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Capital punishment never justified, Pope argues

March 20, 2015

“Nowadays the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed,” Pope Francis said at a March 20 meeting with members of the International Committee against the Death Penalty.

“For the rule of law, the death penalty represents a failure, as it obliges the state to kill in the name of justice,” the Pope argued. Basing his argument on the Church’s consistent defense of human life, the Pope acknowledged the moral right to defense against an unjust aggressor. But he reasoned:

However, the presuppositions of personal legitimate defense do not apply at the social level, without risk of misinterpretation. When the death penalty is applied, it is not for a current act of aggression, but rather for an act committed in the past. It is also applied to persons whose current ability to cause harm is not current, as it has been neutralized – they are already deprived of their liberty.

The Pope seemed to go beyond condemnation of the death penalty to decry lifetime prison sentences as well. He said that “life imprisonment entails for the prisoner the impossibility of planning a future of freedom, and may therefore be considered as a sort of covert death penalty.”

The state may be justified in depriving a convicted criminal of his freedom, the Pope argued, but it can never rightfully deprive him of hope. He said that criminal sentences should be designed to encourage repentance and rehabilitation.

In his extended argument against capital punishment, the Pope observed that the death penalty has been used by totalitarian regimes to silence opposition.


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Show 6 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Lucius49 - Mar. 21, 2015 6:18 PM ET USA

    Some perspective from Benedict:"Not all moral issues have the same moral weight ....(If a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment ... he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts.... to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals,it may still be permissible... to have recourse to capital punishment. There is along doctrinal tradition re the DP.

  • Posted by: feedback - Mar. 21, 2015 5:25 PM ET USA

    The Holy Father is 100% correct! But I am afraid too many people enjoy the sight of blood and want to savor the taste of vengeance.

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Mar. 21, 2015 5:43 AM ET USA

    First, the death penalty, regrettable as it is, has to remain on the table for the situation in which the state must defend itself and that is the only way. This is the only justification for the legitimate right of self-defense, as in war. If a criminal, serving a life term with no parole, murders, what penalty is available otherwise. Second, the death penalty is often imposed on the innocent--abortion--let's get that off the table first.

  • Posted by: Thomas429 - Mar. 20, 2015 10:05 PM ET USA

    There are at least three problems with the Pope's pronouncement. 1. We have not, as yet developed a system whereby we are able to keep even the worst of these convicts in jail for life; 2. The preventive value of capital punishment is totally ignored; 3. This same Pope opposes life or maybe even long sentences.

  • Posted by: skall391825 - Mar. 20, 2015 9:03 PM ET USA

    Wow! He completely ignores/denies the case where ISIS-type barbarians murder/torture hundreds of innocent men, women and children in an effort to gain the release of a captured barbarian.

  • Posted by: 1Jn416 - Mar. 20, 2015 4:14 PM ET USA

    I do not understand this position. The death penalty and life sentences have important deterrent effects against premeditated murder, contract killings, and other such serious crimes. And some crimes are so great that justice demands the person never be free again. If Bin Laden had been captured, would we give him 25 years? For someone to say otherwise I do not understand. People also find God on death row who might not in regular prison. This is all not so simple!