In a video message sent Wednesday to an international anti-death penalty group Pope Francis encouraged them in their work and deliberations.
“Human life is a gift that we have received, the most important and primary, the source of all other gifts and rights. As such it needs to be protected,” Pope Francis said Feb. 27 to the seventh World Congress Against the Death Penalty, being held in Brussels.
“The death penalty is a serious violation of the right to life of every person. While it is certain that societies and human communities often face very grave delicts which threaten the common good and the security of persons, it is no less certain that today there are other means to expiate the harm caused, and detention systems are increasingly more effective in protecting society from the evil which some persons can occasion,” the pope stated.
“On the other hand, there can never be abandoned the conviction of offering even to those culpable of crimes the possibility of repentance.”
He added that “it is a positive sign that more and more countries are betting on life and no longer utilize the penalty of death, or have completely eliminated it from their penal legislation.”
“For believers, human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. For believers and non-believers alike, every life is a good and its dignity must be guarded without exception,” the pope said.
“The dignity of the person is not lost even when they have committed the worst of the crimes. No one can be killed and deprived of the opportunity to embrace the community they wounded and made to suffer.”
The Church has “always defended life,” Pope Francis said, “and her vision of the death penalty has matured.”
He said that it was “for this reason” that the text of the Catechism of the Catholic Church was changed last year.
In August 2018, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a new draft of the catechism's paragraph regarding capital punishment.
Quoting Pope Francis' words in a speech of Oct. 11, 2017, the new paragraph states, in part, that “the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that 'the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,' and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”
Reasons for changing the teaching, the paragraph says, include: the increasing effectiveness of detention systems, growing understanding of the unchanging dignity of the person, and leaving open the possibility of conversion.
The Church has consistently taught that the state has the authority to use the death penalty, in cases of “absolute necessity,” though with the qualification that the Church considered such situations to be extremely rare.
Fr. Thomas Petri, O.P., a moral theologian at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., told CNA at the time that he thinks this change “further absolutizes the pastoral conclusion made by John Paul II.”
“Nothing in the new wording of paragraph 2267 suggests the death penalty is intrinsically evil. Indeed, nothing could suggest that because it would contradict the firm teaching of the Church,” Fr. Petri continued.
Both of Pope Francis's immediate predecessors condemned the practice of capital punishment in the West.
St. John Paul II called on Christians to be “unconditionally pro-life” and said that “the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.” He also spoke of his desire for a consensus to end the death penalty, which he called “cruel and unnecessary.”
And Benedict XVI exhorted world leaders to make “every effort to eliminate the death penalty” and told Catholics that ending capital punishment was an essential part of “conforming penal law both to the human dignity of prisoners and the effective maintenance of public order.”
Pope Francis concluded his video message encouraging the meeting in Belgium.
“I accompany you with my prayer, and I encourage the governors and all those with responsibilities in their countries to take the necessary steps towards the total abolition of the death penalty,” he said.
“It is our responsibility to recognize the dignity of each person, so that no other lives are taken away, but are earned for the good of all society.”