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By Diane Montagna, LifeSiteNews, December 17, 2018
ROME, December 17, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) — Pope Francis today said that popes “in centuries past” ignored “the primacy of mercy over justice” in using the death penalty, which he called an “inhuman and form of punishment” that is now “always inadmissible.”
The Pope’s remarks came in a Dec. 17 address to a delegation from the International Commission against the Death Penalty.
During the private audience, the Pope set aside his prepared address and spoke to the delegation in unscripted remarks. After the meeting, the Vatican released the prepared address to reporters, noting that it had also been given to participants.
In the prepared speech, the Pope highlighted the various interventions he has made over the years in favor of abolishing the death penalty, including one to the United States Congress on September 24, 2015.
He also spoke about the recent change to n. 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which he said “now expresses the progress of the doctrine of the last Pontiffs as well as the change in the conscience of the Christian people, which rejects a penalty that seriously injures human dignity.”
Claiming that “in centuries past” the use of the death penalty was based on the inability to protect society, and an insufficiently developed understanding of “human rights,” the Pope said his address that “recourse to the death penalty was sometimes presented as a logical and just consequence.”
“Even in the Pontifical State this inhuman form of punishment has been resorted to, ignoring the primacy of mercy over justice,” he said.
The Pope added: “This is why the new wording of the Catechism also implies assuming our responsibility for the past and recognizing that the acceptance of this form of punishment was the consequence of a contemporary mentality, more legalistic than Christian, which sacralized the value of laws lacking in humanity and mercy.”
Insisting that the change to the Catechism is not a “contradiction with the teaching of the past,” but the “harmonious development” of doctrine, Pope Francis reiterated that the Church now teaches that, “in light of the Gospel, the death penalty is always inadmissible because it violates the inviolability and dignity of the person.”
“In the same way,” he said, “the Magisterium of the Church understands that life imprisonment, which removes the possibility of moral and existential redemption, for the benefit of the condemned and for the community, is a hidden form of the death penalty.”
He therefore urged all states that continue to use the death penalty to “adopt a moratorium with a view to abolishing this cruel form of punishment.”
In his address, the Pope also drew attention to “extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions,” which he said are “regrettably a recurrent phenomenon in countries with or without the legal death penalty.”
“These are deliberate killings committed by state agents, which are often passed off as a result of clashes with suspected criminals or are presented as unintended consequences of the reasonable, necessary and proportionate use of force to protect citizens,” he said.
This is a developing story. Here below we publish a working translation of Pope Francis’ prepared address, which was written in Spanish. We invite readers to check back later today for further commentary on the Pope’s controversial remarks.
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen:
I greet you all warmly and wish to express my personal gratitude for the work of the International Commission against the Death Penalty in favor of the universal abolition of this cruel form of punishment. I am also grateful for the commitment that each of you has had to this cause in your respective countries.
I addressed a letter to your former President on March 19, 2015 and expressed the Church’s commitment to the cause of abolition in my address to the United States Congress on September 24, 2015.
I have shared some ideas on this subject in my letter to the International Criminal Law Association and the Latin American Association of Criminal Law and Criminology, May 30, 2014. I have delved into them in my address to the five major world associations dedicated to the study of criminal law, criminology, victimology and penitentiary issues, on October 23, 2014. The certainty that every life is sacred and that human dignity must be guarded without exception has led me, since the beginning of my ministry, to work at different levels for the universal abolition of the death penalty.
This has recently been reflected in the new wording of n. 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which now expresses the progress of the doctrine of the last Pontiffs as well as the change in the conscience of the Christian people, which rejects a penalty that seriously injures human dignity (cf. Address on the occasion of the 25th Anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, October 11, 2017). A penalty contrary to the Gospel because it implies suppressing a life that is always sacred in the eyes of the Creator and of which only God is the true judge and guarantor (cf. Letter to the President of the International Commission against the Death Penalty, March 20, 2015).
In past centuries, when the instruments available to us today for the protection of society were lacking and the present level of development of human rightshad not yet been reached, recourse to the death penalty was sometimes presentedas a logical and just consequence. Even in the Pontifical State this inhuman form of punishment has been resorted to, ignoring the primacy of mercy over justice.
This is why the new wording of the Catechism implies also assuming our responsibility for the past and recognizing that the acceptance of this form of punishment was the consequence of a contemporary mentality, more legalistic than Christian, which sacralized the value of laws lacking in humanity and mercy. The Church could not remain in a neutral position in the face of today’s demands to reaffirm personal dignity.
The reform of the text of the Catechism on the point dedicated to the death penalty does not imply any contradiction with the teaching of the past, since the Church has always defended the dignity of human life. However, the harmonious development of the doctrine imposes the need to reflect in the Catechism that, without prejudice to the gravity of the crime committed, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that the death penalty is always inadmissible because it violates the inviolability and dignity of the person.
In the same way, the Magisterium of the Church understands that life imprisonment, which removes the possibility of moral and existential redemption, for the benefit of the condemned and for the community, is a hidden form of the death penalty (cf. Address to a Delegation of the International Association of Penal Law, October 23, 2014). God is a Father who always awaits the return of the son who, knowing that he has made a mistake, asks for forgiveness and begins a new life. No one, then, can be deprived of life or of the hope of redemption and reconciliation with the community.
