MINNEAPOLIS – Pope Francis’ decree that the death penalty is “inadmissible” in all cases could pose a dilemma for Roman Catholic politicians and judges in the United States who are faced with whether to strictly follow the tenets of their faith or the rule of law.
Some Catholic leaders in death penalty states have said they’ll continue to support capital punishment. But experts say Francis’ change could shift political debates, loom over Supreme Court confirmation hearings and make it difficult for devout Catholic judges to uphold the law as written.
The question of whether or not Catholic political and judicial leaders would be sinning if they continue to support the death penalty is up for interpretation.
“It’s going to be a matter of conscience,” said the Rev. Peter Clark, director of the Institute of Clinical Bioethics at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “Judges may have to recuse themselves from many cases, if they truly think it’s in conflict with their conscience.”
As with abortion, many Catholic political leaders and judges have been grappling with the death penalty for some time.
Previous church teachings said capital punishment was allowed in some cases if it was the “only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” That gave politicians a way to honor their faith and the law.
But on Aug. 2, the Vatican said Francis changed church teaching to say capital punishment can never be sanctioned because it constitutes an “attack” on human dignity.
“In the past, it was acceptable to say that the Catholic church had a position that the death penalty was acceptable in some circumstances. That’s no longer true now,” said Marci Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Program for Research on Religion. “I think it’s going to make it difficult for Catholic jurists to uphold the law as written.”
Thirty-one states in the U.S. allow the death penalty, including Nebraska, where the issue could soon become front-and-center: The state is scheduled to carry out an execution Tuesday, its first in more than two decades.
Sister Helen Prejean, the anti-death penalty campaigner whose ministry to a death row inmate inspired the book and film, “Dead Man Walking,” asked on Twitter if Gov. Pete Ricketts, who she said has “pro-life values,” would heed the pope’s direction.
“If we say we are for dignity of all life, that includes innocent and guilty as well,” she told The Associated Press.
Ricketts, a Republican and Catholic, worked to reinstate capital punishment in his state after lawmakers abolished it in 2015. He said the pope’s decree doesn’t change his stance.
“While I respect the pope’s perspective, capital punishment remains the will of the people and the law of the state of Nebraska,” Ricketts said in a statement. “It is an important tool to protect our corrections officers and public safety.”
The decree is also unlikely to slow the nation’s busiest death chamber in Texas, where Republican Gov. Greg Abbott – a devout Catholic – has previously said there was no conflict between his faith and support for the death penalty. His spokeswoman did not return messages about whether the pope’s statement might shift Abbott’s view. The next execution in Texas is set for Sept. 12.
The church’s new teaching will likely feature prominently in the confirmation process for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who, if confirmed, would bring the total number of Catholics on the bench to five. One former Catholic justice, the late Justice Antonin Scalia, famously said he didn’t find the death penalty immoral and that any judge who did should resign.
Hamilton, the University of Pennsylvania professor, said the pope’s decree could be difficult for the devout – especially in a climate where evangelicals and Catholics are increasingly arguing that their faith controls everything they do.
“The difficulty in that kind of reasoning by a judge should be obvious in that they are supposed to interpret the law as given to them,” said Hamilton, who clerked for former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
There might be more leeway for politicians, who craft public policy according to what they think is right. Still, she said, it would be inappropriate for a governor to block all death penalty cases based on his or her faith.
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Catholic and a Republican, said his support for the death penalty hasn’t wavered. He criticized the pope’s leadership, saying Francis has a “socialist bent” and his statement doesn’t change church doctrine.
“He wants to comment on the United States’ judicial system, a system that is by far the best, while ignoring the problems of all the other judicial systems around the world,” Landry said.
A spokesman for Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards did not return messages seeking comment. Edwards is also Catholic, and Landry has speculated that the governor has deliberately dragged his feet on executions: A judge recently barred Louisiana from carrying out any death sentences until mid-2019 at Edwards’ request, after the governor cited trouble obtaining lethal drugs.
The issue could also create interesting political shifts. Robert Vischer, dean of the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, said that Republicans almost uniformly support the death penalty and Democrats almost uniformly support the legal right to abortion.
“Previously, more conservative leaders have been able to call out Catholic politicians for not abiding by their own church’s teaching,” he said. “Now, it’s going to go in both directions.”
Associated Press writers Nicole Winfield in Rome; Paul J. Weber in Houston; Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Grant Schulte in Lincoln, Nebraska, contributed to this report.