New Papal Encyclical Tells Catholics There is ‘No Stepping Back’ From Opposition to Death Penalty

A new papal encyclical letter tells Catholics around the world that “[t]here can be no stepping back” from the Church’s formal opposition to the death penalty.

Pope Francis’ October 3, 2020 encyclical, entitled Fratelli Tutti, rejected capital punishment as a “false answer[] that … ultimately do[es] no more than introduce new elements of destruction in the fabric of national and global society.” Citing centuries of death-penalty opposition by leading Catholic scholars and clergy and calling attention to the possibility of judicial error and the misuse of capital punishment as a tool of persecution by autocratic regimes, Francis called upon “[a]ll Christians and people of good will” to work for “the abolition of the death penalty, legal or illegal, in all its forms.”

The Pope cast his decree as a direct and inevitable successor to Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, condemning capital punishment “except in cases of absolute necessity … when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.” Those circumstances, John Paul said, “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

“Saint John Paul II stated clearly and firmly that the death penalty is inadequate from a moral standpoint and no longer necessary from that of penal justice,” Francis declared. “There can be no stepping back from this position. Today we state clearly that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible’ and the Church is firmly committed to calling for its abolition worldwide.”

Catholic activists against the death penalty hailed the Pope’s pronouncement. Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network, said “Pope Francis has leveraged the full weight of the church’s teaching behind its opposition to capital punishment.” Sister Helen Prejean said the encyclical will “help end this unspeakable suffering and spark the Gospel of Jesus to be lived in its fullness: restoration of human life, not humiliation, torture, and execution.”

The encyclical, which commands the highest authority of any published Catholic document, has officially put the abolition of the death penalty in the forefront of Catholic teaching. The Church has a history of opposing the death penalty but has only recently made worldwide abolition of the punishment an official mission of the church. In 1994, Pope John Paul II called for a consensus of the church to oppose the penalty, and in 2011 Pope Benedict XVI personally called for its abolition. In 2018, the Catechism of the Catholic Church was officially changed to say that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” Fratelli Tutti takes that teaching a step farther, stating that all Catholics should personally work towards the abolition of the death penalty.

Although the primary theme of the encyclical was mercy, Pope Francis also based his statements about the death penalty 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 wrote.

The pope took direct aim against the use of the death penalty as an instrument of political demagoguery and government oppression. He directly connected the death penalty with police and political killings, describing “so-called extrajudicial or extralegal executions” as “[p]articularly serious.”

“[I]n some political sectors and certain media,” Francis said, “public and private violence and revenge are incited, not only against those responsible for committing crimes, but also against those suspected, whether proven or not, of breaking the law. … There is at times a tendency to deliberately fabricate enemies: stereotyped figures who represent all the characteristics that society perceives or interprets as threatening. The mechanisms that form these images are the same that allowed the spread of racist ideas in their time.”

“[N]ot even a murderer loses his personal dignity,” Francis said. “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.”

Sources

James Martin, S.J., Pope Francis clos­es the door on the death penal­ty in Fratelli Tutti’, America, the Jesuit Review, October 4, 2020; Carol Zimmermann, Catholic activists applaud encycli­cal’s stance against death penal­ty, Catholic News Service, October 52020.

Read Pope Francis’ Encyclical Letter, Fratelli Tutti.