Pope Francis’ declaration that the Catholic Church opposes the death penalty in all cases, without exceptions, marks a historic milestone in the Christian witness for nonviolence. The Catholic position now is unambiguous: It is always wrong for the state to execute a person.
All peace-minded Christians can welcome the pope’s announcement. Our opposition to the death penalty flows from our belief that obeying Jesus’ command to love our enemies means we should not kill them. How does “we” apply here? The justice system acts in our name. When the state kills, we are the executioners. Now the pope has taken a similarly unequivocal stance.
In the Catholic journal Commonweal, anti-death-penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean described Francis’ declaration as a huge step for a church historically resistant to change.
There are numerous practical arguments against capital punishment: its ineffectiveness as a deterrent, the racial disparities in how it is applied to people of color, the risk that an innocent person will be put to death. Yet the pope focused on broad ethical principles: human dignity and respect for life. The new version of the Catholic catechism will state that “the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.”
Secular arguments build a strong case against capital punishment, so much so that all Western democracies except the United States have abolished it. But the pope grounded his Aug. 2 declaration on a deeper moral foundation: the irrevocable worth of every person before God.
This pro-life moral framework seems well-suited to the American religious scene, where it might be expected to be persuasive among U.S. Catholics and evangelicals. Yet, in the United States, Christian faith often correlates with support for capital punishment. The pope still has not persuaded many of his own people. Fifty-three percent of U.S. Catholics favor the death penalty. Among white evangelicals, 73 percent support it. “The death penalty has survived not in spite of Christians but because of them,” writes Shane Claiborne, a Christian author, speaker and friend of Anabaptists, in an article for Religion News Service. He notes that “even as the number of executions in the U.S. decreases nearly every year,” the death penalty is flourishing in Bible Belt states led by Christian politicians. One of these, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Catholic, led a campaign to restore capital punishment after state legislators repealed it in 2015.
When the Supreme Court declined to delay an Aug. 9 execution in Tennessee, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissent condemning the death penalty as “barbarism.” Sotomayor is Catholic, as are three other justices and the nominee Brett Kavanaugh. So is Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, whose state accounts for more than a third of all U.S. executions since 1976. Abbott has said he sees no conflict between his faith and the death penalty.
Christians are the leading pillars of support for executions and the leading hope for ending them. Pope Francis has a lot of convincing left to do. He can use the help of Christians who reject all state-sponsored violence.