Pope Francis in the Death Chamber

Pope Francis in the Death Chamber {
AP Photo/Andrew Medichini
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When Pope Francis recently met with representatives from the Commission Against the Death Penalty, he gave them a letter encouraging their efforts. His condemnation of capital punishment is far more fundamental than that commonly made in the U.S. and goes further than the standard authoritative statements of Catholic social doctrine.

While the relevant language in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church allow for the death penalty to be employed under certain circumstances, the pope deems it "inadmissible." The justifications he offers warrant careful consideration.

The pope begins by noting how radically the killing of a prisoner violates the dignity of human life, which is sacred because God created it. This is a powerful principle for any Christian and any defense of the death penalty must give it substantial weight. Some might counter that the criminal violated the dignity of his or her victim. But as my mother used to say, "Two wrongs do not make a right."

Francis then takes up the right's argument of self-defense. Society may kill when it is necessary to protect the lives of its members and the common good. But the pope does not find this consideration to be pertinent. The prisoner does not represent an active threat and therefore cannot be justly executed. In his words, "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's position is cogent for many, perhaps most, prisoners, but not for all. It assumes that an incarcerated person is unable to do harm. But that is clearly not the case. Exceptions include:


  • The prisoner who harms other prisoners, who, after all, still are members of society, even if they have been separated from much of it; 
  • Prisoners who represent a potential harm to the guards;
  • Prisoners who could threaten society after an escape from confinement;
  • Prisoners who could cause crimes to be committed by conspiring with collaborators on the outside; this would include leaders of criminal syndicates who remain in formal or informal communication with their colleagues.


The pope's third argument is this: "With the application of the death penalty, the convict is denied the possibility of to repent or make amends for the harm caused; the possibility of confession, by which a man expresses his inner conversion, and contrition, the gateway to atonement and expiation, to reach an encounter with God's merciful and healing justice." This also is a serious matter to which all parties must give due regard.

But it seems to cut both ways. The death penalty cuts short the time allotted for repentance. On the other hand, an imminent execution gives the condemned a powerful incentive to make things right, soon.

Francis next points out how the death penalty legitimizes the use of it by totalitarian regimes to rid themselves of political opposition. This argument no doubt reflects his experience as bishop under a dictatorial state. I also am confident that it carries at least a kernel of truth. But I doubt that it is a substantial factor in the behavior of dictatorships, which seem quite able to ignore the rest of the world's conception of right and wrong when it fits its Machiavellian purposes.

The pope's final argument actually weakens the chances of strengthening the political opposition to capital punishment, at least in the United States. He writes 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, as they deprive detainees not only of their freedom, but also of hope. However, although the penal system can stake a claim to the time of convicted persons, it can never claim their hope."

The problem with his argument is that evidence shows that support for the death penalty drops significantly when the question makes clear that the alternative to death is life imprisonment without chance for parole. Delegitimizing this "sort of covert death penalty" may have the perverse effect of preserving the overt death penalty.

None of the above should be read as an argument for the death penalty to be maintained. But the debate about the death penalty must be honest, and any honest debate must recognize that the issues are complex and any policy will carry with it painful drawbacks. The pope's position should catalyze debate but it fails to acknowledge sufficiently the weight of the reasons for the continuation of capital punishment.

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