On Oct. 11 of this year, Pope Francis declared that the death penalty is contrary to the Gospel. He derived this from the developments in our Church’s teaching, starting with Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict and also to a “change in the consciousness of the Christian people”. One letter writer to The Colorado Catholic Herald opined that this is a prudential judgment by the pope and therefore subject to human error, and that it creates an ambiguity in our catechism’s teaching and prior teaching by the church on capital punishment. As an example, Pope Pius XII is quoted as saying that “by his crime he has already dispossessed himself from the right to life”.
What are the teachings in the last 30 years of our recent popes and bishops? In “The Gospel of Life,” Pope John Paul II states not even murderers lose their dignity; capital punishment is not justifiable in the modern United States. Pope Benedict is quoted to say that “eliminating the death penalty will help us to conform penal law to human dignity.” Pope Francis feels that capital punishment is “cruel, inhuman and degrading; it foments revenge and offers no justice. The death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person, and the Church works with determination for its abolition worldwide.” Archbishop Chaput further argues that killing the guilty does not honor the dead, nor does it ennoble the living.
How does the Church move towards greater understanding of its moral teaching authority? The Holy Spirit’s groanings play the largest part. John Henry Newman’s “Essay on the Development of Doctrine” describes how new teachings must assimilate the past, anticipate the future and maintain a chronic vigor within the Church. Our popes are trying to move us forward beyond prior attitudes regarding the death penalty on the basis of our shared human dignity. This intrinsic dignity we possess tells us every life is worth living because we are loved by God and have a capacity to love others. Only a society that respects and unconditionally defends the dignity of every person from conception to natural death can call itself a human society. The power over life and death is not ours —“It is I who bring life and death” (DT 32 verse 39). Jesus died for all of us — even the most vile — and no calibration of God’s mercy can be used to diminish this dignity.
Every society that has tried to lessen the dignity of another human being has been poisoned by ignoring the worthiness we all share. The disregard for human life takes many forms: capital punishment, abortion, xenophobia, racism, hoarding. Christians used Genesis 9:27 to justify slavery and treat men as property. Hitler declared Jews and “lebenswirth unleben” as nonhuman in his legal slaughter of millions. Enhanced interrogation is “justified” for our national security. Sovereign borders are promulgated to keep out the foreigner as if he/she is our enemy. “Choice” is the euphemism used to justify abortion. Every one of these is presented as a legal measure to mitigate one’s responsibility to see the human dignity in others. Must a Catholic overlook God’s eternal law while justifying illicit actions as proper to our legal system? Martin Luther King — a Catholic at heart — borrowed from Thomas Aquinas in saying that “an unjust law is no law at all” as he sat in the Birmingham jail.
The current pope is accused of using prudential judgment to delegitimize 2000 years of Catholic teaching on the death penalty. But the death penalty is proclaimed by many for its own prudential justifications, such as rehabilitating criminals, defense of society, deterrence, and retribution. These reasons are countered by the lack of statistical verification of deterrence, racist distribution of death-row inmates, capriciousness of judgments, the incompatibility with forgiveness and its contradiction of the divine law of not to kill in the Old Testament and Jesus’ abrogation of lex talionis in the New Testament. I fail to see how these prudential considerations for the death penalty can overlook the clear Gospel message of God’s mercy.
Catholic social teaching is firm: our solidarity beckons us to be our neighbor’s keeper. Rights involve duties, and our God-given right to life is balanced by our duty to our neighbor, our country and our world. We strive to accomplish the common good: the sum of those conditions of life which allow social groups and members thorough and ready access to fulfillment and flourishing.
Pope Francis’ thinking is in consensus with the Magisterium. The natural and beneficial consequences of reason working on the Gospel’s revealed truth will draw out considerations not obvious at first and will lead us to the fullness of truth. The death penalty is not being true to the Gospel.