This afternoon, His Holiness the Pope made headlines with a call to abolish the death penalty worldwide. This sounds pretty radical on paper: the death penalty is still widely practiced around the world, not least in the United States, where he was making his speech. Yet how radical is the abolitionist message for a Pope?
One way of looking at it is to see which Catholic-majority countries still practice the death penalty. Excepting Vatican City as an anomaly, the CIA World Factbook lists 49 countries around the world where Catholics form a numerical majority of the population. Of these 49, 11 retain the death penalty on the statute books, namely (in order of Catholic proportion) Equatorial Guinea, Peru, Dominica, Saint Lucia, Brazil, the Republic of the Congo, Chile, Grenada, Cuba, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and El Salvador.
This is fairly striking: what is more striking is that the only one where capital punishment is currently in use is Equatorial Guinea, which executed nine people in 2014. In all of the others, capital punishment has been abolished de facto through non-use (Dominica, Saint Lucia, the ROC, Grenada, Cuba and even the war-ravaged DRC) or is reserved for military crimes or crimes against the state like treason (Peru, Brazil, Chile and El Salvador).
The Catholic world is to be congratulated for its astonishing efforts in doing away with the death penalty. However, it seems that it has already accomplished much of what it can do in its own sphere of influence: taking the abolitionist principle to non-Catholic countries, especially in the Middle East and the rest of Asia, may be rather difficult. Even a country which had a Catholic president and currently has a Catholic vice-president has not abolished the death penalty; pushing for Iran or China or Japan to do the same might be a tall order even for this Pope and his masterful handle on public relations. His penchant for repeating long-standing Catholic dogmas in a more palatable manner probably won’t be enough to rid the world of capital punishment, but it’s nice to hear anyway.