As has happened in the bosom of the Church, a similar commitment must be made in the concert of nations. The sovereign right of all countries to define their legal system cannot be exercised in contradiction with their obligations under international law, nor can it represent an obstacle to the universal recognition of human dignity.
The United Nations resolutions on the moratorium of the use of the death penalty, which aim to suspend the application of the death penalty in member countries, are a path that must be followed without compromising the initiative of universal abolition.
On this occasion, I would like to invite all States that have not abolished the death penalty but do not apply it to continue to comply with this international commitment and that the moratorium should not apply only to the execution of the death penalty but also to the imposition of death sentences. The moratorium cannot be lived by the condemned person as a mere prolongation of the waiting period for its execution.
To those States that continue to apply the death penalty, I urge them to adopt a moratorium with a view to abolishing this cruel form of punishment. I understand that in order to achieve abolition, which is the goal of this cause, in certain contexts it may be necessary to go through complex political processes. The suspension of executions and the reduction of capital offences, as well as the prohibition of this form of punishment for minors, pregnant women or persons with mental or intellectual disabilities, are minimum targets to which leaders around the world must commit themselves.
As I have done on previous occasions, I would like once again to draw attention to extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, which regrettably are a recurrent phenomenon in countries with or without the legal death penalty. These are deliberate killings committed by state agents, which are often passed off as a result of clashes with suspected criminals or are presented as unintended consequences of the reasonable, necessary and proportionate use of force to protect citizens.
Love of self is a fundamental principle of morality. It is therefore legitimate to ensure respect for one’s right to life, even when it is necessary to deal a mortal blow to the aggressor (cf. CEC, n. 2264).
Legitimate defense is not a right but a duty for one who is responsible for the life of another (cf. ibid., n. 2265). The defense of the common good demands that the aggressor be placed in the situation of not being able to cause harm. For this reason, those who have legitimate authority must reject any aggression, even with the use of weapons, whenever this is necessary for the preservation of their own life or that of the persons in their care. As a consequence, any use of lethal force that is not strictly necessary for this purpose can only be reputed as an illegal execution, a state crime.
All defensive action, to be legitimate, must be necessary and measured. As St. Thomas Aquinas taught, “such an act, as far as the preservation of one’s own life is concerned, has nothing illicit, since it is natural for every being to preserve his existence as much as he can. However, an act that comes from good intention can become illicit if it is not proportionate to the end. Therefore, if one, in order to defend one’s own life, uses more violence than is necessary, this act will be illicit. But if he rejects aggression moderately, defense will be lawful because, according to law, it is lawful to repel force with force, moderating defense according to the needs of the threatened security” (Summa theologiae, 2-2, q. 64, a. 7).
Finally, I would like to share with you a reflection that is linked to the work you do, to your struggle for truly human justice. Reflections in the field of law and the philosophy of law have traditionally dealt with those who injure or interfere with the rights of others. Less attention has been paid to the failure to help others when we can. It is a reflection that can no longer wait.
The traditional principles of justice, characterized by the idea of respect for individual rights and their protection from interference in them by others, must be complemented by an ethic of care. In the field of criminal justice, this implies a greater understanding of the causes of conduct, its social context, the vulnerability of offenders to the law and the suffering of victims. This way of reasoning, inspired by divine mercy, should lead us to contemplate each concrete case in its specificity, and not to deal with abstract numbers of victims and perpetrators. In this way, it is possible to address the ethical and moral problems arising from conflict and social injustice, to understand the suffering of the concrete people involved and to arrive at other types of solutions that do not deepen these sufferings.
We could say it with this image: we need a justice that, in addition to being a father, is also a mother. The gestures of mutual care, proper to love which is also civil and political, are manifested in all the actions that seek to build a better world (cf. Encyclical Letter Laudato si’, n. 231). Love of society and commitment to the common good are an excellent form of charity, which not only affects relationships between individuals, but also “macro-relationships, such as social, economic and political relationships” (BENEDICT XVI, Encyclical Letter Caritas in veritate, 29 June 2009, 2: AAS 101 , 642).
Social love is the key to authentic development: “In order to shape a more human society, more worthy of the person, it is necessary to revalue love in social life — at the political, economic and cultural levels — by making it the constant and supreme norm of action” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church,n. 582). Within this framework, social love moves us to think of great strategies that encourage a culture of carein the different spheres of common life. The work you do is part of that effort to which we are called.
Dear friends, I thank you again for this meeting, and I assure you that I will continue to work with you for the abolition of the death penalty. The Church is committed to this and I hope that the Holy See will collaborate with the International Commission against the Death Penalty in building the necessary consensus for the eradication of capital punishment and all forms of cruel punishment.
It is a cause to which all men and women of good will are called and a duty for those of us who share the Christian vocation of Baptism. All, in any case, need God’s help, which is the source of all reason and justice.
I therefore invoke for each of you, through the intercession of the Virgin Mother, the light and power of the Holy Spirit. I bless you with all my heart, and please pray for me.