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Pope pleads on his birthday for an end to the death penalty

By Sarah Mac Donald - 18 December, 2018

Pope Francis has once again spoken out strongly against the death penalty, insisting the Church “cannot remain neutral” on the issue and imploring countries still using capital punishment to “adopt a moratorium”.

In an address on Monday to members of the International Commission against the Death Penalty, the Pope said capital punishment is “contrary to the Gospel as 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”.

The Pope reiterated the Church’s teaching that “in the light of the Gospel, the death penalty is always inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”.

The truth that “every life is sacred”, Pope Francis told Commission members, had convinced him to commit himself to abolishing the death penalty at the international level.

This commitment became concrete, the Pope said, with the recent change of paragraph 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

He said Church teaching now reflects “the doctrine of the latest pontiffs as well as the change in the conscience of Christians who reject a penalty that seriously harms human dignity”.

Pope Francis reiterated that the doctrine accepting the death penalty came from a “period that was more legalistic than Christian” that “ignored the primacy of mercy over justice”.

He told them that he ordered a change in the wording of the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a way of “taking responsibility for the past” and acknowledging the flaws in past statements of Church teaching.

He argued that lethal force can only be used to stop aggression, and any other use of deadly force, such as capital punishment, “can only be considered an illegal execution, a state crime”.

Of the sovereign right of nations to determine their legal systems, he said this could not be in contradiction with international law or “the universal recognition of human dignity,” the Pope said. He also praised the UN resolution encouraging member nations to “suspend the application of the death penalty”.

Pope Francis appealed directly to those countries where the death penalty is legal but not applied and asked them to continue applying this moratorium not only by not carrying out death sentences, but by not imposing death sentences in the first place.

“The moratorium,” he said, “cannot be lived by the person condemned to death as a mere prolongation” of the time until the execution of the sentence.

To the countries still applying the death penalty, the Pope begged them to “adopt a moratorium” with a view to abolishing this “cruel form of punishment”.

He told the delegates that the Church and the Holy See desire “to collaborate with the International Commission against the Death Penalty in building the necessary consensus to eradicate capital punishment and every form of cruel punishment”.

“It is a cause,” he said, “that all men and women of good will are called to and it is a duty for those of us who share the Christian vocation of Baptism”.

The Pope was speaking on his 82nd birthday, which he celebrated on Sunday by throwing a small party for himself and a group of children who are receiving medical care from the Santa Marta Paediatric Dispensary.

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