Concerning capital punishment for murder, Pope John Paul II arbitrarily reversed centuries of teaching from both Scripture and Tradition in favor of an abolitionist approach the Church now embraces. However, that approach changed the fundamental moral criterion the Church applies to the issue, leads to contradiction and confusion, creates a moral equivalence between perpetrators and victims – and, ultimately, threatens the Church's theological and moral credibility.
The Old Testament provides the deepest layer of soil for the traditional teaching's roots. In Genesis 9:5-6, God orders Noah and his descendants to execute murderers:
"I will demand an accounting for human life... Anyone who sheds the blood of a human being, by a human being shall that one’s blood be shed. For in the image of God have human beings been made. (New American Bible)."
That command came after a flood that destroyed a morally chaotic world – and is repeated in every book of the Torah, the first five books that form the Bible’s foundation.
The command implies three theological principles. First, if God is the author of life, then God retains the prerogative to define the circumstances under which life can be taken. Second, God demands that humanity create just societies to protect the innocent. Third, murder is such a heinous violation of the divine image in humanity that execution is the only appropriate punishment.
Exodus 20-23 elaborates on these principles in the lex talonis, which advocates punishment proportional to the offense – the original meaning of "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth." Instead of encouraging vengeance, as the modern hierarchy maintains, the lex talonis discourages ad hoc vigilantism – the ultimate form of vindictiveness – in favor of due process.
In the New Testament, St. Paul reinforces the idea in his letter to the Romans. In Chapter 12, he discourages his readers from avenging themselves by quoting Deuteronomy 32:35 ("Vengeance is mine, says the Lord. I will repay!"). In the next chapter, St. Paul encourages them to rely on due process through legitimate authorities "because they do not bear the sword in vain (verse 4)."
Centuries of Catholic thought reinforced those principles. In The City of God, St. Augustine wrote:
"The same divine law which forbids the killing of a human being allows certain exceptions. Since the agent of authority is but a sword in the hand, and is not responsible for the killing, it is in no way contrary to the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill,' for the representative of the State’s authority to put criminals to death, according to the Law or the rule of rational justice."
St. Thomas Aquinas, in his masterpiece Summa Theologica, argued against the idea that incarceration alone is enough to protect the community:
"If a man is a danger to the community, threatening it with disintegration by some wrongdoing of his, then his execution for the healing and preservation of the common good is to be commended. Only the public authority, not private persons, may licitly execute malefactors by public judgment. Men shall be sentenced to death for crimes of irreparable harm or which are particularly perverted."
In Summa Contra Gentiles, Aquinas even argued that an impending execution can stimulate repentance:
"The fact that the evil, as long as they live, can be corrected from their errors does not prohibit the fact that they may be justly executed, for the danger which threatens from their way of life is greater and more certain than the good which may be expected from their improvement. They also have at that critical point of death the opportunity to be converted to God through repentance. And if they are so stubborn that even at the point of death their heart does not draw back from evil, it is possible to make a highly probable judgment that they would never come away from evil to the right use of their powers."
Not even Sister Helen Prejean, one of the most popular opponents of capital punishment, contended that abolitionism has biblical roots, as she admitted in her book, Dead Man Walking:
"It is abundantly clear that the Bible depicts murder as a capital crime for which death is considered the appropriate punishment, and one is hard pressed to find a biblical 'proof text' in either the Hebrew Testament or the New Testament which unequivocally refutes this. Even Jesus' admonition 'Let him without sin cast the first stone,' when He was asked the appropriate punishment for an adulteress (John 8:7) – the Mosaic Law prescribed death – should be read in its proper context.
"This passage is an 'entrapment' story, which sought to show Jesus' wisdom in besting His adversaries. It is not an ethical pronouncement about capital punishment." (emphasis added)
John Paul's revisionism finds its roots in his 1995 encyclical "Evangelium Vitae." While condemning abortion, contraception and euthanasia, John Paul declared capital punishment to be fundamentally unnecessary:
"Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime…In this way authority also fulfills the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people's safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behavior and be rehabilitated.
"It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment … ought not to go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today, however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent." (emphasis added)
The head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith during John Paul’s tenure – Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI – changed the catechism to reflect the late pope’s view.
"If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority must limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person." (emphases added)
Before "Evangelium Vitae," the catechism read, "If, however, bloodless means...authority should limit itself...." (emphases added).
What is the difference between "should" and "must"? "Should" is advisory but "must" implies a demand. With these substitutions, Ratzinger and John Paul changed the fundamental moral criterion from the divine image within humanity – a criterion imposed by inspired Scripture – to the State's ability to incarcerate capital felons.
Though his written opinion allowed for capital punishment in limited circumstances, John Paul used the encyclical as intellectual cover for his personal campaign to abolish the death penalty worldwide.
During his 1999 trip to the United States, the late pope successfully convinced Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan to commute the death sentence issued to Darrell Mease, who was convicted of murdering three people – including a disabled 19-year old.
In 2000, John Paul asked Rome’s city officials to let the Coliseum’s lights shine continuously in memory of those who received death sentences. In 2001, the late pope wrote a personal request to President George W. Bush for clemency for Timothy McVeigh, who murdered 168 people in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
John Paul revealed his true opinion about capital punishment at a large Mass in St. Louis on January 29, 1999, two days after Carnahan commuted Mease’s sentence:
"The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life in every situation. A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary." (emphasis added)
Eleven months later, Cardinal Renato Martino connected abortion with capital punishment while admitting the Church seeks to abolish the latter in an address to the United Nations:
"Abolition of the death penalty … is only one step towards creating a deeper respect for human life. If millions of budding lives are eliminated at their very roots, and if the family of nations can take for granted such crimes without a disturbed conscience, the argument for the abolition of capital punishment will become less credible. Will the international community be prepared to condemn such a culture of death and advocate a culture of life?"
