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Essay: The death penalty and the evolution of faith



The Church’s understanding of what it means to live a Christian life has been evolving for 2,000 years and will continue to do so.

For instance, the early Church accepted slavery as a permissible aspect of human society but later came to see bondage as immoral.

Earlier this month, another step in the evolution of the Church’s teaching took place when Pope Francis announced that the death penalty is wrong in all cases.



At the Pope’s order, the Catechism will be revised to say:

“The Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

This shift in doctrine began in 1992 with St. John Paul II who took strong stands against the death penalty “except in cases of absolute necessity” to protect other lives.

The announcement from Pope Francis closes “the last remaining loophole” in Church’s stand against executions, writes Sister Helen Prejean, a longtime opponent of the death penalty.


“The dignity of the person”

While the new step has many ramifications, the important lesson for most of us may be one sentence from the Catechism revision:

“The dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.”

This is a reminder to treat every person — no matter how “good” or “bad” the person may appear — with dignity and love as someone who is, like us, loved and cherished by God.


Patrick T. Reardon


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