ROME — Pope Francis has declared that the death penalty is wrong in all cases, a definitive change in church teaching that is likely to challenge faithful Catholic politicians, judges and officials in the United States and other countries who have argued that their church was not entirely opposed to capital punishment.
Francis added the change to the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, the book of doctrine that is taught to Catholic children worldwide and studied by adults in a church with 1.2 billion members.
Francis said executions were unacceptable in all cases because they are “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” the Vatican announced on Thursday.
The church also says it will work “with determination” for the abolition of capital punishment worldwide.
Francis’ decision is likely to put many American Catholic politicians in a difficult position, especially Catholic governors, like Greg Abbott of Texas and Pete Ricketts of Nebraska, who have presided over executions.
And it could set off a backlash among American Catholic traditionalists who have already cast Francis as being dangerously inclined to change or compromise church teaching on other issues, like permitting communion for Catholics who have divorced and remarried without getting a church annulment.
It could also complicate the lives of judges who are practicing Catholics.
In a 2002 article, Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in 2016, said, “I do not find the death penalty immoral,” and added that he was confident that Catholic doctrine allowed for it to be used in some cases.
He wrote that it would be a bad idea if Catholic judges had to recuse themselves in death penalty cases or if Catholic governors had to promise commutations of death sentences, and commented, “Most of them would never reach the governor’s mansion.”
The new teaching appears to make the conflict much sharper, if not definitive.
President Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, is Catholic, as are Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Sonia Sotomayor. One of the other finalists for the vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy was Judge Amy Coney Barrett, who is also Catholic.
She wrote a 1998 law review article suggesting that Catholic judges should consider recusing themselves in some death penalty cases that might conflict with their religious beliefs.
Abolishing the death penalty has been one of Francis’ top priorities for many years, along with saving the environment and caring for immigrants and refugees. He mentioned it in his address to the United States Congress on his trip to America in 2015, saying that “from the beginning of my ministry” he had been led “to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty.”
He added, “I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.”
The new teaching builds on the instructions of Francis’ two immediate predecessors.
“This didn’t come out of nowhere,” said John Thavis, a Vatican expert and author. “John Paul II and Benedict laid the ground work; he’s taking the next logical step.”
“I think this will be a big deal for the future of the death penalty in the world,” he added. “People who work with prisoners on death row will be thrilled, and I think this will become a banner social justice issue for the church.”
Sergio D’Elia, the secretary of Hands Off Cain, an association that works to abolish capital punishment worldwide, said, “Now even the most far-flung parish priest will teach this to young children.”
The Vatican announced the change on Thursday, publishing a letter to bishops approved by the pope in mid-June.
The letter says that Francis made the death penalty shift “ to better reflect” the clearer awareness of the church “for the respect due to every human life.”
On social media, some Catholics asked whether the Vatican had timed the announcement to deflect attention from a scandal over revelations that former cardinal Theodore McCarrick had been allowed to climb the hierarchy despite accusations made to senior church officials that he was sexually abusing his seminary students.
In the catechism promoted by St. John Paul II, in 1992, the death penalty was allowed if it was “the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.”
The change on the issue has been developing for years. In 2015, four Catholic media outlets in the United States published a joint editorial calling for the abolition of the death penalty. They included the liberal-leaning National Catholic Reporter and the conservative-leaning National Catholic Register.
Many Catholics in the United States have rallied around calls to abolish the penalty.
When Francis visited the United States in 2015, he went to a prison in Pennsylvania and met with a few prisoners and their families. He also wrote a detailed letter that year to the International Commission against the Death Penalty, arguing that capital punishment “does not render justice to the victims, but rather fosters vengeance.”
In it, he made two arguments that specifically spoke to the American context: The death penalty is illegitimate because many convictions have later been found to be in error and have been overturned, and because executions of prisoners in some states have been badly botched.
Still, support for the death penalty persists in the United States among some conservative Catholics. The Rev. C. John McCloskey III, an influential teacher and confidant of countless American politicians and civic leaders, has written that the church’s doctrine “does not and never has advocated unqualified abolition of the death penalty.”
In his argument, he cited Saints John Paul II, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. He even cited Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who served as archbishop of Chicago, and who frequently used the term “seamless garment” to express that the church was for life, from conception to death.
Father McCloskey argued that for any human being, “it is a great grace to know the time of one’s death, as it gives us the opportunity to get right with the Lord who will judge us at our death. Perhaps many people have been saved in this way by the death penalty.”
Elisabetta Povoledo reported from Rome, and Laurie Goodstein from New York. Adam Liptak contributed reporting from Washington.
Orignially published in NYT.