Ted Cruz vs. the Pope on the death penalty. Guess who wins?

In his speech to Congress yesterday, Pope Francis made it clear that Catholic social doctrine is indeed political, making strident, moral cases for reducing economic inequality, fighting climate change, opening our arms to refugees and immigrants, and so on.

Among many other topics that the Pope addressed, he spoke briefly on the importance of human life, most notably coming out strongly against the death penalty.

The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.

This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.

This is consistent with what the pope has said in the past. Just last fall, Francis had called on all Christians to oppose the death penalty outright, saying “It is impossible to imagine that states today cannot make use of another means than capital punishment to defend peoples’ lives from an unjust aggressor,” he said then.

His comments went beyond just the death penalty, extending to the way we treat criminals serving out lengthy prison sentences.

All Christians and people of good will are thus called today to struggle not only for abolition of the death penalty, whether it be legal or illegal and in all its forms, but also to improve prison conditions, out of respect for the human dignity of persons deprived of their liberty.

Francis’s views on the death penalty aren’t exactly radical or revolutionary. Pope John Paul II warned against governments in today’s society continuing the practice of capital punishment, stating that the practice may have been acceptable in the past, but that “[t]oday, however, as a result of steady improvement in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” Pope Benedict XVI also said that the death penalty ought to be abolished.

This opposition to capital punishment is rooted in Scripture. As Jason Anson wrote back in June, “Matthew 5:38-42 is very clear about how little Jesus cares for the idea of ‘an eye for an eye.’ Given that support for the death penalty is highest amongst non-churchgoing protestants, it appears that much of the latent support for the capital punishment stems from an uninformed religious impulse.”

It takes a lot of compassion and humility to recognize the needs of those in prison. But many conservatives couldn’t stand for Pope Francis’s reminder that protecting human life means, well, protecting human life. Especially Ted Cruz.

“I spent a number of years in law enforcement dealing with some of the worst criminals, child rapists and murderers, people who’ve committed unspeakable acts,” he said following the pope’s comments. “I believe the death penalty is a recognition of the preciousness of human life, that for the most egregious crimes, the ultimate punishment should apply.”

“…the death penalty is a recognition of the preciousness of human life.” Take a second to let the sheer backwardness of that logic sink in.

Setting aside for the moment what Pope Francis would call the hopelessness of Cruz’s claim, Cruz also assumes that we’re good at avoiding wantonly killing innocent people via capital punishment. We aren’t. While many death row inmates spend decades of their lives in prison, only to be released from their punishment due to new evidence, others are not so lucky. For them, innocence comes only after they are executed. For them and their families, there is no justice, only the cruel outcome of an outdated mode of punishment.

There are many reasons to oppose the death penalty. It’s cruel and unusual. The process is expensive. The result may actually be too good for the offender (life in prison seems a more fitting punishment, if you ask me). People are wrongfully sentenced to death, and worse, some are killed before their innocence is proven.

The Pope’s message on capital punishment is one of hope and redemption. Ted Cruz’s is one of lazy vengeance. I may not be Catholic, but you don’t have to be one to see that Francis has the moral high ground here.


Chris Walker has been a political writer for more than ten years, contributing freelance opinion pieces to several online publications as well as managing his own blog, Political Heat, for more than six years. With a B.A. in Political Science and Journalism, Chris tries to bring a unique angle to every article he produces, including Millennial perspectives on the issues he's covering. Chris resides in Madison, Wisconsin, and proudly owns both a cheesehead and stock in the Green Bay Packers.

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