In response to Connie Pratt’s letter in the Oct. 19 issue of the Herald, (“Ambiguity of death penalty language in catechism not helpful for Catholics”), I was sad to see her criticism of the language used by Pope Francis in his teaching that the death penalty is contrary to the Gospel. The pope’s language is actually quite clear: “Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.’” (CCC 2267)
Prior popes, including Pope St. John Paul II, have made similar changes without a word of criticism from observers. Take for example, slavery — a practice that both the Bible, tradition, and many, many popes had no problem with. St. John Paul changed church teaching on slavery in his encyclical “Veritatas Splendor” (80), officially condemning it as being “’incapable of being ordered’ to God.” This means that past Catholics — including popes, slave-holding Catholics in the Southern U.S. and many, many others throughout history, had been practicing in something that is “incapable of being ordered to God.” Rightly, nobody today would take issue with this change.
It is of note that in that same paragraph, John Paul II also cites “deportation” and treating employees “as mere instruments of profit” as “incapable of being ordered to God.”
As regards Francis and his “change,” at least the Bible and Catholic tradition — including the so-called “Seamless Garment” perspective on pro-life issues — hold that thou shalt not kill, from conception to natural death. One of the ten commandments says this explicitly.
Ms. Pratt’s claim that “the primary rationale for the death penalty is. . . retributive justice” seems gratuitous to a people who believe that our omnipotent God sent his son to die for us in his place. This kind of thinking gave us the right to burn heretics at the stake lest they repent.
Additionally, if we adopt this retribution argument, we become the Unforgiving Servant in Jesus’ Matthew parable. This servant, in debt to his master had that debt forgiven. The servant was unwilling to forgive the debt of one who owed him and put his debtor in jail.
Finally, if you want to know what prison is like, visit someone there as Jesus says in Matthew 25. I worked with inmates who are serving sentences of life without parole at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. If you think that a life sentence is not sufficient retribution, you need to pray for compassion.