Pope Francis today made a clear denunciation of the death penalty and even of sentences to life imprisonment, saying that “today the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime of the condemned.”
The Pope spelled out his teaching in a letter to the International Commission Against the Death Penalty, further noting that on various occasions, he has already addressed this issue.
The Holy Father first cited Scripture and the Church’s constant teaching regarding human dignity. “Human life is sacred because from its beginning, from the first instant of conception, it is fruit of the creative action of God (Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2258), and from that moment, man, the only creature God loves for itself, is the object of personal love on the part of God (Cf. Gaudium et spes, 24).”
He then said that states kill in various ways, both by action and omission: “by action when they apply the death penalty, when they take their peoples to war or when they carry out extra-judicial or summary executions. They can also kill by omission, when they do not guarantee to their peoples access to the essential means for life.”
“Life, especially human life, belongs to God alone,” the Pope continued. “Not even the murderer loses his personal dignity and God himself makes himself its guarantor. As Saint Ambrose teaches, God did not want to punish Cain for the murder, as He wants the repentance of the sinner, not his death (Cf. Evangelium vitae, 9).”
Pope Francis acknowledged the Church’s teaching in regard to the legitimacy of self-defense.
“On some occasions it is necessary to repel proportionally an aggression underway to avoid an aggressor causing harm, and the necessity to neutralize him might entail his elimination,” he said.
But, the Pope stated, this is not the case for the death penalty.
“When the death penalty is applied,” he explained, “persons are killed not for present aggressions, but for harm caused in the past. Moreover, it is applied to persons whose capacity to harm is not present but has already been neutralized, and who find themselves deprived of their freedom.
“Today the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime of the condemned. It is an offense against the inviolability of life and the dignity of the human person that contradicts God’s plan for man and society and His merciful justice, and it impedes fulfilling the just end of the punishments. It does not do justice to the victims, but foments vengeance.”
He went on to point out that human justice will always be imperfect, and spoke of the possibility of judicial error. As well, he said, the condemned are denied the possibility of repentance and conversion. And he noted that totalitarian regimes use the death penalty to eliminate opposition.
No human way
The Pope decried “debates about the way to kill, as if there were a way to ‘do it well.'”
“There is no human way of killing another person,” he declared.
As he has done on other occasions, the Pontiff also spoke out against sentences to life imprisonment, referring to them as “veiled death penalties.”
He concluded by speaking of Christ’s example, saying that in He “did not want his persecutors to be wounded in his defense – “Put your sword back into its place” (Matthew 26:52) –, he was arrested and condemned to death unjustly, and He identified himself with all prisoners, culpable or not: “I was in prison and you came to me” (Matthew 25:36). May He, who before the adulterous woman did not question her culpability, but invited her accusers to examine their own consciences before stoning her (Cf. John 8:1-11), grant you the gift of wisdom, so that the actions you undertake in favour of abolition of this cruel punishment, are right and fruitful.”
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