Pope Francis on Sunday called for a global ban on the death penalty and said Catholic leaders in particular should show “exemplary” courage by not carrying out executions this year. “The commandment ‘do not kill’ holds absolute value and applies to both the innocent and the guilty,” Francis told tens of thousands of faithful and tourists gathered in St. Peter’s Square.
Using what observers quickly described as one of his strongest language against capital punishment, the pope said Catholic leaders should set the example during the church’s Holy Year, which runs through Nov. 20. “I appeal to the conscience of those who govern so that international consensus is reached for the abolishment of the death penalty,” the pope said. “And I propose to all those among them who are Catholic to make a courageous and exemplary gesture: may no execution sentence be carried out in this Holy Year of Mercy.”
Francis spoke on the eve of an international conference against the death penalty that is going to be held in Rome. But his concern for those behind bars goes beyond the death penalty. The pope made clear that prisoners also deserve decent living conditions. In addition to working toward abolishing the death penalty, the pope called on all Christians “and people of good” to work to “improve prison conditions” as a way of respecting the “human dignity of persons deprived of liberty.”
The Catholic Church used to allow the death penalty for extreme cases but that position began to change under Pope John Paul II, who was the first to say capital punishment could never be justified.