Pope Francis says the death penalty is “inadmissible” under all circumstances. The Vatican announced the change Thursday what the Catholic Church has maintained for centuries. Until now, Catholic teaching has left some room for support of capital punishment.
Within hours of the announcement, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he’d introduce legislation to end the death penalty in his state. However, it’s not clear whether the same could happen in here. Texas has used the punishment the most over past decades – by a wide margin. And the Pope’s statement isn’t a major change of course.
“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.
He says that the pope’s latest statement “simply eliminates all possibilities, whereas before there was always sort of an exception for the rarest of circumstances.”
“But now it’s hard for any sort of public official, especially if they claim to be of Catholic background, to try to use that exception as a basis for their rationale for supporting the death penalty. Leaders such as Governor [Greg] Abbott, for instance, come to mind in this regard. So it puts a little bit of moral pressure on him to try to get out in front and support the Church’s position rather than being a defender of the death penalty.”
But Burke doesn’t think Abbott has the support to do an about-face.
“The reality is that there’s still strong support among Republicans for the death penalty. And even when you look at among religious believers, a Pew Research Center poll just held in late April, even among Catholics, you had 53 percent supporting the death penalty, and it gets even larger among white evangelical Protestants, it goes up as high as 73 percent.”
While there may not be substantive change just yet, “it’ll put some more pressure on politicians like Abbott, who are Catholic, in terms of defending the death penalty, just as the same problem occurs for more liberal politicians like Cuomo when it comes to the abortion issue,” Burke says.
The advocacy group Faith in Public Life said the pope wants to elevate the death penalty “as a definitive pro-life issue.” The Catholic church’s anti-abortion stance is well-known – and a stance many Texas leaders support. Burke sees these two conversations about life and death beginning to merge politically, though they’ve always been related within the Church.
“It’s not a problem within Catholic moral and social teaching because there’s always been consistency that the Church was standing for life from womb to tomb,” Burke says. “But, politically, the problem has been that more conservative Catholics have been more willing to support the death penalty because of that exception in the catechism and vice versa, that liberal Catholics have been willing to challenge the Church’s teaching on abortion almost as a base of dissent from the official teaching.
“The reality is that probably only about 20 percent of Catholics, counting both those attending regularly and those who claim to be Catholic, more cultural Catholics, only about 20 percent of that group really is consistent in terms of supporting pro-life across the board, from the abortion issue to the euthanasia issue, and then all life issue in between, whether it’s good housing, good employment, and in this case the death penalty.”
Pope Francis has altered the church’s stance on issues before, including the handling of divorced and remarried couples, and to a lesser extent, homosexuality, among other changes. But Burke is doubtful the latest change will affect U.S. politics.
“In general terms, the reality still is that there’s gonna be a lot of Republican support for use of the death penalty,” Burke says. “At the same time, if you look at what’s been happening even in Texas, the option that was created in terms of having life without parole is that more and more juries do not exercise the use of the death penalty, and so, this moral imperative that has been emphasized – and I think that’s the real impact of this change, is that it’s going to put a lot more pressure on political leaders not just in Texas but across the world, to stop the use of the death penalty.”
Texas Standard reached out to Governor Abbott’s office for comment on this issue. His office politely declined.
Written by Rachel Taube.