A Deeper Respect for Life

Francis’s Stance on Capital Punishment
(CNS photo/Ciro Fusco, EPA)

From the quick reaction in some quarters to the Vatican’s announcement that the Catechism of the Catholic Church will henceforth state that the death penalty is “inadmissible,” one might think Pope Francis had just ordered the execution of a lineup of conservative theologians.

The website One Peter Five featured a big photo of a snarling wolf above the headline, “Heresy in the Catechism. Wolf in the Vatican. No Shepherds in Sight.” The anti-abortion Lifesite News went with the more traditional “Pope’s change to Catechism contradicts natural law and the deposit of Faith.”

But those who consider themselves pro-life ought to be pleased with this change in the Catechism because it furthers St. John Paul II’s teachings on the importance of recognizing the dignity of every human life, in all its stages. “This development centers principally on the clearer awareness of the Church for the respect due to every human life,” the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said in a letter to bishops. “Along this line, John Paul II affirmed: ‘Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this.’”

That quote appears in John Paul’s encyclical Evangelium vitae, a reference to God’s decision to allow Cain to live. As the Vatican congregation noted, that encyclical elsewhere describes growing public opposition to the death penalty as one of the “signs of hope” for the defense of life, which John Paul wrote is endangered by abortion, euthanasia, war, and environmental damage. This was how he framed his vision of a vast conflict between a “culture of death” and a “culture of life.”

The divisive world of American politics is not likely to embrace the across-the-board appreciation of human dignity that the Gospel calls for.

Pope Francis now tells us that this respect for human life and dignity is so deep that it must also apply to those convicted of the most despicable crimes. As the theologian David Cloutier tweeted, “To those who say Church taught ‘error’ on #DeathPenalty, this misunderstands path of development of doctrine toward consistent and full affirmation of the dignity of all human life, esp in limiting the purview of government to violate it.”

Francis’s decision is indeed “in line with the teaching of his immediate predecessors,” as Princeton Professor Robert George put it.

This development in church teaching will play out differently in many countries; in the United States it further upends the politics based on putting abortion above all other issues, joined to the insistence that it’s okay for Catholics to favor the death penalty. Conversely, as Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life tweeted, “Regarding the death penalty, if there is a growing consensus that we should not kill the guilty, let’s get everyone on board that we should not kill the innocent! (This is for you, Democrat Party!).”

The divisive world of American politics is not likely to embrace the across-the-board appreciation of human dignity that the Gospel calls for. Some try to set up Pope Francis as the anti-John Paul, which is as much a distortion of John Paul’s thinking as it is of Francis’s. But here we see Francis following the path that John Paul set in his first encyclical, Redemptor hominis, issued in 1979, when he went so far as to define  Christianity and the Gospel in terms of appreciation for human dignity:

In reality, the name for that deep amazement at man’s worth and dignity is the Gospel, that is to say: the Good News. It is also called Christianity. This amazement determines the Church's mission in the world.

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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