Pope praises California death penalty moratorium, governor says

California Gov. Gavin Newsom told Catholic News Service that Pope Francis was "proud" of the state's efforts to halt use of capital punishment.

Pope praises California death penalty moratorium, governor says

Pope Francis speaks with California Gov. Gavin Newsom during an audience in the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican May 16, 2024, with participants in a conference on climate resilience sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis supports the steps taken by California to halt the use of the death penalty, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said.

Newsom told Catholic News Service that during their meeting May 16, the pope "immediately brought up the issue of the death penalty."

The governor said that during their exchange the pope expressed "how proud he was of the work we're doing in California."

Newsom was at the Vatican for a summit on climate resilience that brought seven other governors and 16 mayors from around the world to Rome. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu were the other U.S. elected officials who participated in the summit.

Newsom told CNS after his meeting with Pope Francis that he was "struck" by the pope's sudden comments to him on the death penalty.

"I wasn’t anticipating that, especially in the context of this convening," he said.

While capital punishment remains legal in California, Newsom signed an executive order in 2019 implementing a moratorium on executions. The state has not executed anyone since 2006.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at a Vatican conference.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a summit, titled “From Climate Crisis to Climate Resilience,” in the synod hall at the Vatican May 16, 2024. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

California has the largest death row in the United States with 638 condemned inmates as of May 6, the last time the public data was updated. But in 2022 Newsom announced he was closing down the state's two death row facilities -- at San Quentin for men and Chowchilla for women -- and would move prisoners to different facilities. The moves are supposed to be completed by the end of the summer.

Making his announcement at a news conference in January 2022, Newsom said, "The prospect of your ending up on death row has more to do with your wealth and race than it does your guilt or innocence."

In his pontificate, Pope Francis has expanded church teaching on the capital punishment, condemning it in all instances.

The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith said the death penalty "violates the inalienable dignity of every person, regardless of the circumstances" in a recent document written by Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, dicastery prefect, and signed by Pope Francis.

The document, "Dignitas Infinita" ("Infinite Dignity") released at the Vatican April 8, also reaffirmed the dignity of incarcerated people "who often must live in undignified conditions."

While the Catechism of the Catholic Church previously taught that capital punishment could be justified in only "very rare, if not practically non-existent" circumstances, Pope Francis ordered an update to the catechism in 2018 to state that "the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person."

The catechism continues to state that the Catholic Church "works with determination for its abolition worldwide."


With its Rome bureau founded in 1950, Catholic News Service has been providing complete, in-depth coverage of the popes and the Vatican for more than 70 years.  CNS Rome continues to be your fair, faithful and informed connection to the Holy See.