The Vatican denounced the "arbitrarily hastened" death of Terri Schiavo (search) on Thursday as a violation of principles of Christianity and civilization, and a cardinal described her end as a "death sentence executed through a cruel method."

"The circumstances of the death of Ms. Terri Schiavo have rightly disturbed consciences," Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valization."

Cardinal Renato Martino (search), a top Vatican official, said Schiavo's death was a "human tragedy, but also an ethical, juridical and cultural tragedy." He told reporters her loss of life in a hospice in Florida to a "death sentence executed through a cruel method."

"We are against the death penalty, and that was practically a death penalty that was inflicted on her," Martino said. "That was not a natural death. It was an imposed death."

"When you deprive somebody of food and water, what else is it? Nothing else but murder," Martino said, adding that he was speaking on the case "according to the teaching of the pope." The pontiff has spoken on behalf of providing food and water, even through artificial means, to patients like Schiavo.

Pope John Paul II (search) was informed of Schiavo's death, Martino said. The cardinal likened the pope's frail health, including resorting to a feeding tube, to Schiavo's case.

The "comparison is easy," Martino said. "Everybody will do all the best to keep him alive, to feed him the way it can be done."

Before the Vatican statement Thursday, the Holy See had left comment in the hands of Martino, who heads the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and other prominent church officials.

"One hopes that from this dramatic experience there matures in public opinion a greater awareness of human dignity, and that it brings greater protection for life even at the legal level," Navarro-Valls said Thursday.

Speaking of Schiavo, another leading Vatican official, Portuguese Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, said "an attack against life is an attack against God, who is the author of life."

The cardinal said John Paul "teaches us not only with his suffering, but also with his teaching the great respect for life. Life is the most precious thing we have."

Martino, asked who should be held responsible for Schiavo's death, replied: "the judges, her husband, whoever denied access" to feeding. The cardinal had previously appealed for Schiavo to remain on the feeding tube, which was removed by court order March 18.

Schiavo suffered severe brain damage 15 years ago. Her husband said Schiavo told him she would not want to be kept alive in a vegetative state, and insisted he was carrying out her wishes by having the tube pulled. Her parents opposed its removal.