The pronouncement last week from Pope Francis that the death penalty was ‘inadmissible in all circumstances’ caught many by surprise and led several editors to suggest that this was a radical shift in Catholic teaching. However, keen Vatican observers were less surprised since this has been a concern very close to the Pontiff’s heart ever since he assumed office in 2013.
There is consistency in what Francis says about all aspects of human life when he states, ‘life must be safeguarded starting at conception in all its stages until natural death.’ His teaching is to view life as one seamless garment and what he said last week is just an exact repetition of how he addressed legislators in October of last year, ‘Capital punishment abuses human dignity, it is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the human person.’
The Pontiff repeatedly reminds us that there is no humane way of killing those condemned to death, but his criticism goes beyond the death penalty when he censures long prison sentences. He says that a lifesentence is just a death sentence in disguise as it does not allow any room for the offender to make amends or repent. This is radical and provocative teaching and will certainly not go down well in the USA, China, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan the big six when it comes to state sponsored killings. Last year 993 state sanctioned executions were recorded globally.
What is different about last week’s statement, however, is that the Pontiff is formalising his earlier teaching and making it an integral part of the Catholic Catechism. This has met with quite a bit of criticism within the church and that is hardly surprising when we consider that 53 per cent of American Catholics favour the death penalty and that the President of Philippines Rodrigo Duterte supports the execution of drug barons in that most Catholic of countries.
However, this does not so much represent a change as a development of church teaching. Francis says church teaching on matters of ethics is not wrapped in mothballs but that tradition is a living reality and dynamic as it grows. With that perspective he has also challenged the traditional ‘just war theory’ which can condone the use of limited violence in certain circumstances. Instead he advocates for active non violence as a legitimate response to threats of violence and he consistently proclaims that nuclear weapons are both immoral and illegal.
There are of course those who would want the Pope to concentrate on the single life issue of abortions as an absolute priority but he has deliberately avoided that route.
He considers abortion a ‘horrendous crime’ in his ‘defence of the innocent unborn, equally sacred are the lives of the poor, already born, destitute, abandoned, underprivileged, the infirm, victims of human trafficking and new forms of slavery’. That perhaps just about summarises Francis teaching on sanctity of life and it is the message that we in Kenya need to hear most urgently and frequently.
We all know that no one has been executed in Kenya for three decades but the statute books still permit this horrendous act. We need to abolish the death penalty as a matter of urgency. Those condemned to death are dying slowly in our prisons already. As long as the deathpenalty remains on the statute books it is my considered opinion that extra judicial killings will continue unabated in Kenya. If the death penalty was abolished it would in fact become clearly evident that no state officer – either a hired executioner or a police officer – has a right to kill another citizen in the state’s name. It is quite likely that we would witness a noticeable reduction in extra judicial killings if the death penalty were then completely abolished.
Abolishing the death penalty will also enhance the dignity and respect of each life in this country in a ripple like effect. We will then most likely be horrified and outraged by the treatment of Kibera residents and the poor anywhere who are brutally and forcefully evicted from their humble homes. We will not tolerate mistreatment of prisoners, accused, disabled and sexual minorities as we recognise the dignity and respect that each life is due. Eventually we will begin to appreciate the whole diversity and beauty of all of creation and relate to it in new and dignified manner. Francis of course has a lot to say on the environment too.
- Gabriel Dolan [email protected] @GabrielDolan1