, September 28, 2023; Christine Hauser and Jesus Jiménez, Missouri Executes Death Row Prisoner Despite Pleas From Pope and Others, The New York Times, October 4, 2021; Christopher Wells, Pope pleads for clemen­cy for US death row inmate Ernest Johnson, Vatican News, October 12021