While the Catholic Church has always discouraged capital punishment as part of its pro-life teachings, Pope Francis strengthened the language of opposition in August, changing the Catechism of the Catholic Church to state "the death penalty is inadmissible."
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a resource that offers the fundamental Christian truths to help people better understand the faith. The Catechism was changed to reflect the words of Pope Francis, who stated, "The death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person" in 2017.
Previously, the Church argued that the state authority may use the death penalty in cases of absolute necessity, but those qualifications are extremely rare. The Catechism was changed for reasons including the increasing effectiveness of detention, the growing understanding of the dignity of the person, and the possibility of conversion.
Father Gregory Faulhaber, pastor of Queen of Heaven Church in West Seneca, explained that the Church has consistently stood against the death penalty with both papal statements and writings from U.S. bishops, including the late Bishop Edward D. Head of Buffalo.
"It's some changing in the wording, but ultimately, the spirit isn't any different than it was before," Father Faulhaber said. "It was a development, and it's a continuing development for our appreciation of all human life. It's probably taking out some of the loopholes that people were trying to find to defend the death penalty."
New editions of the Catechism will be printed to reflect the new wording in paragraph 2267 as follows:
"Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.
"Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens, but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.
"Consequently, the Church teaches, in light of the Gospel, that 'the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,' and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide."
As Father Faulhaber notes, several studies have concluded it's actually more expensive to execute a prisoner than to keep them confined for the rest of their lives, because of all the increases in legal expenses and evidence testing for a death row case. In addition, some death penalty cases have been overturned due to DNA testing, or judgments were delivered uneven across social-economic and demographic lines.
"We aren't always that accurate with (evidence), and there's certainly the possibility of the (state's) mistake," Father Faulhaber said. "But even if somebody was this abdominal criminal, keeping them in prison might be just as harsh (as death)."
In New York state, the official legality of capital punishment has flipped a few times over the past four decades. Currently, the death penalty has been abolished since 2007.
The Church's teaching on the death penalty is consistent with the pro-life platform that respect the dignity of the person and life in all stages, whether it's in the womb, or speaking against assisted suicide and capital punishment.
"Life is ultimately God's decision and not ours," Father Faulhaber said.