Well before Pope Francis’s revision to the Catechism declaring use of the death penalty “inadmissible,” there was ample reason for Americans to oppose it. It is a cruel form of punishment, as a spate of botched executions by lethal injection in recent years has demonstrated. It is unequally applied, with the economically marginalized and people of color disproportionately accounting for both the number of those executed and those still on death row. It is, of course, irreversible—a reality brought into further relief whenever new evidence exonerates someone awaiting execution, and tragically underscored when such evidence comes too late. Its deterrent value is debatable at best (consider the low murder rates in nations where capital punishment is outlawed), while its justification as a way to protect the population from convicted murderers who might escape and kill again is hard to take seriously, given advances in detention practices and technologies that have made breaking out of maximum-security prison all but impossible.
But ultimately, the best reason is the one articulated by Francis: it “is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” This is something his predecessors regularly reiterated in the course of their papacies. An emphasis on working toward consistent affirmation of the dignity of all human beings was apparent in John Paul II’s first encyclical, 1979’s Redemptor hominis. His increasingly urgent calls to severely limit, if not end, the use of the death penalty culminated in his statement in Evangelium vitae (1995) that cases in which an execution could be justified as “an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” Language reflecting this shift was added to the Catechism in 1997. In 2011, Benedict XVI praised the “political and legislative initiatives being promoted in a growing number of countries to eliminate the death penalty and to continue the substantive progress made in conforming penal law both to the human dignity of prisoners and the effective maintenance of public order.” Francis has simply pushed this development to its logical conclusion.