Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

The right to life is not conditional

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

On Aug. 2, Pope Francis made news by revising the Catechism of the Catholic Church to say that capital punishment is “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” This dignity persists, the revision continues, “even after the commission of very serious crimes.” 

By adding this language to the Catechism, the Holy Father has made official a development of church teaching that gained steam under Pope John Paul II, who repeatedly described capital punishment as virtually never acceptable, and called for an end to state-sanctioned executions the world over. The saintly pope stated in the catechism that modern advances in protecting society from dangerous criminals mean that “cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” 

Pope Benedict continued to advocate for the end of the death penalty and now Pope Francis has made clear that the church “works with determination for its abolition worldwide.” 

Like his predecessors, Pope Francis looks at this issue of capital punishment through the lens of the dignity of the human person and the inalienable right to life. The church has long held that “the dignity of the human person is rooted in his or her creation in the image and likeness of God.”

This principle of the sanctity of human life underpinned our defense of the unborn and the sick and elderly, but now the Holy Father is making clear that it also applies to those on death row. In other words, the right to life is unconditional in all circumstances, and cannot be forfeited by criminal behavior.

Some have reacted negatively to this change in the catechism, arguing that it is not right to speak of the right to life in the same context when addressing abortion and capital punishment, since the moral weight of abortion and the death penalty differs greatly. Abortion, after all, involves the taking of innocent human life. 

Moreover, many people, including faithful Catholics, struggle with the dilemma that some crimes are so heinous that criminals convicted of such crimes may indeed forfeit their right to life. This response springs from compassion for the victims of the most barbarous crimes and a desire to restore the order of justice that has been so viciously violated. At a profound human level, we tend to believe that by executing a murderer we are somehow helping rebalance the scales of justice.

But there is a serious flaw in that way of thinking. The real tragedy of murder is that there is no way to rebalance the scales of justice, no way to bring life back to those who have been killed or to restore them to their grieving families. When the state imposes the death penalty, it proclaims that taking one human life counterbalances the taking of another life. This is profoundly mistaken. 

If there is any lesson we need to learn in this perilous age, it is that taking a human life in the name of retribution does not bring justice or even closure, even if it may feel that way in the moment. Rather, capital punishment only continues the cycle of violence and vengeance. The tragic truth is that nothing can restore a human life.

Pope Francis, in making this change to the catechism, is forcing us to confront the unavoidable moral question posed by capital punishment: Is the right to life conditional, or is it unconditional? Can men and women forfeit their right to life by their behavior, or is that right irrevocably given by God? Can society — that is, we, the people — determine that the crimes committed by human beings supersede their intrinsic claim to life? 
There is no getting around it. The state that chooses to perform executions, even when there are ways to protect society, has concluded that the right to life is conditional after all. Such a state, even if it does not intend to do so, inevitably weakens the ability of its citizens to defend the sacredness of human life against all the threats that imperil life in the present day. 

When society erases the innate value of individual lives because of crimes committed, it sends a signal that all human life is not sacred. When a state chooses to remove such criminals from the human family, it is nothing less than an echo of the violence done to human dignity when pro-choice advocates imply that the life developing in the womb is not “real human” life. Both conclusions assume that the right to life is contingent, rooted not in the free and absolute gift of a sovereign and loving God, but in the discernment of relative worth by society.

On the other hand, a state that rejects in principle the execution of even those individuals whose crimes are unspeakable bears powerful witness to the unconditional nature of the right to life. It asserts that every member of the human community shares a dignity that is not canceled by defects of health or age or morality. A state that refuses to use the death penalty advances a culture of life with great power of witness precisely because it protects the lives of those who have been judged least worthy of its vindication.

Nearly a quarter-century ago, my predecessor of happy memory Cardinal Joseph Bernardin stressed the need to build a culture of life by consistently arguing for all issues related to human dignity. He understood that we live in an era when the dignity of human life is threatened. That is even truer today. 

Wherever we turn, we encounter mounting efforts to treat the lives of men and women as mere means to larger and allegedly more important goals. Global markets are developing for the sale of vital human organs by those driven, in the desperation of poverty, to risk death in order to provide food and shelter for their families. In our own land, a dominant cultural ethic asserts that the lives of immigrants are of less value because they are other, alien. 

The same ethic avows that unborn children have no sanctity when weighed against the wishes and needs of their pregnant mothers and that those in declining health are less worthy of continued care. And in terrorism we see the chilling assertion that it is legitimate to kill innocent men and women in the service of political goals, religion and revenge. 

This is why the Holy Father not only says that the death penalty is inadmissible, but that the church must work for its abolition. This means that we need to urge all elected officials and leaders to recognize not only their responsibility, but also the vested interest of society in defending the sacredness and value of every human life.

This principle of the dignity of human life holds together our care for the poor, the sick, the migrant, the excluded. Our assertion that the value of a human life does not depend on a person’s quality of life or age or moral worth must apply in all cases. For if we protect the sanctity of life for the least worthy among us, we surely witness to the need to protect the lives of those who are the most innocent, and most vulnerable.


  • capital punishment
  • death penalty