By Aaron Earls
Pope Francis revised official Catholic teaching to condemn the death penalty, while the majority of American Catholics and Protestants remain supportive of capital punishment.
The pope invoked “increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes” as justification to reject all instances of capital punishment as “inadmissible.” Accordingly, the Catholic Church “works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”
Previously, the Catholic Church had used increasingly strong language in rebuking the death penalty, but had allowed for at least theoretical implementation of it until now.
“The key point here is really human dignity,” Vatican spokesperson Greg Burke told CNN. “The pope is saying that no matter how grievous the crime, someone never loses his or her human dignity.”
While Christian leaders can agree that crimes do not remove a person’s human dignity, many do not accept that necessarily leads to a complete rejection of the death penalty.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said Pope Francis is wrong to apply biblical commandments against murder to every application of the death penalty.
“We may disagree, with good arguments on both sides, about the death penalty. But as we do so, we must not lose the distinction the Bible makes between the innocent and the guilty,” he wrote after a previous statement by Pope Francis.
“The gospel shows us forgiveness for the guilty through the sin-absorbing atonement of Christ, not through the state’s refusal to carry out temporal justice.”
According to Pew Research analysis of religious organizations’ statements on the death penalty, however, most oppose the death penalty. Ten Christian denominations or religious groups had made their opposite clear.
As of 2015, only the Assemblies of God, Latter-day Saints, Hinduism, and the National Baptist Convention had not taken a position on capital punishment, while Islam, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and the Southern Baptist Convention had expressed support for capital punishment in certain instances.
What Do Americans and Christians Believe About the Death Penalty?
Despite what the pope and other denominations have said, most Americans, evangelicals, and Catholics support capital punishment.
After two decades of declining support, Pew Research found a recent uptick in the percentage of Americans who favor the death penalty for those convicted of murder.
In 1996, almost 8 in 10 (78 percent) supported putting convicted murderers to death. In 2016, however, support fell to 49 percent—the lowest level in surveys dating back to the early 1970s.
The share of Americans backing the death penalty rebounded in 2018, pushing the number up to 54 percent in favor. More than 1 in 3 (39 percent) remain opposed.
White evangelical Protestants (73 percent), white mainline Protestants (61 percent), and white Catholics (57 percent) back the death penalty in cases of murder. A slim majority of all Catholics (53 percent) favor it.
Gallup found a similar rebound in the percentage of Americans who say the death penalty is morally acceptable. After dropping below 60 percent for the first time in 2016 and 2017, 62 percent said they believe the death penalty is morally acceptable in 2018.
AARON EARLS (@WardrobeDoor) is online editor of Facts & Trends.