Pope Francis Changes Catholic Doctrine to Oppose Death Penalty

On August 2, Pope Francis changed the Catechism of the Catholic Church—the codified teachings of Roman Catholicism—to officially declare the death penalty “inadmissible” in all cases “because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” and because “there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.” The new catechism also charges Catholics to campaign “with determination” for the abolition of capital punishment worldwide. Previously, in 1992, Pope John Paul II began shifting the church away from execution as a means of criminal justice, stating in the catechism approved that year that the death penalty was only justified if it represented “the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” Now, Pope Francis has completed that shift—the latest in a papacy centered on mercy. Cardinal Luis Ladaria, the Vatican’s prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, described the change as an “authentic development of doctrine” that did not break with prior church teaching. It remains to be seen what effect this change to the Catechism will have on the debate around the Vatican’s ability to alter church teaching. The death penalty is currently legal in 53 countries; Amnesty International reports that most known executions in 2017 occurred in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan.

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