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Pope Francis Shifts Catholic Church Teachings To Reject The Death Penalty


And now to the Vatican. This morning, Pope Francis issued an edict that the death penalty is inadmissible in all cases because it's an attack on the dignity of the person. This is a significant change to Catholic Church teachings. It also means the church will work to abolish the death penalty worldwide.

To talk more about this, we're joined by Father Thomas Reese, senior analyst for the Religion News Service. Welcome.

THOMAS REESE: Thank you. Good to be with you.

CHANG: So can you help us put this announcement in context for us because up until now, the death penalty was acceptable to the church in extreme cases. But Pope John Paul II had said those cases were practically nonexistent. So how significant is this change?

REESE: Well, this is significant because although Pope John Paul II did not like capital punishment - it could only be used in rare instances, and he wasn't even sure that there were any. What Pope Francis has done has drawn the line and said, no, never is capital punishment permitted. There are other ways of protecting society from criminals. There are other ways of punishing people. We do not have to execute people anymore.

CHANG: No exceptions. I want to pick up on the second part of the declaration that the pope made this morning that the Catholic Church will work to abolish the death penalty worldwide. Practically speaking, how much influence will this have here in the U.S.?

REESE: Well, that's going to be interesting to watch. Almost half of the American population - 49 percent - are in favor of capital punishment. Among Catholics, that's a lower number. It's, like, 43 percent. But this is going to be interesting because the bishops obviously are going to be teaching this. They're going to be lobbying against capital punishment. So this is going to be a real challenge to Catholics in the United States.

CHANG: But I'm thinking about Catholic politicians who support the death penalty, people like Governor Greg Abbott of Texas, Governor Pete Ricketts of Nebraska, both Catholic, both governors who have presided over capital punishment in their states. Where does this leave them personally?

REESE: Well, again, this is going to be interesting to watch. But let's remember that the Catholic bishops in the United States have taken positions on a lot of public policy issues. They're against abortion. They're in favor of comprehensive immigration reform. They're in favor of being welcoming to refugees. They support universal health care. Catholic politicians have supported them sometimes and opposed them other times. I think capital punishment will be treated exactly the same.

CHANG: There was another significant development at the Vatican this week. The pope accepted the resignation of the most senior Catholic Church leader to be convicted in criminal court of concealing sexual abuse. How does this compare to how the Vatican has responded to allegations of sexual abuse in the past?

REESE: Well, Pope Benedict really did a very good job in saying that any priest involved in the sexual abuse of a minor cannot act as a priest anymore; he's got to be out. But what the Vatican never did was quite figure out what to do with the bishops who either didn't supervise their priests well or were involved in cover-up. And Pope Francis has now drawn the line there and said bishops have to do their job. And if they don't, they're going to hear from him.

CHANG: I just want to step back for a moment and look at these two actions by Pope Francis on the death penalty and on sexual abuse. They're not necessarily related, but do they signal to you that something bigger is going on about how this pope is trying to reshape the Catholic Church?

REESE: Well, I think that this pope - he took this strong position because he listened to the victims who came to Rome. He gave them as much time as they wanted. I think this shows his pastoral nature, his concern for the human person.

CHANG: Father Thomas Reese, senior analyst for the Religion News Service, thank you very much.

REESE: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.