Archbishop Charles Chaput, then in Denver, even equated Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia with Frances Kissling – the founder and president of the pro-abortion Catholics For A Free Choice – when Scalia expressed skepticism about John Paul's approach to capital punishment.
"(W)hen Catholic Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia publicly disputes Church teaching on the death penalty," Chaput wrote in First Things magazine in 2002, "the message he sends is not all that different from Frances Kissling disputing what the Church teaches about abortion. Obviously, I don’t mean that abortion and the death penalty are identical issues. They’re not, and they don’t have equivalent moral gravity. But the impulse to pick and choose what we’re going to accept is exactly the same kind of 'cafeteria Catholicism' in both cases."
Ratzinger tried to clarify the issue – and, in the process, destroyed Chaput's rhetorical subterfuge – when he addressed American prelates before the 2004 elections: "Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion…. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about … applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia."
Ratzinger knew he could not justify, let alone enforce, an exclusively abolitionist approach. He knows Church history all too well.
Nevertheless, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops announced in 2005 its own comprehensive abolitionist campaign, complete with political lobbying, judicial intervention and educational efforts in every parish.
Yet the confusion remains, as exemplified by two reactions to the Vatican's response to the death sentence former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein received in 2006. Martino, president for the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice, and Fr. Michele Simone, deputy director of Civilita Cattolica, condemned the sentence – with Martino expressing sympathy for Saddam.
"If someone is himself a murderer, then killing him would seem to amount not to a crime but to justice – i.e., rendering unto the person according to his merits," wrote Catholic blogger Jimmy Akin. "If you've got someone dead to rights, like Saddam, who clearly committed crimes against humanity, then the act of putting him to death is intrinsically an act of justice…This is something that the head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace ought to understand…. In any event, these are statements unworthy of responsible churchmen." (emphases in original).
Kevin Miller, professor of moral theology at Franciscan University, begged to differ: "I see that the Vatican has protested the sentence, and rightly so," Miller wrote on another blog. "Would it be just to hang Saddam for his crimes? Absolutely. But the Church teaches that this criterion, while necessary, isn’t sufficient."
Besides confusion, the Church's effectively abolitionist position creates a moral equivalence between murderers and their victims – and demonstrates outright disregard for the latter. In 2006, Bishop Samuel Aquila of Fargo, ND, used the following rationale to oppose the execution of Alfonso Rodriguez, who murdered a 22-year-old university student, Dru Sjodin: "Responding to this senseless act of violence with another act of violence through imposition of the death penalty … reinforces the false perspective of vengeance as justice," Aquila told Catholic News Agency. "In doing so, it diminishes respect for all human life, both the lives of the guilty and the innocent."
When she heard the news about John Paul’s intervention on McVeigh’s behalf, Kathleen Treanor – who lost her daughter and two in-laws in the bombing – told Associated Press:
"Let me ask the pope, 'Where’s my clemency? When do I get any clemency? When does my family get some clemency?' When the pope can answer that, we can talk."
In 1997, John Paul and Mother Teresa – another future saint – were among those advocating clemency for Joseph O’Dell, a Virginia man convicted of raping and murdering Helen Schartner in 1985. O’Dell’s fiancée manipulated public opinion in Italy to such a point that Gail Lee, Schartner’s sister, told Associated Press: "We’re all very fragile at this point. It’s just like the Italians hate us. They in essence have said to my family, 'You are worthless. Helen’s life doesn’t matter.'"
Former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C. displayed his own self-righteous indifference when he spoke to the Washington Post in 2001 about McVeigh’s execution, which only victims’ relatives could see via closed-circuit television:
"It is like going back to the Roman Colosseum. I think that we're watching, in my mind, an act of vengeance, and vengeance is never justified."
McCarrick thus equated the grieving, vulnerable relatives of murder victims with the hardened, barbaric masses of ancient Rome who found the bloody agony of gladiators and religious martyrs entertaining.
By fusing the innocent with the guilty in demanding that life imprisonment without parole replace capital punishment, the abolitionists perpetuate their own form of injustice. Perhaps the ultimate example is Charles Manson, serving a life sentence in California for ordering the savage murder of seven people in 1969 – most notably, actress Sharon Tate, who was pregnant at the time.
In 1971. Manson and three confederates received death sentences that California's Supreme Court invalidated in 1972. Though the state's Legislature re-instituted capital punishment in 1977, Manson and his confederates not only continue to serve their sentences in maximum-security prisons but are eligible for parole.
Manson's continued existence begs this question: Why is it fair or just for a murderer to retain his life after arbitrarily taking the lives of people who did no harm to him, denying them the opportunity to enjoy God's gifts, exercise them and help others?
In addressing the controversy surrounding "Amoris Laetitia," Austrian philosopher Josef Seifert rhetorically asked whether pure logic can destroy the Church's entire moral doctrine. Tim Capps, who blogs as "St. Corbinian's Bear," put the question more colloquially – and, perhaps, more powerfully:
"Is there a legitimate exercise of 'pastoral considerations' that is different from what looks more like Catholic three-card monte, with dogma as the Red Queen (that) suckers are led to think they can follow in a rigged game?"
Cannot the same questions be asked about the Church's revisionism concerning capital punishment for murder? If so, can one say that the modern Magisterium has sacrificed theological and moral consistency for intellectual fashion, fideism, neo-ultramontanism and the modern papal cult of personality? If so, can one say that the modern Magisterium has no more credibility than the Ministry of Truth in Orwell's, 1984?
If so, can one say that Pope Francis is hatching the egg that John Paul laid?
This article appears in next week's print edition of The Remnant.
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