Friday, August 03, 2018

Pope Francis and the Death Penalty

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Yesterday Pope Francis made an important pronouncement about capital punishment. Somewhat to my surprise, Francis is the first pope to state that the death penalty is not acceptable, no matter the nature or severity of the crime. This has been the official United Church of Canada position for more than 60 years. This position is shared by many other denominations around the world. More conservative Christian churches are often in favour of capital punishment, even though they claim to be "pro-life." For me the death penalty is contrary to the teaching of Jesus, not to mention that Jesus was cruelly put to death by the Roman regime which used crucifixion as both punishment and deterrent.

Here is how the New York Times reports Pope Francis' statement:

ROME — Pope Francis has declared the death penalty wrong in all cases, a definitive change in church teaching that is likely to challenge Catholic politicians, judges and officials who have argued that their church was not entirely opposed to capital punishment.
Before, church doctrine accepted the death penalty if it was “the only practicable way” to defend lives, an opening that some Catholics took as license to support capital punishment in many cases.
But Francis said executions were unacceptable in all cases because they are “an attack” on human dignity, the Vatican announced on Thursday, adding that the church would work “with determination” to abolish capital punishment worldwide.
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Here in Canada the death penalty was abolished in 1976, although there wasn't an execution for a decade before that decision. There have been a number of high profile circumstances since then in which individuals convicted of crimes where the punishment formerly would have been state-sanctioned death have been exonerated.
But beyond this, it is possible that people can change, and that they can be remorseful for their crimes. I mentioned returning to Kingston Penitentiary for a tour not long ago and the memories which welled up from a summer there as a chaplain intern. I got to know several murderers who would spend at least 20 years behind bars for their crimes. Some of them had committed brutal crimes in their youth but had become different people over time, in some cases because of repentance through new-found Christian faith. They wouldn't get out of prison any earlier, but there was the possibility for a different life, even while incarcerated.
I applaud the pope's decision, even though it will be controversial within the Roman Catholic church. And what about the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh in the United States? He is a practicing Catholic in a nation where the death penalty is still legal in 31 states. Where will his allegiance lie?

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