Off the Shelf: One Last Thing

Pope Francis at St. Peter’s Basilica in 2013. (Stefano Rellandini/Reuters)
The pope’s rewriting of the Catechism on the death penalty undermines the Church’s claim to authority on other matters.

When the subject is the Catholic Church, I believe in candor. Bishops, priests, nuns and sisters, and laymen should all express themselves more candidly and more unguardedly about the state of things. Disappointments and disagreements should be stated clearly, rather than papered over. Although, lately, I’ve thought that the pope should be an exception to this rule. You may have noticed he made some news this week when he rewrote the Catholic Catechism’s paragraph on the death penalty.

To be candid, the justice or even the wisdom of the death penalty is something I had trouble accepting when I came back to the Catholic faith. Although I can’t say I gave it much thought until years later. I knew dimly that churchmen had endorsed it through most of its history. I knew dimly that modern churchmen seemed more reluctant to do so. But when I was coming back to the faith, it just wasn’t an urgent topic for me. My struggles with belief and action were far more pressing. Like a lot of people, when I realized that I believed in Jesus Christ, I had only a dim grasp of what it would mean for my convictions. I knew immediately that I accepted some doctrines of the faith, such as “God is love.” But I didn’t know if I accepted or could accept others as I then understood them: “The damned endure the torment of everlasting hell.” Over the years, however, I’ve found my belief in everlasting hell became much surer, and my belief that God is love more often tested. But at the start my impressions of these ideas were not all that sturdy, and their haziness made them more difficult to reconcile. Then there was the fact that I didn’t know which of my moral intuitions were part of what St. Paul calls “law written on men’s hearts” and which of them were just my desires and prejudices, disguising themselves as “what must be right.” I had to start living right, too.

And the fact is, I still have to start living right. I’ve tried to be a diligent student of my faith, of the Scriptures, and Church history. And I gradually came to accept the difficult and unpleasant parts of the Faith as logically and morally consistent with the pleasant parts. The once disparate ideas seemed to fall into place. My intellectual difficulties with the faith are more limited to the truly mysterious things, reconciling humanity’s free will and God’s sovereign predestination, the kinds of questions that fascinate and draw you in deeper rather than threaten to repel you. Still, on a more personal level, I’ve had to confront my own embarrassing and persistent moral failures. These do make me hesitant to speak out. I’m not a particularly good Catholic, but I believe. And yet, these churchmen do things, in a way that compels me to speak when I would prefer to just “pay, pray, and obey.”

I agree that the test of one’s obedience to authority is whether you submit when you don’t agree. And if you had asked me point-blank about my opinion on the death penalty when I joined the Church, I would have said I thought it necessarily cruel and unjust, but that I defer to the Church. Gradually I did my homework and came to accept and appreciate how the Church’s thought on this fit with its other propositions. However, I never really thought it a pressing topic. Ideally, I believed, we would raise the standard for imposing the death penalty from “beyond a reasonable doubt” to moral certainty, and reserve it for the worst of the worst: murder, rape, and perhaps treason. However, given the iniquities of our justice system, ambivalence seemed justified, too. Even a civil moratorium had a certain prudential logic to it. The only part of the death-penalty argument I’ve ever taken up is to urge the abolition of lethal injection as an “unusual” punishment, corruptive of medicine.

The more urgent matter in our justice and penal system was the widespread tolerance of criminality and rape within prisons. Because the Church taught me that the retributive and rehabilitative aspects of justice are so intimately connected, the thought of plunging convicts into a state of violence, anarchy, and abuse struck me as utterly perverse. Doing something intrinsically evil to a human can never be a just punishment; it is just an additional crime.

But, for whatever reason, the pope decided to bring this up this very week. This means that in the lifetime of someone like my father-in-law, the Roman Catholic Church has taught three different things on the death penalty.

1) Before the 1980s, the Church held that the death penalty is just and occasionally necessary, consonant with natural law, restorative of the common good broken by a heinous crime, and potentially redeeming of the offender, alerting him to the depravity of his crime, and giving him a chance for expiation of his guilt, before he meets the Judge of us all. The God that we meet in Scripture imposes the death penalty and directs others to do so. However, following the counsel of earlier Church Fathers and the precepts of mercy, clergy and religious ought not to participate as executioners, or to deliver death sentences as judges.

