Pope Francis in the death chamber

Nicholas G. Hahn III
The Detroit News

The 6th World Congress Against the Death Penalty might not be the most predictable forum for a pope to preach, but Pope Francis isn’t one to shy away from a pulpit.

When abolitionists met in Oslo last week, Francis offered a recorded message which called capital punishment “unacceptable.” The pope said the Fifth Commandment, “ ‘Thou shalt not kill’ has absolute value and applies both to the innocent and to the guilty.”

That reading seems to jettison long-held Catholic teaching on the matter. The church has always defended the duty of the state to punish criminals, both as a legitimate defense and as a “medicinal purpose” to help redeem the guilty party. Catholic teaching ultimately “does not exclude recourse to the death penalty” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2266-2267).

In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, St. John Paul II limited that to “cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.” Yet, John Paul II continued, “such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

Now Pope Francis wants to close the door to the death chamber once and for all. Francis even suggested in October 2014 that life imprisonment is “a hidden death penalty,” one that should be done away with, too.

But Catholics don’t need to go to confession if they disagree with the pope on that. “Not all moral issues have the same moral weight,” the pope emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in July 2004 when he was head of the church’s doctrinal shop. “There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty,” he assured faithful.

That variety of opinion in Francis’ flock is something the pope could acknowledge the next time he preaches about punishment.

Twitter: @NGHahn3