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Pope’s challenge: Convince Catholics on the death penalty

Pope Francis at St. Peter's Square at the

Pope Francis at St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on July 31. Credit: AP / Alessandra Tarantino

One reason the Catholic bishops have had so little success teaching about abortion is that it’s the one life issue that they proclaim at the highest volume. By declaring the church’s total opposition to the death penalty on Thursday, Pope Francis has taken a step in the direction of more consistency and credibility for the bishops.

This is not the first time a pope has spoken out strongly on the death penalty. In January 1999, I covered Pope John Paul II when he visited St. Louis and offered this critique: “A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.”

The state of Missouri regularly used the death penalty, but backed off from the execution of convicted triple murderer Darrell Mease, which had been scheduled for the day of the papal visit, but got postponed by the state Supreme Court until the next month. Later, in response to the pope’s in-person plea, then-Gov. Mel Carnahan commuted the sentence to life in prison.

But even after revisions of the Catechism of the Catholic Church following John Paul’s 1995 encyclical “Evangelium Vitae,” or “The Gospel of Life,” it allowed the death penalty in limited circumstances: “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”

To me, prison was always an adequate alternative, and “assuming” that a condemned person has been justly convicted is risky. Writing about criminal justice, I’ve covered two men sent to death row whose convictions were later overturned, and they walked free. And the Equal Justice Initiative, based in Alabama and led by Bryan Stevenson, continues to exonerate condemned prisoners.

The year before John Paul died, the Vatican’s chief doctrinal officer, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), gave this less-than-definitive comment on how Catholics should form their conscience on the death penalty: “There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”

Now Francis has left no wiggle room. The new catechism language notes “an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes” and the development of “more effective systems of detention.” Citing a 2017 speech by Francis, it says: “Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

Of course, it depends on how you define church. The hierarchy now teaches definitively that the death penalty is “inadmissible.” But the hierarchy also teaches that contraception, banned 50 years ago by the encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” or “On Human Life,” is a moral evil. North of 80 percent of Catholics reject that teaching. Similarly, many Catholics still believe in the death penalty and make a sharp distinction between innocent life in the womb and likely guilty life on death row.

So, it won’t be easy for Francis and the bishops to get this teaching across to the people in the pews — especially when the allegations against now-former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick have added to the sexual abuse scandal’s erosion of the hierarchy’s credibility. But Francis has taken a laudable, overdue step toward making the church’s teaching on life more consistent and coherent.

Bob Keeler is a former member of Newsday’s editorial board.