In his memoir The Church and I, the Catholic apologist Frank Sheed recalled his part in an unusual conversion story.
A murderer on death row had asked to become a Catholic. Since time was short, the chaplain gave him a copy of Sheed’s A Map of Life, a brisk explanation of God, the Church, sin, redemption and the afterlife. Sheed relates: “The man was baptised, made his first Communion. Then he was told that if he applied for a reprieve he would probably get it. He refused, saying, ‘If that book is true, I’m going.’ And he went.”
In 1980, when those words were written, it did not seem strange that either a distinguished lay theologian like Sheed, or a newly baptised criminal, would accept the death penalty. But Catholic culture has changed a good deal in the decades since. It was in 1980 that the US bishops first openly called for the abolition of the death penalty – though they acknowledged that Catholics might disagree. By 2007 the bishops were arguing that the sacredness of human life “compels us as Catholics” to oppose capital punishment.
In that same period, many theologians have queried the traditional justifications of the death penalty. They have been inspired by the US bishops’ campaign, but even more by the popes. St John Paul II and Benedict XVI argued against the practice of the death penalty: they did not say that it was always and everywhere wrong, but urged governments to do away with the practice. Pope Francis has not made that distinction. Earlier this month, he suggested in a homily that the Holy Spirit had led the Church to realise that the death penalty was “inadmissible”.
Francis was not issuing a dogmatic pronouncement, and his remarks are more likely to intensify the debate than to end it. For political as well as theological reasons, capital punishment will be one of the Catholic talking points of 2017 and beyond.
This debate is politically significant because in several countries the Catholic clergy and laity are at the forefront of campaigns against the death penalty. As part of his crackdown on drug dealers, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte is trying to pass a new law reintroducing capital punishment. The country’s bishops are united in opposition and helped to organise the 21-day series of demonstrations which culminated on Wednesday outside the Senate. The Indonesian government is also using the death penalty to fight the narcotics trade, leading to protests from the Indonesian bishops.
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