Editorial: Pope’s Welcome Decree That Death Penalty Is Wrong in All Cases

  • FILE - This Nov. 10, 2016, file photo released by the Nevada Department of Corrections shows the newly completed execution chamber at Ely State Prison in Ely, Nev. Fifteen states are siding with Nevada as it fights drug companies battling the use of their products in an inmate's execution. Republican attorneys general from 15 states filed documents Monday, Aug. 6, 2018, with the Nevada Supreme Court arguing that drug company Alvogen's claims are a part of a "guerrilla war against the death penalty." (Nevada Department of Corrections via AP, File)

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Don’t expect capital punishment to disappear from the American scene any time soon just because the Roman Catholic Church has changed its teaching on the subject. But Pope Francis’ declaration earlier this month that the death penalty is always impermissible is another welcome step toward its eventual abolition in the United States.

The Vatican’s announcement of the change was not exactly a surprise, as the pope had previously given many indications of his opposition to the death penalty, including in an address to Congress during his trip to the United States in 2015. But his decree that executions are an attack on human dignity and wrong in all cases is now official Catholic doctrine, embodied in the catechism. As such, it will be taught to Catholic children worldwide and studied by adults among the church’s 1.2 billion members.

This change is a direct challenge to American Catholics, who favor the death penalty 53 percent to 42 percent, according to polling this spring by the Pew Research Center. (Those figures are very close to those for Americans as a whole.) Moreover, now that official church doctrine about human life is consistent from beginning to end, Catholic members of the potent “pro-life” movement who nonetheless made an exception for capital punishment have a moral contradiction to reconcile.

This is doubly true for many practicing Catholic politicians, judges and other officials.

Assuming that the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh is approved, the U.S. Supreme Court will have five Catholic justices — Kavanaugh, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor. Previous church doctrine taught that the death penalty could be justified if it was the only practicable way to defend human lives against an aggressor. The late Justice Antonin Scalia, for one, found in this teaching a loophole through which he could readily embrace the death penalty. That may be harder now for his remaining colleagues. When deciding whether a punishment is “cruel and unusual,” and therefore unconstitutional, the court takes into consideration evolving standards of decency and may consult the views of religious leaders, as law professors Carol Steiker and Jordan Steiker wrote recently in Time magazine. So the pope’s decree could eventually weigh on the scales of justice.

Moreover, standards of decency are definitely evolving in the direction of abolishing the death penalty. The Steikers note that since 1970, more than two-thirds of the world’s 200 countries have abolished it in law or practice. The U.S. is the only Western democracy that still retains it, putting itself in the bad international company of China, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, five countries that collectively accounted for more than 90 percent of all the executions that took place last year. Even in this country, seven states have abolished the death penalty since the 1990s, bringing the total to 31. (While Vermont is among that number, New Hampshire unfortunately is not; Gov. Chris Sununu, who is Catholic, vetoed a death penalty repeal earlier this summer.)

State-sponsored executions must be regarded not only as a moral transgression, but as a legal and practical one as well. It has been well documented in recent years how often death row inmates have been wrongly convicted of capital offenses and set free only after years of imprisonment. These tragic mistakes are irrevocable after an execution has been carried out. And instances of botched executions are the very definition of cruel and unusual.

We hope that the pope’s new guidance provides succor and inspiration to those who work tirelessly to abolish this barbaric practice and speeds them to ultimate success.