Five years after catechism update, activist sees 'renewed momentum' to end death penalty

Protesters opposed to the death penalty demonstrate outside a Georgia state prison for men in Jackson in this 2008 file photo. Called the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, it holds the state's execution chamber. (OSV News photo/Tami Chappell, Reuters)

WASHINGTON (OSV News) -- Five years after Pope Francis updated the catechism to clarify the Catholic Church's teaching on the death penalty, there is "renewed momentum" in the United States to end the practice, a leading Catholic activist said.

Pope Francis revised the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 2267) in 2018 to reflect that capital punishment is morally "inadmissible" in the modern world and that the church works with determination for its abolishment worldwide.

Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, executive director of Catholic Mobilizing Network, which advocates for ending the death penalty, told OSV News that "in the past five years we've seen three states formally abolish the death penalty, including the first and only Southern state to do so: New Hampshire (2019), Colorado (2020) and Virginia (2021). There have also been a number of states that have paused executions under a governor-imposed moratorium, including Arizona, California, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Tennessee."

"We've seen an impressive and growing number of Catholics come out in full force with consistent opposition to scheduled executions, faithful advocacy for legislation that would limit or eliminate the death penalty, and fervent prayer that the dignity of life will be upheld for all people, even those among us who have committed grave harm," she said. "This kind of faithful advocacy to abolish the death penalty has been inspiring."

Vaillancourt Murphy said Pope Francis' revision "followed a long history of the Catholic Church's opposition to the death penalty." She pointed out that many often overlook that the catechism was previously adapted in 1997 to include St. John Paul II's words from his 1995 encyclical "Evangelium Vitae" ("The Gospel of Life").

"It stated that the death penalty could be defended when it was the only possible way to protect society, but acknowledged that such instances were rare, if not 'practically nonexistent,'" she said.

In his 2020 encyclical "Fratelli Tutti," Pope Francis cited the writings of St. John Paul, writing that his predecessor "stated clearly and firmly that the death penalty is inadequate from a moral standpoint and no longer necessary from that of penal justice."

"There can be no stepping back from this position," Pope Francis wrote. "Today we state clearly that 'the death penalty is inadmissible' and the church is firmly committed to calling for its abolition worldwide."

Vaillancourt Murphy said the catechism's 1997 revision "conveyed a strong opposition to the inhumane practice of capital punishment," however "it left some room for confusion at best, and gross misinterpretation at worst."

"The 2018 revision was monumental because it provided crystal clarity regarding the Catholic stance on capital punishment," she said. "In practical terms, prior to the catechism revision in 2018, the confusion on the church's position on the death penalty created an impression of an inconsistent ethic around the value of life. Since the revision, there are no more 'rare cases,' no more loopholes. The death penalty is inadmissible in all instances, full stop."

She also said in the last five years, the U.S. bishops have made very clear "Catholic opposition to the death penalty."

"The bishops vocally and publicly opposed the string of federal executions carried out by the Trump administration in the last six months of his presidency," she said. "Local bishops regularly advocate on behalf of those facing executions in their state."

Vaillancourt Murphy also highlighted how the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops even included the issue of the death penalty in their address to the Holy Father at their 2023 summer gathering in Orlando, Florida, hosted on the same day that Duane Owen was executed in that state.

"They said, 'We share in your opposition to the death penalty. Capital punishment is indeed a false answer that does not solve the problem for which it is invoked and introduces new elements of destruction. We pray for the victims of heinous crimes and for the protection of the inalienable dignity of every human being.'"

The revision, Vaillancourt Murphy added, "was not the beginning of Catholic opposition to the death penalty -- far from it."

"But when I look back at these past five years, I see it as a source of renewed momentum, determination and faithful commitment to this critical life issue," she said.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center's 2023 annual report, just five states -- Alabama, Florida, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas -- carried out executions in 2023, while a majority of U.S. states have banned or paused the practice by executive order.

However, there was an increase in executions in 2023 from the previous year: 24 people were executed in 2023, while 18 were executed in 2022. This year, the report said, was the ninth consecutive year with fewer than 30 executions.

Texas and Florida are both currently led by Catholic governors, with the report singling out Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican currently seeking his party's presidential nomination, as behind that uptick.

Dr. Daniel Sulmasy, director of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics and professor of medicine and philosophy at Georgetown University in Washington, told OSV News that Catholic governors signing death warrants present "similar issues with people in elected office who claim to be Catholic and are in favor of abortion."

"You have to sort of at least call these people out publicly," he said. "I think the pope has wanted us to be merciful -- not to, as some would suggest, ban them from Communion -- but to continue to prod their consciences."

Catholics, he said, whether in office or as voters, should "embrace the seamless garment of life: that we protect the life of the unborn, we protect the life of the disabled, we protect the lives of those who are ill and dying, and we even protect the life of those who are convicted of crimes."

Vaillancourt Murphy said that Americans in general, not only Catholics, are increasingly turning against the practice.

"Even as we face the challenges of these regressive steps by a handful of states, there is a clear movement away from the death penalty that can be seen widely across the U.S.," she said.

Several decades of Gallup surveys have shown that more Americans say they favor the death penalty for a person convicted of murder. But a Nov. 14 Gallup survey found support for the death penalty was at 55% last year, a significant decline from 1994, when the survey recorded its all-time high of 80%. For the first time, the poll found that more Americans say it is applied unfairly (50%) than fairly (47%).

"All the indicators we use to assess the death penalty's grip on the U.S. unequivocally indicate that the practice is on its way out in this country," Vaillancourt Murphy said.



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