ROME — Pope Francis has declared the death penalty inadmissible in all cases because it is “an attack” on the “dignity of the person,” the Vatican announced on Thursday, in a definitive shift in Roman Catholic teaching that could put enormous pressure on lawmakers and politicians around the world.
Francis, who has spoken out against capital punishment before — including in 2015 in an address to Congress — added the change to the Catechism, the collection of beliefs for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
The revision says the church would work “with determination” for the abolition of capital punishment worldwide.
“I think this will be a big deal for the future of the death penalty in the world,” said John Thavis, a Vatican expert and author. “People who work with prisoners on death row will be thrilled, and I think this will become a banner social justice issue for the church,” he added.
Sergio D’Elia, the secretary of Hands Off Cain, an association that works to abolish capital punishment worldwide, said, “Now even the most far-flung parish priest will teach this to young children.”
Francis’ decision is likely to put many American Catholic politicians in a difficult position, especially Catholic governors, like Pete Ricketts of Nebraska, who have presided over executions.
The move could also set off a backlash among Catholic traditionalists who already cast Francis as being dangerously inclined to change or compromise church teaching on other issues, such as permitting communion for Catholics who have divorced and remarried without getting a church annulment.
The new teaching on the death penalty builds on the instructions of Francis’ two immediate predecessors, but goes further, reflecting this pope’s unconditional opposition to the death penalty while affirming his vision of a merciful church.
“This didn’t come out of nowhere,” Mr. Thavis said. “John Paul II and Benedict laid the ground work; he’s taking the next logical step.”
Abolishing the death penalty has been one of Francis’ top priorities for many years, along with saving the environment and caring for immigrants and refugees. He mentioned it in his address to Congress on his trip to the United States in 2015, saying that “from the beginning of my ministry” he had been led “to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty.”
He added, “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.”
On that trip, Francis made a point of going to a prison in Pennsylvania and meeting with a few prisoners and their families. He also wrote a detailed letter in 2015 to the International Commission against the death penalty, arguing that capital punishment “does not render justice to the victims, but rather fosters vengeance.”
In it, he made two arguments that specifically spoke to the American context: The death penalty is illegitimate because many convictions have later been found to be in error and have been overturned, and because executions of prisoners in some states have been badly botched.
In the catechism promoted by St. John Paul II, in 1992, the death penalty was allowed if it was “the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.”
The Vatican announced the change on Thursday, publishing a letter to bishops approved by the pope in mid-June.
The letter says that Francis made the death penalty shift “so as to better reflect” the clearer awareness of the church “for the respect due to every human life.”
The Catholic shift on the issue has been developing for years. In an unprecedented move, four Catholic media outlets in the United States published a joint editorial in 2015 calling for the abolition of the death penalty. They included the liberal-leaning National Catholic Reporter and the conservative-leaning National Catholic Register.
Even in the United States, where support for the death penalty persists, Catholics have rallied around calls to abolish it.
But some conservative Catholics took exception. The Rev. C. John McCloskey III, an influential teacher and confidante of countless American politicians and civic leaders, wrote that the church’s doctrine “does not and never has advocated unqualified abolition of the death penalty.”
In his argument, he cited Saints John Paul II, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. He even cited Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the late archbishop of Chicago, who frequently used the term “seamless garment” to express that the church was for life, from conception to death.
Mr. McCloskey argued that for any human being, “it is a great grace to know the time of one’s death, as it gives us the opportunity to get right with the Lord who will judge us at our death. Perhaps many people have been saved in this way by the death penalty.”
Mr. D’Elia said Catholic teaching on capital punishment had already borne fruit in the past, noting that there were few countries with a Catholic majority where the death penalty still existed.
He also pointed out, “It’s rare that there are Catholic countries where the death penalty still exists.”
Pope Francis’ revision “leaves no trace of ambiguity,” he said.
Elisabetta Povoledo reported from Rome, and Laurie Goodstein from New York.