Pope Francis changes church's stance on death penalty

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Pope Francis has spoken out against the death penalty, saying that it is never acceptable "because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person", according to a Vatican announcement and the New York Times.

But an "increasing awareness" that criminals don't lose their human dignity, a "new understanding" of prison systems and the development of "effective systems of detention" have led the church, under Pope Francis, to revise its official views, the Vatican said.

"The catechism prior to yesterday had stated that the death penalty was not allowed except in the rarest of circumstances, so in some ways substantively it's not that major a change", says John Francis Burke, who teaches political science at Trinity University in San Antonio, specializing in Catholic social teaching, Religion and Politics. They did not approach in calling it intrinsically evil - a label applying to abortion, euthanasia, and other attacks on human life such as embryonic stem cell research and human cloning.

"All people have rights and dignity and I think that's the message here, that dignity of all human life", Faulhaber says, "and so, by taking someone's life, that does not promote the dignity of life".

Previously, the catechism said the church didn't exclude the use of capital punishment "if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor".

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His successor, Benedict XVI, in a document published in November 2011, called on society's leaders "to make every effort to eliminate the death penalty". As recently as January 11, 2017 the Diocese of Toledo held a prayer vigil to bring an end to the death penalty in view of a pending OH execution.

In addition, plenty of Catholic organizations are active in the anti-death penalty campaign, including the Sant'Egidio Community, which together with Italian authorities always lights up Rome's Colosseum whenever a country abolishes capital punishment.

The new teaching on the death penalty builds on the instructions of Francis' two immediate predecessors, but goes further, reflecting this pope's unconditional opposition to the death penalty while affirming his vision of a merciful church.

"Dead Man Walking" was made into a 1995 film that starred Susan Sarandon as Prejean and fueled the debate in the USA over capital punishment.

Pope Francis has long opposed the death penalty.

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In the United States, however, today's ruling is already receiving a mixed response given that 31 out of its 50 states maintain the death penalty.

"These upcoming executions are a stark reminder that the death penalty is active in the United States, and it violates our commitment to the dignity of all life", she said. The church had for centuries permitted executions, but in 1997, John Paul II dramatically narrowed the standards for when the punishment was permissible. "Nebraskans are churchgoers and believe in the church and strong family units, and they believe in people paying for their crimes, but not necessarily with their lives".

"Today, in solidarity with Pope Francis and in honor of my father, I will be advancing legislation to remove the death penalty from NY law once and for all", he tweeted on Thursday. Texas has used the punishment the most over past decades - by a wide margin.

Last year, 53 countries carried out death sentences, according to Amnesty International.

While there are instances where the Catholic Church considers the Pope's teaching on faith or morals to be infallible, this is an approval of changes made by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the faith, and is not considered an infallible act by the Pope.

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