The Bishop and the Executioner

Pope Francis waves during a World Youth Day event in Krakow, Poland, July 30, 2016. (David W. Cerny/Reuters)
Pope Francis and the evolving Catholic view of capital punishment

And now for one of those amusing news cycles during which the abortion-happy American Left pretends to care what the pope thinks.

Pope Francis has signed off on a revision of the Catholic Catechism, one that takes a markedly stronger line against the death penalty. From the sainted Pope John Paul II onward, the Church has been reconsidering the social context in which capital punishment exists, which is reasonable: The Catholic Church had held that the death penalty was acceptable when it was necessary as a practical matter to protect the innocent from harm. The last iteration of the Church’s position insisted that modern penal practices have removed that practical consideration, that “such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” That is broadly if not entirely correct: Pope Francis might ask my friend Andrew C. McCarthy how much death and suffering Omar Abdel-Rahman was able to inflict while in federal custody.

One may read between the lines of the current statement the confession of a church that has been in the past a party to a few executions. It may be too clever by half, but what sense is there in criticizing a Jesuit for being jesuitical?

Pope Francis is a spiritual leader. He is not an intellectual leader, and in that he stands in contrast to his immediate predecessor and to Pope John Paul II, a figure of world-historical consequence. A few years ago, a conservative American Catholic asked one of Pope Francis’s closest advisers (a man who, I think it is fair to say, loved Pope Francis) why the then-new pope seemed, from the American point of view, to entertain such loopy, far-left political and economic ideas. The surprising answer offered by the papal consigliere was that the pope was “off his brief,” that he didn’t really have any rigorously developed and systematically applied view of political economy at all. “He is a pastor,” he said, a self-conceived man of the people prone to saying the first thing that popped into his head: Pope Donald the First, in effect. The new statement on capital punishment does not bear the mark of careful intellectual leadership.

Even so, it is difficult to fault the pope on a point-by-point basis.

Capital punishment in the Christian world really means capital punishment in the United States. Figures for China are unavailable, those being a jealously guarded state secret, but the executions there are thought to number in the thousands annually. Of the other 1,634 executions tallied by Amnesty International for 2015, almost all of them — about 90 percent — happened in three countries: Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. The systems of justice in China, Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia can hardly be considered systems of justice at all, and those regimes have only the barest moral legitimacy. Unfortunately, they are not much inclined to taking advice from the pope.

In fourth place was the United States, with 28 executions.

Capital punishment in the United States is a grotesque spectacle, one that exhibits the worst of the Kafkaesque character of American bureaucracy. The conscription of the medical profession into the service of the executioner, through reliance upon the quasi-clinical procedure of lethal injection, is particularly ugly. (My occasional suggestions that we remedy that particular problem by reverting to more-traditional modes of execution have not been met with universal admiration.) The condemned man strapped to the gurney, the stoical medical professionals hovering nearby, the witnesses watching the clinical proceedings from behind the glass of their sealed observation chamber: Who could have guessed that George Orwell’s “jackboot stamping on a human face — forever” would come equipped with surgical booties?

If anything, Pope Francis’s insistence that such a procedure constitutes an “attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” is excessively charitable. If we set aside the cases of China, Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia as too obviously horrifying to require further moral examination, the pope’s other complaints are likewise more than justified in the American context: that the death penalty is no longer a practical necessity in any but a vanishingly small number of cases (even the case of Omar Abdel-Rahman might have been better managed by means short of killing him), that it is applied unevenly and unjustly, that it is oriented not toward justice but toward vengeance.

The last of these may be the most persuasive. It was for me, many years ago when I went to cover the competing rallies outside the prison in Huntsville, Texas, on the evening of an execution. With due respect to Pope Francis, it is obvious to me, as it was similarly obvious to every pope before him who had considered the question, that capital punishment is justified in some circumstances, not only as a practical question but as a moral one. It was equally obvious to me, watching that foaming crowd cheering on the executioner as though it were the fourth quarter with home team ahead by six, that we — We the People — were not equipped to be entirely responsible stewards of that awful power of life and death, and that the exercise of such power did not ennoble us but rather achieved the opposite.

‘Judge not’ is not advice to pursue anarchy, moral or political. It enjoins us to recognize the smallness of the human moral ecosystem from the higher point of view.

Pope Francis might have taken the occasion to offer a different argument: Mercy does not consist of forbearing to impose the ultimate sanction on those who do not deserve it — that is simply the avoidance of active injustice — but rather in forbearing to impose the ultimate sanction on those who do deserve it. Which is to say, our regard for what the Catholic Church calls the “dignity” of the human person counsels us to clemency, even for the worst of us, even for those who most deserve to drain the cup of justice to its bitter dregs. Even those outside of Pope Francis’s flock might take to heart the truly radical gospel directive that we identify with the malefactor because we are cut from the same crooked timber.

The most abused line in the Bible is “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” Of course we must judge: Some of us must be judges, and some of us, as the free people of a self-governing republic, must choose the judges, or choose those who choose the judges. (Bonam fortunam, Brett Kavanaugh.) “Judge not” is not advice to pursue anarchy, moral or political. It enjoins us to recognize the smallness of the human moral ecosystem from the higher point of view, to always bear in mind that we are all of us here in the same fragile little boat on waters that are black and lifeless in every direction as far as our instruments are able to detect — that we, Pharisee and publican alike, are in this together, from the best of us to the worst of us, from the mightiest of us to the smallest.

Regarding that: Since our left-leaning friends now are interested, for at least 15 minutes, in the moral teachings of the Catholic Church regarding human life and its inherent worth, there are a few other sections of the Catechism toward which I would like to direct their attention for future contemplation.

NOW WATCH: ‘Pope Francis Officially Says Death Penalty Is ‘Never Admissible’ In Catholic Church’


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