2) During and after John Paull II’s papacy, the Church held that the death penalty can be legitimately and justly applied by public authority, but depriving a man of his life may rob him of a chance to repent later. Because society can reliably deprive violent criminals of the freedom to hurt others, the use of the death penalty is harder to justify in many cases, and ought to be increasingly rare.

The American theologian Cardinal Avery Dulles tried to give this second proposition a fair hearing in light of the traditional view.

Now Pope Francis inserts his own opinion into the Catechism, which was immediately hailed in certain circles as a bold “development” of Catholic teaching. We’ll call this 3). And it reads this way:

Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state.

Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.

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.

The first thing to say is that progressive Catholics have been saying for years that the papacy was overstepping its bounds, exercising its authority too harshly in condemning individual theologians who were just issuing speculations and opinions. It urged “collegiality” with the world’s bishops, and consultation. Many progressives had hoped for a Church that would have more synods to discuss how Church teaching may be applied and the Christian spirit renewed in the modern world. But, this week, they welcomed the papal fiat, a simple thunderbolt from Rome. Done without consultation or collegial input. Funny how that works.

Does the Church propose that, if living standards or standards of penal corruption reach a certain rate, the death penalty becomes admissible again?

The second thing to say about these three different positions is that each revision drains the previous one of more of its supernatural content. The first presumes and has confidence in a living and just Judge that greets human souls after death, one capable of saving any soul He desires to see in heaven no matter what we do with the convict’s life on earth. Whereas the first position offers assertions about God, the last one offers assertions about the current social conditions. “More effective systems of defense have been developed,” it says. As if the only criterion by which the death penalty was judged to be legitimate before was merely about the quality of prisons. Even with the enormities that are allowed to continue in our judicial system, and the unusual spectacle of lethal injection, we still see that the death sentence seems to elicit from convicts exactly what the Church used to predict. You can read the final statements of death-row inmates on the website of the Texas government. In between a few prideful boasts, you’ll usually find a statement like the one offered last year by Rolando Ruiz, who was a convicted hitman who gunned down Theresa Rodrigues in exchange for $2,000:

Yes sir, I would first like to say to the Sanchez family how sorry I am. Words cannot begin to express how sorry I am and the hurt that I have caused you and your family. May this bring you peace and forgiveness. I am sorry. To my family, thank you for all your love and support. I am at peace. Jesus Christ is Lord. I love you all. Thank you Warden that is it.

I’m sure it sounds strange to the world, but for a Christian properly disposed, death-row final statements make for a rather tonic spiritual reading.

The third thing to say is that the Church’s factual assertions about the conditions of society are more easily challenged than its traditional exegesis of Scripture. In its new Catechism, the Catholic Church simply ignores the argument that retribution may be just, and even redemptive. It then gestures at a new modern context and says that this now makes the death penalty inadmissible. But the Church doesn’t describe these conditions with any rigor. And the proposition is not very believable on its face. Were prisons so much more ineffective during the reign of Pope Pius XII who taught something quite different about the death penalty? Are prisons the world over effective enough to protect citizens? Prisoners are citizens too, and some murderers are of the type that continue to assault and murder their fellow prisoners. Is the Church endorsing the psychological torture of indefinite solitary confinement? It is hard to believe so, given Pope Francis’s occasional opinions in his homilies about how life imprisonment also offends human dignity.

Some murderers, like the drug kingpin El Chapo, can still effectively govern a criminal enterprise from within a prison, ordering the assassination of other men on the outside. Mexico is a relatively wealthy country when measured against the rest of the world. Still, El Chapo was not only able to run his empire from within, but effect a jailbreak and continue killing. Does the Church propose that, if living standards or standards of penal corruption reach a certain rate, the death penalty becomes admissible again? We’re left only to guess.

The fourth thing to say about the new Catechism, and the one that probably explains the level of anger and resistance to this teaching, is the way it smuggles a Whig interpretation of history and morality into a document that is supposed to expound upon the faith once delivered to the saints. “Recourse to the death penalty . . . was long considered an appropriate response,” it asserts. Notice the passive voice and the lack of subject. Are we talking about previous popes and church authorities? Are we talking about the men and women of the Bible? Or just human society in a long epoch before today? Then the next paragraph: “Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.” Whose awareness is increased? Are we saying that the world or the Church only recently stumbled on the idea of human dignity? Also, the previous teaching never held that by committing serious crimes, criminals lost all their human dignity. They were still owed justice. It was still impermissible to carry out their sentences in a spirit of vindictiveness and bloodlust. Their salvation was still to be sought. And, in fact, many of the Church’s theologians believed that a criminal’s acceptance of his just punishment conduced to his salvation.

