Pope Francis has modified an article of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (n.2267), affirming, in the light of the Gospel, “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.” It is a clear and decisive statement that commits the Church and Catholics everywhere in the world to always defend the intangibility of life through the elimination of this inhuman punishment. The Pope communicated this modification of the Catechism to all the bishops of the world. It is a great and vast commitment for the whole Church to educate and work, also in this field, to safeguard the sacredness of human life and its dignity.
The change announced yesterday removes any justification for the death penalty: even in those “rare cases” in which it was tolerated because “it was more difficult to guarantee that the criminal could not recommit the crime”. With this modification made to the Catechism, the Church marks a milestone in its teaching and its decisive commitment to States and governments: creating the conditions that would allow us to eliminate the legal institution of the death penalty today.
The term “today” that the Pope uses is a manifestation of the urgency he felt that this inhumane practice soon comes to its end. There is a “today” that is imposed by a still so unjust and inhumane reality, notwithstanding the remarkable progress made in recent years. In fact, fifty-seven countries still maintain capital punishment, even if the number of those where death sentences are actually executed is much lower.
So far 142 countries have abolished the death penalty by law or in practice, to which many African countries have added themselves recently. To date, Europe remains the only continent to have banned it from its legal systems and make it a precondition for joining the European Union. At the level of the United Nations there have been important and impactful positions taken; such as the growing majority of countries voting for a universal moratorium on capital punishment in recent years.
This decision by Pope Francis, marks an acknowledgement and realignment with the current fight against the death penalty and unequivocally affirms, in the light of the Gospel, the inadmissibility of this juridical instrument and the inviolable dignity of the life of everyone, even of those who have committed crimes. The larger the presence of Catholics and the Church around the world, the greater the impact of this decision. Today, all those who in the corners of the world are involved in this delicate front, feel strengthened in their commitment to finally abolish the death penalty. It is the case of every Christian or lay associations that have made abolition a decisive commitment, it is the case of Episcopal Conferences such as the Filipino, Indonesian, Ugandan or American (to name but a few) who unanimously committed on this front in retentionist countries.
The “today” also has another meaning: in front of the “cult of death” expressed by terrorism, by widespread violence or by “war in pieces”, fighting the death penalty means reaffirming the meaning of life and challenging the logic of death. The nihilism that exists behind those who fight to take away life from others is not contradicted, but rather supported by the death penalty. To be against the death penalty is to confirm the reasons for life: life is stronger than anything and history has not been written forever.
Humanity exists as long as there is life, even little, even weak, even limited.
Just as we respect life in all its forms, so we must also believe that the life of the condemned can have a value. Who are we to judge how much life is left and how much is worth? A nation that abolishes the use of capital punishment is a nation that has not set limits to the future, one that gives its citizens a signal of hope; a message that nothing is already written or is irreversible. Being against the death penalty represents a continuous vigilance on our thinking and on society: a way to avoid sleepwalking, which leads to disinterest in the lives of others or even to denying possible change.
Friday, August 3rd 2018