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Pope Francis has denounced capital punishment in recent years, and responses from concerned Catholics have focused largely on whether the Holy Father’s words represent a faithful account of the Church’s fundamental teaching. Amid this debate, most have overlooked the fact that Francis’s approach undermines one of the Church’s most important contributions to public life: just war doctrine.

Francis has pondered whether any war or execution can ever be just. In Fratelli Tutti, he writes: “There are two extreme situations that may come to be seen as solutions in especially dramatic circumstances, without [our] realizing that they are false answers.” These supposed solutions, he continues, “ultimately do no more than introduce new elements of destruction in the fabric of national and global society. These are war and the death penalty.”

Despite Francis’s characterization of both war and the death penalty as “false answers,” the Vatican has recently—if grudgingly—admitted that countries such as Israel and Ukraine have a “right to self-defense.” Thus, the Vatican permits defensive war (in line with international law) while prohibiting capital punishment.

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