That formulation — “It was long considered to be thus, but now there is an increased awareness of something else” — is a kind of rhetorical acid that must inevitably eat away at the Church’s claims to be an institution trustworthy to teach authoritatively on faith and morals. It is an invitation for any Church teaching that has lost popularity in the Western world to be chucked. And it is a prejudice toward Western norms. None of the theologians who want to see the Church’s doctrine “developed” to say its opposite are thinking of the beliefs that are unpopular in Africa. No one proposes that “It was long considered that marriage should be between one man and one woman, but now there is a fuller understanding that polygamous men have not forfeited their dignity, by adding wives to their household.”

It is hard not to think that the insertion of a Whiggish interpretation of history and morality is actually more important to the people cheering on this change than the endorsement of death-penalty abolitionism itself. The application of this “once upon a time, but now” logic to all the Church’s teachings that offend liberal sensibilities is obvious. That it fatally undermines the Church’s claim to authority on these questions is almost a bonus for them. Not only does this Whig interpretation now have an air of authority, but it is being used to overturn nearly two millennia of the Church’s thought. By doing this, the pope has declared open season on the Church’s moral teaching. Hunt and fire away with new “awareness” that descends from . . . somewhere.

But it is all part of the modern Church. Pope Francis’s exhortation Amoris Laetitia proposed to give Holy communion to the divorced and remarried by rewriting the moral law of the Church from a set of commands that one can obey or disobey to a set of ideals that one more or less approximates. In this way, every transgression no matter how serious is reinterpreted as an imperfect approximation of the good. This week, he informs us that all his predecessors lacked the sufficient understanding, disclosed to our time, that the death penalty violates human dignity.

Pope Francis does this during a week in which one of his close cardinal associates is trying to tamp down a rebellion in his Honduran seminary — candidates for the priesthood are complaining about a climate of sexual blackmail that has been allowed to develop in their school. Just a week ago, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was stripped of the title of cardinal, over the credible accusation of pederasty. And this week, his cardinal friends in America and Rome are being asked uncomfortable questions about what they knew and when.

This sudden eruption of a new understanding comes across as an attempt to distract us from scandal. And perhaps they are related in a way. One of Pope Francis’s predecessors, Pope Saint Pius V, had a policy for those churchmen caught in serious sexual immorality. “Any priest or member of the clergy, either secular or regular, who commits such an execrable crime, by force of the present law be deprived of every clerical privilege, of every post, dignity and ecclesiastical benefit,” he wrote, before continuing, “and having been degraded by an ecclesiastical judge, let him be immediately delivered to the secular authority to be put to death, as mandated by law as the fitting punishment for laymen who have sunk into this abyss,” he wrote.

But even if it is not an attempt to distract us from scandal, it is an act of vandalism. The Vatican should not be publishing Catechisms that are overweighted with the words of the most recent popes. And popes should not abuse their office by inserting their unique and novel formulations into the Roman Catechism. No, the pope is not speaking “ex cathedra.” He is not invoking the infallible authority presumed to inhere in his office. And so the deference owed to his opinion is of a lower order. But, popes should know and be cognizant of the fact that in the modern church an “aura” of infallible authority surrounds all their words, particularly on contested matters like this. They should also be aware that the accumulation of these novel statements amounts to a kind of “counter-Magisteria,” an alternative body of papal utterances, and theological reports that are collected together and used as evidence against the traditional doctrines and teachings of the Church. The pope’s job description is to hand down what has been given to him, to safeguard the deposit of faith. That may involve risk, and it does frequently involve some kind of change. But it does not involve disclosing to us, like an oracle, some new understanding that condemns all of his predecessors, or telling us on an emotive whim that the Church has been misleading humanity for two millennia.

Anyway, with that unpleasantness over, I’m looking forward to the usual New Jersey beach vacation with the extended family next week. With small children, I won’t tear through a pile of books like I normally do. But I have a few books on the Austro-Hungarian Empire to read. And I’m looking forward to the rest of August, when I hope to return this column to the doorstopper history books that it started with. The Russia pile looks most tempting lately. More on that later.


The Latest