Death Penalty

New catechism calling for end to death penalty affirms evolving doctrine, cardinal tells ABA panel

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Pope Francis

Pope Francis. Photo by Benhur Arcayan, via Wikimedia Commons.

Updated: In an appearance at the ABA Annual Meeting on Thursday, Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich said revisions to the catechism on the death penalty reflect evolving church doctrine and an acknowledgement that the scales of justice can’t be rebalanced after a murder.

Pope Francis announced a change to the catechism Thursday that says the death penalty is “inadmissible” in all cases “because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

Cupich spoke about the change as on the panel “Has the Death Penalty Become an Anachronism? The Future of a System That Has Evolved in the Opposite Direction From Our Standards of Decency.” The panel was sponsored by the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice.

Cupich’s appearance was scheduled before the announcement and the timing was coincidental, the archdiocese said.

Cupich said “at a profound human level, we tend to believe that by executing a murderer, we are somehow helping rebalance the scales of justice,” the Chicago Tribune reported. “But there is a flaw in that way of thinking, for the real tragedy of murder is that there is no way to rebalance the scales of justice, no way to bring life back to those who have been killed or to restore them to their grieving families.”

The change was announced Thursday with the release of a letter to bishops that said the change stemmed from a new understanding of modern punishment, which should aim to rehabilitate those who have committed crimes, report the National Catholic Reporter, the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today and the Associated Press.

The letter by the head of the Vatican’s doctrine office said the new text was an evolution of prior teaching.

The pope has previously called for abolition of the death penalty, and he requested a change to the catechism during a speech in October.

The revised text now reads: “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.”

The text says the imposition of the death penalty by a legitimate authority after a fair trial “was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.”

“Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes,” the text says.

Amnesty International reports that more than 20,000 people are on death row worldwide. Vatican expert John Thavis told the New York Times that the revision “will be a big deal for the future of the death penalty in the world.”

Updated with Cupich’s comment on Aug. 3.

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