Pope Francis’ recent statement that the death penalty is incompatible with the Gospel focused less on a government’s role in protecting its people and more on the need to defend the sacredness and dignity of every human life.
At least from the time of Blessed Paul VI in the 1960s, the Catholic Church has been increasingly critical of the use of capital punishment, even while acknowledging centuries of church teaching that a state has a right to punish offenders, including with the death penalty.
St. John Paul II, in his 1995 encyclical letter, “The Gospel of Life,” wrote of his alarm at “the extraordinary increase and gravity of threats to the life of individuals and peoples,” but said one sign of hope was the increasing opposition around the world to capital punishment.
“There is evidence of a growing public opposition to the death penalty, even when such a penalty is seen as a kind of ‘legitimate defense’ on the part of society. Modern society, in fact, has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform,” he wrote.