August 3, 2018
The Roman Catholic Church has formally changed its position on the death penalty. The church has formally declared its opposition to the death penalty under all circumstances. The Vatican announced this week that the church changed its teachings to reflect Pope Francis’ total opposition to capital punishment.
According to the new provision of the Catholic Catechism, “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” The change was enacted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is the body responsible for promulgating Catholic doctrine.
The 1.2 billion Catholics around the world have been bound by a centuries old church doctrine that allowed the death penalty.
More than 1,600 years ago, St. Augustine wrote about the death penalty in his long admired work, “The City of God.” St. Augustine’s writing included the following passage, “Therefore, it is in no way contrary to the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ to wage war at God’s bidding, or for the representatives of public authority to put criminals to death ...”
The 1911 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia suggested that Catholics should hold that “the infliction of capital punishment is not contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church. Eighty-years later, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — better known as Pope Benedict XVI — wrote that it may be permissible for the Catholic Church “to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment.”
Just 10 years ago, Most Rev. Samuel J. Aquila, Archbishop of Denver, speaking at Loyola College in Baltimore, Maryland said, “There are only two situations in which the regrettable taking of human life is not necessarily murder: The cases of an unjust aggressor and a criminal.”
The church’s doctrine, supported by many prominent members of the church through the written word, and spoken word, has ended with the flick of a pen.
The new doctrine will face stiff opposition here in the U.S where many Catholics support the death penalty. American Catholics have been “consistently” inconsistent on the intentional taking of human life.
Conservative Catholics have steadfastly opposed abortion and euthanasia but supported capital punishment, and conservative Catholics have had a lot of influence on law and policy. Before Justice Anthony Kennedy retired from the Supreme Court, five of the nine justices were Catholic. The balance will not change if Judge Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed — he too is a Catholic.
Many on the right see Kavanaugh’s nomination and confirmation as the end of Roe v. Wade. Five Catholic justices committed by religious belief to the end of legal abortion? It’s unlikely that Catholic Justice Sonya Sotomayor will vote to overturn Roe, but the Court’s newest Justice, Neil Gorsuch, just might.
However, will the Court’s religious bent bring about the abolition of capital punishment?
Pope Francis’ opposition to capital punishment — and the Catholic Church’s new position — come at a time when it appears that the world community is conflicted on the use of the death penalty.
In the U.S., where a majority of people continue to support the death penalty, support has begun to wane. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have abolished capital punishment. According to the New York Times, at least four additional states have imposed some sort of moratorium on executions.
In the UK, where the death penalty was outlawed in 1965, the government has recently taken a surprising position. The UK, long a leader among European countries in fighting the use of capital punishment, may have signaled a change in direction.
British Home Secretary Sajid Javid told Attorney General Jeff Sessions that the UK will not seek assurances that the death penalty will not be imposed on two former British citizens if they are convicted in the United States of state sponsored terrorism.
The Pontiff is unequivocal in his opposition to the death penalty — will it matter in an equivocating world?
— Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.
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