The Church vs. the death penalty… What changes have been undergone?

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The Church vs. the death penalty… What changes have been undergone?

By Fr. Dr. Rif’at Bader

The changes undertaken by Pope Francis regarding the Catholic Church's catechism with respect to the death penalty has received worldwide attention. What changes have affected the Church’s historic stand?

Before answering this question, we recall the traditional 'canonical' position, based on influential people in history, such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, who viewed the death penalty, at times, as a fair practice that safeguards communities and forestalls violence committed by those who violate the law.

Yet, Aquinas points out that the decision to implement this penalty should be carried out by the party entrusted with protecting the community as a whole, namely the state. Consequently, the Church's catechism signed in 1992 by Pope John Paul II did not rule out the possibility of reverting to this penalty when it seems that it is the only effective means to protect public interest and the citizens from dangers at a time when it is difficult to ensure that the criminals would not repeat their crimes. Yet, it has to be asserted that in case there are enough unbloody measures to curb the aggressors, then the authorities must adhere to these means as they are more compatible with human dignity. Thus, we note that the Church's catechism at the time strongly restricted 'penalty' or rather eliminated it in toto.

Nowadays, the new Catholic Church's catechism comes within a different social and moral context, beginning with the modern human mentality that rejects this penalty and its awareness that a person's dignity is not lost even after the commission of serious crimes. This also falls within the framework of successive developments in criminal penal laws, and the emergence of new and more effective systems that guarantee necessary protection for citizens on the one hand, and do not deny the culprit the right to repent on the other. Thus, the Church explicitly declared that the 'death penalty' is absolutely unacceptable, as it constitutes an attack on the dignity of people, and affirmed that it would resolutely abolish it all over the world.

This change in the Church's catechism is very important, but it is not surprising. Over the past decades, the Popes have declared their rejection of this penalty. Pope John Paul II had asked for the rewording the relevant clause to comply with the Church's clear awareness and its respect for the sanctity of human life. Pope Benedict XVI also encouraged several political and legislative initiatives to abolish the 'death penalty”. He also urged going hand-in-hand with state laws in compliance with criminal law regarding respecting human dignity and preserving public interest.

As for Pope Francis, he repeatedly expressed his rejection of this penalty in his address before the International Commission Against the Death Penalty in 2015 where he termed this penalty as forcing the state to kill in the name of justice at a time when this penalty, in accordance with the new rules of imprisonment, is unnecessary and unacceptable regardless of the gravity of the committed crime. Furthermore, one cannot ignore Pope Francis’ marking of the Holy Thursday by washing the feet of prisoners who follow various religions and come from different countries.

Thus, the new decision rejecting the death penalty can be included in the framework of the teachings of the previous Popes, as it serves as a coherent and explicit development of the Catholic doctrine.

This decision is consistent with a desire to give impetus to a united international commitment, whose slogan is “Yes to the culture of life, no to the culture of death.” This commitment should recognize human dignity and life as well as urge the remaining world countries, in the framework of dialogue based on respect, to create conditions designed to eliminate this cruel punishment which is still in force in their legislation despite its moral and social invalidity.

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