Newswise — August 2, 2018 – Pope Francis’ honored Georgetown University Medical Center’s Dr. Daniel Sulmasy(G’95) last year by appointing him as an ordinary member of the Pontifical Academy for Life. Sulmasy has just been made acting director of Georgetown’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics. We asked Sulmasy to comment on the pope’s recent announcement rejecting the death penalty in Catholic Church teachings.

Did the pope's rejection of the death penalty come as a surprise?

No, I’m not surprised. The Catholic Church has always been wary about capital punishment, and Pope (now Saint) John Paul II had already declared the death penalty something possibly permissible in principle but effectively impermissible in reality. The Church is very consistently pro-life, and has held that no one can take human life except in self-defense. The justification for the death penalty was that it was needed to defend the community against an aggressor. St. John Paul argued that modern methods of incarceration and penal justice made the possibility of meeting that standard exceedingly rare. Pope Francis just took the next step and said that it is no longer justifiable under any circumstances.

What effects are likely to made by this decision?

For many, it makes the death penalty harder to defend. It makes Catholic teaching more fully consistent. This new teaching reinforces the idea that the threshold for justifying any such action that involves killing, such as self-defense or a just war, must be very, very high. In the case of the death penalty, the pope has declared that the threshold is not reachable.

Some estimate there are nearly 22,000 people on death row worldwide. How will this teaching affect capital punishment?

The Catholic Church plays an important role in exercising moral leadership throughout the world. This will make it harder to defend laws permitting the death penalty, and make it harder to invoke the death penalty in countries where it is legal. This will be true everywhere, but especially in countries with large Catholic populations.

How does the work of KIE fit into these kinds of questions?

Since our work concentrates on bioethics, our scholars have not addressed this topic directly. Yet our work on the ethics of care at the end of life, on physician participation in capital punishment, on the distinction between killing and allowing to die and on euthanasia and assisted suicide are all relevant. Work by KIE scholars like Robert Veatch and John Keown and my own work have laid out conceptual foundations for the ideas that inform our thinking about the death penalty.

Sulmasy holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Georgetown and an M.D. from Cornell University. He has conducted extensive research on the role of intention in medical action and the distinction between killing and allowing people to die.