It is a watershed development in the history of the Catholic church. Pope Francis has signalled a profound change in the traditional teachings of the Vatican.
The death penalty, the Pope announced last Thursday, is “inadmissible” and the Catholic church would work for its abolition across the world. The risk that the Vatican might ruffle feathers in the US and China ~ both countries carry out executions ~ is substantial.
Of far greater import is the momentous swing towards liberal and humane justice not least because the Roman Catholic church had hitherto viewed the death penalty, carried out by a legitimate authority after a fair trial, as an “appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good”, going by the Vatican’s statement in the immediate aftermath of the Pope’s sermon.
Rome has underlined the fact that there has been an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person was not lost even after “the commission of very serious crimes”.
Ergo, it is the dignity of man rather than capital punishment that has been upheld. It is fervently to be hoped that so profound a change in the Vatican’s philosophical perspective will be effected by the comity of nations in the wider perspective.
No less crucially, it ought not to ignite a conflict between Church and State, as often witnessed in British and European history. The Papacy’s emphasis on “more effective systems of detention” could ensure the protection of citizens without depriving “the guilty of the possibility of redemption”.
The balance is intended to protect the human factor. Pope Francis has previously spoken out against the death penalty, asserting only last year that it “heavily wounds human dignity” and is an inhuman measure.
Capital punishment was “in itself, contrary to the Gospel”, he said. There was further forward movement on Thursday when he announced a formal change to the “universal catechism”, or church teaching.
The signal from the Papacy ought ideally to prompt a reflection on the issue, most particularly in the US and China. The move is a challenge to Donald Trump, who in March this year had advocated the death penalty for drug dealers. The US President has also called for terrorists and “perverts” to be put to death. Capital punishment is legal in 31 states of the country.
The Pope’s new teaching might create another hurdle in the Vatican’s delicate negotiations with China over the restoration of relations between the two. Reports suggest that China applies the death penalty to hundreds of people every year.
The Vatican has been courting the Chinese authorities for the past two years in an attempt to restore relations between the two, which were cut almost 70 years ago. Central to the discourse is death penalty per se and not the method ~ the hangman’s noose, the firing squad, the sword or the lethal injection.