Pope Francis on Thursday officially changed the Catholic Church’s teaching on the death penalty, declaring that from now on it will no longer be viewed as permissible.
The Vatican has allowed the death penalty – albeit in extreme circumstances – for centuries and it was employed by the Papal States, the large swathes of Italian territory ruled by the popes until 1870.
But under the new decree, Rome now regards the death penalty as “inadmissible, because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”
"Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good," the Vatican said.
"Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes."
Prior to the change, the Church was not opposed to capital punishment "if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor."
The change was enacted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican department responsible for defending Catholic teaching, and is contained in the universal catechism, a summary of the Church’s teaching on sexual, social and moral issues.
But it could face trenchant opposition from some Catholics, particularly conservatives in the US, who support the death penalty.
The Vatican said it would “work with determination” to help bring about an end to capital punishment in every country in the world.
Pope Francis, who often visits prisoners in jail on his trips abroad, has long been opposed to the death penalty, even for the worst crimes.
Last year he said that human life "is always sacred in the eyes of the creator."
He acknowledged that in past centuries the Papal States had used the death penalty, saying that was a mistake.
He argued that executing criminals was “cruel, inhumane and degrading” and that there was always the risk of “judicial errors” leading to innocent people being killed.
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The change in Catholic doctrine builds on pronouncements made by Pope John Paul II, who repeatedly called for the death penalty to be abolished.
He said it was not justifiable “even for someone who has done great evil”. His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, made similar appeals.
Pope Francis’s decision was welcomed by Amnesty International as an "important step forward."