Not at all unexpectedly, Pope Francis has, like his predecessors, voiced opposition to the death penalty—most recently in a message to the Fifth World Congress Against the Death Penalty, being held in Madrid.
Opposition to the death penalty is part of the Church’s defense of the dignity of human life, he said, and it is “a courageous reaffirmation of the conviction that humanity can successfully confront criminality” without resorting to the suppression of life.
In his message, which was signed by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Holy Father recalled that his predecessors Benedict XVI and John Paul II made similar pleas.
He asked that “capital sentences be commuted to a lesser punishment that allows for time and incentives for the reform of the offender.”
“Today, more than ever, it is urgent that we remember and affirm the need for universal recognition and respect for the inalienable dignity of human life, in its immeasurable value,” Cardinal Bertone wrote on behalf of Pope Francis.
Here at Ethika Politika, discussion of capital punishment has focused mainly on the role of prudential judgment versus the absolute value of human life, as well as the type of authority required to end it. Some central moments of the conversation have included Aaron Taylor's "Capital Punishment and Public Safety," Michael Bradley's "Kermit Gosnell and (Divine) Justice," and (although to a lesser degree) my own "Church, State, Death Penalty."
The questions we must ask in response to Pope Francis's comments are, of course, in what light they were offered, and in what context they deserve to be unpacked. It's quite clear that the Church, at its core, must be opposed to violence and suffering, since these are incompatible with its ultimate, beatific end. On the other hand, aspiring to supernatural perfection does not necessarily entail despising the natural order and prudential goods.
Many will attempt to explain the Holy Father's words in a vacuum. No matter what they amount to, this is perhaps the most un-Catholic response possible.