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Pope Francis changes Catholic Church teaching to say death penalty is 'inadmissible'

Pope Francis smiles at supporters outside the Vatican Apostolic Nunciature in Santiago, Chile, on Jan. 15, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Tamara Merino

ROME - Pope Francis has changed Catholic Church teaching to fully reject the death penalty, the Vatican announced Thursday, saying it would work to abolish capital punishment worldwide.

The change addresses several sentences of the catechism, the compendium of Catholic beliefs, and it sharply amplifies the church's opposition to a policy that is heavily debated around the world and used in parts of the United States.

The church's updated teaching states that capital punishment is "inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person." Previously, the church allowed for the death penalty in very rare cases, only as a means of "defending human lives against the unjust aggressor."

Francis has for years been a vocal critic of the death penalty, calling it an "inhuman measure," but his latest move places the issue toward the forefront of his efforts to overhaul and modernize the Roman Catholic Church, even as it struggles to contend with a new wave of sexual abuse allegations. The move could also reshape discussion about the issue in the United States, where some Catholic politicians - such as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, whose state carries out the highest number of executions - have supported the death penalty.

"There is no doubt the pope wants politicians to pay attention to this," said John Gehring, the Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington. "He is not just speaking internally. The pope wants to elevate this as a definitive pro-life issue."

The Argentine pontiff, who had hinted last year that such a change might come, has described the church's stance on the death penalty as evidence of how the Vatican can evolve - in this case, over the course of a generation. The church had for centuries permitted executions, but in 1997, John Paul II dramatically narrowed the standards for when the punishment was permissible. Since then, the number of nations that use capital punishment has decreased.

The practice has been fully abolished in most countries that are predominantly Catholic, including throughout the European Union and across nearly all of South America. More than 80 percent of the 993 executions recorded in 2017 by Amnesty International were carried out in the Arab world - led by Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Amnesty International does not publish data from China, where the death penalty is also legal.

In some countries, however, politicians have made a notable push to revive it. On Wednesday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey could soon reinstate the practice - which it abolished in 2004 when it was seeking to meet the requirements for E.U. membership. In the Philippines, a predominantly Catholic nation, the church has been at the center of a fight to prevent President Rodrigo Duterte from reinstituting the death penalty.

The shift in the Catholic Church's position could influence the debate there, as well as in the United States.

"I think what this does is get people to reexamine their own attitudes and convictions," said John Carr, the director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, who said any shift in public attitude could be consequential. "The death penalty in the United States probably will not come to an end through an act of Congress or a Supreme Court decision. It will essentially fade away as prosecutors don't ask for it, juries don't recommend it, and the rest of us don't support it."

The decision to change the catechism was approved in May but not announced until Thursday.

The death penalty is "contrary to the Gospel," the pope said last year, noting that the faith emphasized the dignity of life from conception until death.

According to Amnesty International, more than 20,000 people are on death row internationally.

In the United States, according to the Pew Research Center, public support for the death penalty has ticked up slightly since hitting a four-decade low in 2016, with 54 percent now approving of the punishment for those convicted of murder. The attitudes of Catholics mirror those of the nation, with 53 percent favoring the death penalty.

In a letter sent to bishops from the Vatican's doctrine office, Cardinal Luis Ladaria noted that the church's stance on the death penalty stemmed from a "new understanding" of modern punishment, which should aim to rehabilitate and socially reintegrate those who have committed crimes.

"Given that modern society possesses more efficient detention systems," Ladaria wrote, "the death penalty becomes unnecessary as protection for the life of innocent people."

Ladaria said that the church's new teaching aims to "give energy" to a movement that would "allow for the elimination of the death penalty where it is still in effect."

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This article was written by Chico Harlan, a reporter for The Washington Post.