Written by Bertrand Seah

What happened?

In a major shift for Catholics worldwide, Pope Francis has announced that the Catholic Church is now opposed to capital punishment, and will work to abolish it all over the world. This change in the church catechism (which represents the official teachings of the church) is based on the view that the death penalty is “inadmissible”, and “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

Capital punishment has been a hotly debated issue for Catholics. In 1955 Pope Pius XII providing a full doctrinal defence, but later teachings restricted it to only the most extreme cases, justified as an “appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes”, and only if carried out by a legitimate authority after a fair trial.

Why is this significant?

Pope Francis’ opposition to the death penalty comes in line with his progressive stance on numerous issues, as well as the general trend in most contemporary Catholic countries – in Europe and Latin America – to have done away with capital punishment.

Nonetheless, the shift is expected to face opposition from conservatives, particularly those in the United States where 31 states still hold executions. In Singapore as well, Catholic leaders are likely to be torn as the ruling now puts the Catholic Church at odds with Singapore’s continued and steadfast use of capital punishment, as well as laws in Singapore that largely prohibit overt forms of public advocacy by religious groups. Perhaps most awkward of all will be the Catholic vice-principal of St. Joseph’s Institute, who last month controversially told his students that “any activism will be socially divisive”.

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