October 29, 2020 Religion & the death penalty

Pope Francis Releases Encyclical Cementing Catholic Church’s Opposition to the Death Penalty

By DPRP intern Annika Russell
Pope Francis signs the new Encyclical "Fratelli Tutti", which includes a strong condemnation of capital punishment.

Pope Francis signs the new Encyclical "Fratelli Tutti", which includes a strong condemnation of capital punishment.

Vatican Media

On October 3, 2020, Pope Francis issued a new encyclical entitled Fratelli Tutti (“All Brothers”), which ratified the position of the Catholic Church against the death penalty and called upon all Catholics to advocate for the abolition of the death penalty worldwide. As the highest form of papal communication, an encyclical offers guiding principles to help the faithful better apply the teachings of scripture and the Catholic tradition. Fratelli Tutti is the third encyclical Pope Francis has issued since becoming pope in 2013.

Despite the Catholic Church’s centuries-long history of death penalty opposition, previous popes have left room in their formal positions to allow for the use of lawful executions in exceptional cases. Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”), condemned capital punishment except “in cases of absolute necessity” which were said to be “very rare, if not practically non-existent.” He called for its abolition just four years later.

Building upon this precedent, the abolition of the death penalty has always been among Pope Francis’ top priorities. In 2018, Pope Francis revised the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, a doctrinal manual used for teaching Catholic children and converts worldwide, to describe the death penalty as “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” that is “inadmissible” in all cases. 

There can be no stepping back from this position. Today we state clearly that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible’ and the Church is firmly committed to calling for its abolition worldwide.

Pope Francis

However, the power of an encyclical is distinct in that it commands the highest authority of any published Catholic document. Officially placing death penalty abolition in the forefront of Catholic teachings, Pope Francis wrote, "There can be no stepping back from this position. Today we state clearly that 'the death penalty is inadmissible' and the Church is firmly committed to calling for its abolition worldwide."  In total, Fratelli Tutti referenced the death penalty twelve times, calling attention to the possibility of judicial error and the misuse of capital punishment as a tool of persecution or revenge.

In keeping with Fratelli Tutti’s emphasis on respecting the dignity of every human, Pope Francis urged all Catholics to support not only the abolition of capital punishment, but also the improvement of prison conditions. He said, “I would link this to life imprisonment […] A life sentence is a secret death penalty.”

The new encyclical could pose an ethical quandary for the roughly 51 million Catholic adults in the United States. A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that 53% of American Catholics still support capital punishment. Further, this encyclical could put Catholic political and judicial leaders in a uniquely difficult position. Catholic decision-makers in state and federal government who are most likely to play a role in the continued administration of the death penalty include Attorney General William Barr, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, Supreme Court Justices John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Sonia Sotomayor, and Brett Kavanaugh, and Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett.