Are we nearing a Catholic consensus on the death penalty?


As we wrote in our cover story last July, there has been a growing shift among both Catholics and the general U.S. population in opposition to the death penalty. Capital punishment has now been abolished in 18 states, plus the District of Columbia, and stories of botched executions have given the public reason to reconsider the realities of putting a human being to death.

But Catholics have always been divided on the issue. Some see it as a just method of protecting the common good, while others view it as a clear violation of the church’s teaching on protecting human life. It seems that church leaders, following the lead of Pope Francis, are trending more strongly toward the anti-death penalty camp, as highlighted today in a news release from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

On Friday morning, Francis issued a strong message against the use of capital punishment in any and all circumstances, calling it “inadmissible, however serious the crime.” As Vatican Radio reports: “For Christians, [Pope Francis] says, all life is sacred because every one of us is created by God, who does not want to punish one murder with another, but rather wishes to see the murderer repent. Even murderers, he went on, do not lose their human dignity and God himself is the guarantor.”

Earlier this week, Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez published an article calling for a national end to the death penalty. Gomez acknowledges that those who receive a death sentence are not innocent (well, ideally they aren’t, although there have been plenty of documented cases of people being exonerated after receiving a death sentence) and thus capital punishment is a much different issue than abortion or euthanasia.

“But we do say,” Gomez writes, “that even the lives of the worst and most dangerous criminals are sacred and we hold out the hope that even these lives can be changed and rehabilitated—through the mercy of God.”

Also this week, the bishops of Nebraska issued a statement calling for an end to capital punishment in their state. And to supporters of the death penalty, they issued this message: “We ask those who disagree with us to reflect prayerfully on the words of Jesus Christ himself: ‘love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father.’ ”

The consistency among these messages, and those of other Catholic leaders, is clear. The question is whether the message will be fully accepted by all members of the church, and how powerful the message will be in permanently eliminating the death penalty.

About the author

Scott Alessi

Scott Alessi is a former managing editor of U.S. Catholic.