The Pope's Groundbreaking Rejection of the Death Penalty

In a revised version of the Catechism, the punishment is deemed unacceptable in all cases.

Supporters of a death-row inmate in Georgia hold signs citing Pope Francis's opposition to the death penalty (Tami Chappell / Reuters)

Pope Francis has approved a change to the official teachings of the Catholic Church, calling for the worldwide abolition of the death penalty. The pope has frequently spoken out against the death penalty; in a speech in Rome last year, for example, Francis called the punishment “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” The new change to the Catechism, which is the official body of the Church’s teachings, formalizes that opposition based on “an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost, even after the commission of very serious crimes.”

In approving this change, Francis has sent a signal about his priorities—and his posture toward change. The Church has underscored its opposition to the destruction of any kind of life, even when that means defying the state. And Francis is willing to alter Church teaching to make that clear.

The Church has not always been a clear opponent of the death penalty. As Francis pointed out in his 2017 address, past popes presided over executions when they governed the Papal States, the territory in present-day Italy that was controlled by the Church until the late-19th century. Some of these killings were particularly gruesome: When Pope Clement VIII declared Giordano Bruno a heretic in 1600, the philosopher was tied to a stake, burned alive, and dumped in the Tiber.

Francis rebuked his predecessors: “Let us take responsibility for the past and recognize that the imposition of the death penalty was dictated by a mentality more legalistic than Christian.”

In recent years, however, the Church has been steadily moving toward a rejection of the practice. In 1995, Pope John Paul II welcomed efforts to oppose the death penalty in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, affirming that “modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime … without definitively denying [criminals] the chance to reform.” Some local groups of bishops have prioritized this issue: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, for example, has frequently urged legislatures and governors to reject the procedure and put this issue at the center of its advocacy efforts.

But the Church never quite declared its full opposition to the death penalty. John Paul II wrote that cases in which the death penalty is an “absolute necessity” are “very rare, if not practically non-existent,” but allowed for those exceptions. Until this week, the Catechism had taught that “traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty” if it’s the only way to protect human lives.

Now Francis has moved to make the Church’s position on the death penalty absolute. “The death penalty is an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity,” he said last fall. He called for an official change to the Catechism, which was formalized this week.

For all of Francis’s moral resolution, changing Church teachings is a big step, and can be controversial. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican body that oversees Church teachings, justified the update based on “new” context: “increasing awareness” of the dignity of human beings, a “new understanding” of the consequences of state punishment, and the development of “more effective systems of detention” that still allow for the “possibility of redemption.” Because of this, the Church has concluded that the death penalty is “inadmissible.” The Church’s new position doesn’t actually contradict past teachings, they claimed; the context is what has changed.

In general, this posture toward change has been one of Francis’s legacies: He believes Church teachings should be updated to reflect contemporary moral understandings. As he said in his 2017 address on the death penalty, “The word of God cannot be mothballed like some old blanket in an attempt to keep insects at bay!”

This is a controversial position within an institution that has often declared itself a bulwark against the moral relativism of modern times. Even when Francis has clearly desired to change Church teachings on various subjects, he has framed these changes as continuous with past teachings, and has had to navigate dramatic internal Church politics along the way.

The new Catholic teaching on the death penalty underscores the Church’s commitment to the preservation of life. But it’s also a case study in how the Church can choose to change to meet the moral demands of modern times.