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Vatican Stiffens Opposition to Death Penalty

September 10, 1997|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VATICAN CITY — The Roman Catholic Church updated its Universal Catechism on Tuesday with a tougher stand against capital punishment, saying that circumstances justifying its use are "very rare, if not practically nonexistent."

Although that near-categorical Vatican position is more than 2 years old, death penalty foes said its inclusion in the popular compendium of Catholic instruction is certain to figure in the debate over capital punishment in the U.S.

Pope John Paul II has cited his 1995 encyclical, "The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae)," in appealing for clemency for death row inmates around the world, including at least 13 Americans who were executed anyway.

The updated catechism will put the pope's teaching, an arcane document of 40,000 words, into simple, concise language for the multitude of faithful expected to use it. The current catechism, revised in 1992, has sold more than 9 million copies, the Vatican says.

Still on bookshelves in dozens of languages, the 1992 version teaches that nations have the "right and duty" to punish criminals with "penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty."

At the same time, it says "bloodless means" of punishment should be used when possible because they are "more in conformity with the dignity of the human person."

The shift on capital punishment was the most substantive of 100 amendments announced Tuesday to the Latin version of the catechism, the model to be translated into modern languages.

Campaigners against the death penalty had expected the Vatican panel to oppose its use without exceptions, but they said the new catechism will help their cause.

"It will influence what goes on in religion classes, what's taught in theology," said Sister Helen Prejean, American author of "Dead Man Walking," which inspired the movie of the same name. "There's a way you can read this catechism in the United States, where we do have effective alternatives, that it prohibits the death penalty here. I think we can move forward with it."

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