By Vatican News staff writer
We mark the 18th World Day Against the Death Penalty in the wake of Pope Francis’ encyclical Fratelli tutti.
Pope Francis had already ordered a change in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 2018 when he termed the death penalty “inadmissible.” In a section of the just released encyclical dedicated to the death penalty, the Pope goes further, calling on Catholics to work for its abolition.
We asked Archbishop Ivan Jurkovič, the Holy See’s Permanent Observer to United Nations Office and Specialized Agencies in Geneva, for his reaction to the seven paragraphs in the encyclical in which the Pope states the Church’s unequivocal opposition to capital punishment in all instances.
Archbishop Jurkovič describes the encyclical as “a blessing for the international organization”, as it provides strong, unequivocal statements backed by consistent behaviour as a reference and a guide.
“This is what we get from Pope Francis and also from other Popes before him,” he said.
The Archbishop, who was appointed Permanent Observer in Geneva in February 2016, said the UN watches the Holy See from this solid point of view in a changing world. He noted that often principles are upheld and then abandoned by the same people who promoted them in the first place, and he highlighted a general incapacity to be coherent and stand firm to commitments while the Church and the papacy continue to communicate a message that is consistent with the values of the Gospel.
“The problem we have at International Organizations in Geneva,” and in society at large, he said, is the perception that “certain things are just statistics and this leads us to avoid having to face a “dramatic reality [like the death penalty] that would shock us.”
The worst sin a human being can commit
“The death penalty is the most shocking thing that exists in this world and it is juridically permitted, or allowed in many places,” he said.
Archbishop Jurkovič quoted the great Russian writer, Tolstoy, who told of how one day he witnessed an execution and said: “Today I was the witness of the biggest sin a human being can commit in the name of justice.”
All international organizations, he reiterated, have the duty to speak clearly about the horror of the death penalty and “transmit to everybody” that capital punishment is absolutely horrible and inadmissible.
Asked to comment on the U.S. federal government's recent resumption of executions after a 17-year hiatus, Archbishop Jurkovič said that when we speak about decisions taken by governments or public authority, it is indispensable to consider the personal responsibility of each individual who makes up the electorate.
“It is a problem of the government, but it is a problem that reflects a culture in which we do not fight our instinct of violence or desire for revenge,” he said.
Jurkovič compared society to a plant saying that if it does not grow, if it is not vital enough to develop and it starts to decay.
“We have to grow continuosly, spiritually, socially and also culturally,” he said.
The Church stands firm in its convictions
As Christians, the Archbishop explained, we have the responsibility of taking the trends manifested by society seriously, and we need to act and promote education and awareness.
He noted positive trends in the world today in which a growing number of countries have abolished capital punishment.
This is a good tendency, he said, but said that especially for certain issues, including the death penalty, "one day certain values are promoted," and the next they fall of the shelf.
“As Church we are consistent, we stand firmly behind our convictions: this is our duty and our task every day,” he said.
The Church goes forward affirming its values
At a time when 142 countries have either abolished or observe a moratorium on capital punishment, what can the Holy See representation in Geneva do to convince leaders of nations that still uphold the practice to change course?
Archbishop Jurkovič admitted that often he is aware that the Church affirms values that many people will not follow, even though “they are happy to listen to what we have to say.”
“In this big hall where 194 delegations are seated, they like to listen to things they will not follow,” he said, but we – the Holy See - must continue to bring the message of the Gospel, backed by what the Church is doing on the ground, especially in the poorest countries, using the highest standards and the highest convictions, as well as Divine Mercy, in order to bring healing and help the international community understand what this work is about.
“We must continue in our mission,” Jurkovič said, knowing that words will not do everything, but repeating them with great conviction.
As a Christian and as a representative of the Church, the Archbishop revealed, he has a powerful ‘weapon’ and it’s called “love”.
“As the representative of the Holy See at an international organization, I would introduce one word that does not exist in international organizations,” he said, noting that in Geneva everyone uses a “UN language” that contains a lot of technical, cultural and social words, but never the word “love!”
“You never find anybody using the word ‘love’ in his or her official speech,” he said.
As the encyclical, Fratelli tutti invites us to do, we must have the courage to announce the need for love in social life, Archbishop Jurkovič concluded: “many are awaiting their copy of the encyclical, and they expect something that will be different, something that will be inspirational, and something that will help us to move ahead and be more convinced and more able to build a better society.”