ROME (Christian Examiner) – Pope Francis has called on world leaders to halt executions for capital crimes during the Catholic Church's "Jubilee Year" – a first step, he said, toward abolishing the death penalty worldwide.
Francis claimed during his speech to a general audience in St. Peter's Square on Sunday that there is now "a growing opposition to the death penalty even for the legitimate defense of society" because societies have developed modern means to "repress crime without definitively denying the person who committed it the possibility of rehabilitating themselves."
"The commandment 'You shall not kill' has absolute value and applies to both the innocent and the guilty," the pontiff told the crowd. "I appeal to the consciences of those who govern to reach an international consensus to abolish the death penalty."
All Christians and men of good will are called on to work not only for the abolition of the death penalty, but also to improve prison conditions so that they respect the human dignity of people who have been deprived of their freedom.
The statement, however, runs contrary to nearly two millennia of Catholic teaching. The church has in the past supported the authority of the state to carry out capital punishment as a means of deterrence, according to the teachings first offered on the matter by St. Augustine in the late fourth and early fifth centuries.
Those teachings were later supported by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, with the understanding that the state could also impose the death penalty on religious heretics anathematized by the church. The church often used the death penalty at the hands of civil authorities to silence dissent during the Middle Ages.
Francis is not the first pope to call for an end to the death penalty. Catholic opinion on capital punishment first shifted during the papacy of John Paul II.
"The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life in every situation. 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. ... I renew the appeal I made ... for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary," John Paul II said in 1999.
Fresh from a visit to a Mexican prison, Francis has called for the improvement of prison conditions and asked that governments also reconsider life-long prison sentences, which he called "a hidden death penalty."
"All Christians and men of good will are called on to work not only for the abolition of the death penalty, but also to improve prison conditions so that they respect the human dignity of people who have been deprived of their freedom," he said.
Francis's comments were meant to have an impact on the international symposium on the death penalty sponsored by the Community of Sant'Egidio in Rome. This year's conference is called, "For a world without the death penalty."
"I hope," the Pope said, "that this symposium can give a renewed impulse to efforts for the abolition of capital punishment."
Francis said those who murder still "maintain the inviolable right to life, the gift of God."