The Vatican announced on Thursday an official change to the Catholic Church's teaching. The church now rejects the death penalty in all instances, and will work to abolish capital punishment wherever it is still carried out.
Pope Francis has not been shy about denouncing the death penalty for a while now. Just last year he spoke before an audience of clergy and ambassadors from several countries and hinted at this forthcoming change in catechism.
The catechism is the summary of Catholic teaching or doctrines. It has been revised from time to time over the centuries, as the church has had to adapt to changing social conditions. You would think God would have given his prophets the right message the first time around, but apparently God likes to reveal things on the installment plan, and usually only after certain doctrines become untenable as society evolves.
The church's teaching now describes capital punishment as "inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person." If only God had not waited until 2018 to reveal this truth. The Spanish Inquisition, heretic trials, the burning of witches, these all went on for centuries and were carried out by the pious men of the church. If God had only been more forthcoming, all that misery could have been avoided!
Catholics in countries that still have the death penalty (the United States has 31 states where the death penalty remains legal) are going to need to wrestle with this. The United States is actually an outlier among western countries that have a high population of Christians. Many countries in Europe and South America have abolished the death penalty already.
It should come as no surprise that many high-profile Catholics are already complaining about Pope Francis's change to the catechism. Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts, himself a Catholic, said he would not change Nebraska law. “While I respect the pope’s perspective, capital punishment remains the will of the people and the law of the state of Nebraska,” Ricketts said.
Bill Donohue, the living embodiment of a dumpster fire and the president of the Catholic League, said of the pope's decision, "I think a lot of the pro-life people will feel that [Pope Francis] has undercut us. Why the need for the change? I see nothing in the comments coming from the Vatican that explains why something broke. This will only add to the confusion in the laity."
Yes, you read that right. He identifies himself and those who agree with him as "pro-life" while at the same time wanting to continue carrying out the death penalty.
As an atheist looking at this from the outside, I cannot help but notice that the Catholics who still support the death penalty do have one thing on their side. The Bible. Pope Francis and the Vatican can only describe the death penalty as antithetical to Catholic doctrine by ignoring A LOT of the Bible.
In my coverage of immoral Bible passages I wrote about God's endorsement of murder for supposed crimes like witchcraft and sex outside of marriage, and I also covered some of the more horrible things Jesus said. The Old and New Testament contain clear examples of God, Jesus, and their prophets endorsing the death penalty for such horrible misdeeds as telling a lie, not believing in the god of Abraham, or working on the Sabbath.
While it is a good thing that the pope and the Vatican have taken a stand against the death penalty (I wish they would take a better stand on things like equality, birth control, and how to stop clergy from sexually abusing children), they can only come to this conclusion based on an intellectually dishonest way of reading their scriptures. And that is a problem that Catholics who support the death penalty will exploit.
It would be better for everyone to stand against the death penalty for some of the more reasoned arguments that are available. For example, the fact that it disproportionately affects racial minorities, or the fact that many people have been executed despite evidence of their innocence, are better reasons to reevaluate our use of the death penalty. They are, at the very least, better reasons than, "God just told me he doesn't like it anymore."
In the United States, according to a recent Pew poll, 54% of the population supports the death penalty for people convicted of murder. That is a slight increase from 49% a couple years ago. 53% of Catholics support it. Maybe that number will change over the next few years following this latest change in doctrine, but for now we will have to watch how the Catholic community responds.