Capital punishment waiting By be Jenkins `useless and cruel' From Bruce Johnston in Rome THE POPE has launched a premillennium appeal to the international community calling for the total abolition of capital punishment.
Speaking during the Angelus on Sunday, he called on the world's governments to reach agreement on a total ban, and in the meantime to approve a moratorium on executions.
Although he has waged a long campaign against the death penalty, the Pope has never before called publicly for its total worldwide abolition.
Privately, and mainly via Church diplomats, he has pressured governments to abolish capital punishment. During his visit to St Louis in January he asked the US government to put an end to it, calling it "useless and cruel".
Speaking with a tired and slightly trembling voice on Sunday, before a major campaign was launched at the Colosseum, he said that the Jubilee Holy Year provided a "privileged occasion" to promote a growing world trend in favour of the "respect for life and the dignity of each and every person".
Rome authorities have declared that the Colosseum — the site of where so many Christians were killed — will become a symbol of life during the year 2000.
During the Jubilee, the former "monument of death" will be lit up for 48 hours each time that a suspension or moratorium of the death penalty is decided, in whatever part of the world. The Pope said: "In the meantime, I renew my appeal to all those responsible, so that one may come to an international agreement for the abolition of the death penalty."
He said that the number of cases in which capital punishment was an "absolute necessity for the suppression of crime" were so rare as to be "almost non-existent".
This last phrase was a quote from the new Catechism, and marks the current limit fixed by Church doctrine, whereby capital punishment is allowed in theory, on the basis of the principle of self-defence.
In the Italian Catholic newspaper Avvenire, Fr Georges Cottier, the Pope's chief theological adviser, admitted that it was departure from earlier positions because the Christian tradition had tolerated capital punishment for centuries.
He said: "Thomas, the theologians and the Fathers maintained that whoever kills harms society, and that as a result, if the state had no right over the lives of its people, it did have the duty to punish those who wilfully killed, and who by so doing, 'cast himself out of society'."
And he added that the Catechism also took "account of the fact that the death penalty can be understood".
In its new form, introduced in 1992, the Catechism explains in paragraph 2266 that "traditional Church teaching has recognised as founded" the right of countries to mete out punishment in terms of severity in proportion to the seriousness of the crime,"without excluding in cases of extreme seriousness, the death penalty".
In September 1997, the definitive edition of the new Catechism was published, with corrections of the earlier text. In paragraph 2266, the exception of the "death penalty" was removed from the reference of punishment in proportion to the seriousness of the crime.
In July 1997, the Pope intervened in the case of US death row prisoner Joseph O'Dell. While normally every time when there is a death sentence, a papal appeal is made to the local governor for an act of clemency, in the case of O'Dell, the Pope's intervention was personal.
And on more occasions since then he has repeated this personal plea.