Pope’s pro-life challenge: Respect all life, oppose death penalty

| Cindy Wooden | October 19, 2017 | 22 Comments
death penalty

The death chamber table is seen in 2010 at the state penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas. Pope Francis’ recent statement that the death penalty is incompatible with the Gospel is viewed by some as a development of doctrine and by others as a departure from church teaching. CNS photo/courtesy Jenevieve Robbins, Texas Department of Criminal Justice handout via Reuters

Pope Francis’ recent statement that the death penalty is incompatible with the Gospel focused less on a government’s role in protecting its people and more on the need to defend the sacredness and dignity of every human life.

At least from the time of Blessed Paul VI in the 1960s, the Catholic Church has been increasingly critical of the use of capital punishment, even while acknowledging centuries of church teaching that a state has a right to punish offenders, including with the death penalty.

St. John Paul II, in his 1995 encyclical letter, “The Gospel of Life,” wrote of his alarm at “the extraordinary increase and gravity of threats to the life of individuals and peoples,” but said one sign of hope was the increasing opposition around the world to capital punishment.

“There is evidence of a growing public opposition to the death penalty, even when such a penalty is seen as a kind of ‘legitimate defense’ on the part of society. Modern society, in fact, has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform,” he wrote.

Two years later, Pope John Paul had the Catechism of the Catholic Church revised to strengthen its anti-death penalty posture. The text now says that, “given the means at the state’s disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender ‘today … are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.'”

Opponents of the death penalty cheered St. John Paul’s move, and theologians recognized it as a “development” of church teaching.

Death penalty opponents also welcomed Pope Francis’ even stronger position against capital punishment, but his words set off a debate between those who saw his position as a further development of church teaching and those who saw it as a “change” that contradicted both the Bible and the traditional position of the Catholic Church.

Edward Feser, a professor of philosophy at California’s Pasadena City College and author of “By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment,” told Catholic News Service that St. John Paul’s teaching was “a nonbinding prudential judgment,” which was in line with centuries of church teaching recognizing the right of states to impose the death penalty.

And, writing in Britain’s Catholic Herald Oct. 15, Feser said that if Pope Francis “is saying that capital punishment is always and intrinsically immoral, then he would be effectively saying — whether consciously or unconsciously — that previous popes, fathers and doctors of the church, and even divinely inspired Scripture are in error.”

But Jesuit Father Jan Dacok, a professor of moral theology and theologian at the Apostolic Penitentiary, a Vatican court, said the church always insisted there were limits to the conditions under which a state could legitimately impose the death penalty. St. John Paul, he said, emphasized those limits to the point of saying that now that it is easier to keep a murderer in jail for life, the necessary conditions for legitimacy are “practically nonexistent.”

Pope Francis took a further step forward, Father Dacok said. The pope “did not change church teaching, but places it on a higher level and points out the path toward its perfection.”

“What is accomplished with the death penalty?” the Slovakian Jesuit asked. “Do you obtain the true repentance of criminals? Do you offer them the possibility of correcting their ways, of asking for forgiveness?”

“No,” he said. “With the execution, the death, you irreversibly cancel the entire dynamic of hope” for repentance, conversion and at least some attempt at reparation.

“Obviously, Pope Francis cannot change the laws of individual countries, because that’s the competence of legislators,” Father Dacok said. “But he can continually encourage respect for the sacredness of every human life, because the death penalty truly is not necessary.”

Because security and justice can be served without capital punishment, he said, the urgent matter today is to demonstrate respect for the sacredness of every human life, “even the life of public criminals responsible for the death of others.”

Father Robert A. Gahl Jr., a priest of Opus Dei and a professor of ethics at Rome’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, said Pope Francis “continues the recent development of doctrine regarding the centrality of mercy for the Christian faith and the urgency to promote a culture of life in today’s throwaway culture,” where abortion and euthanasia are widely accepted.

“Pope Francis wants the church to offer a radical example of the defense of all human life,” Father Gahl said. And “without condemning all past practices, he vigorously demands the elimination of the death penalty.”

The priest noted the church’s historic concern for the impact of the death penalty not just on the criminal, but also on judges and executioners.

In fact, the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which was in effect until 1983, listed as those generally barred from priestly ordination “a judge who passed a sentence of death” and “those who take up the task of (execution) and their immediate and voluntary assistants in the execution of a capital sentence.”

On the question of whether Pope Francis’ statement marks a “development” or a “change,” Father Gahl said the pope probably intended to “shake up theologians and to force us to reconsider traditional formulations of permanent teaching in light of this new and authoritative development of mercy and human dignity.”

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said Pope Francis was exercising his right and obligation to teach on faith and morals.

“Obviously, the church does not intervene on the level of civil legislation,” the archbishop told CNS, “but today the pope authoritatively affirms that from a deeper understanding of the Gospel emerges the contradiction between the death penalty and the gospel of life.”

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Category: Featured, From the Pope

  • James B

    I’m so tired of Pope Francis at this point.

    • mr. producer

      He’s a heretic.

      • Dominic Deus

        Dominic Deus here. Not the first sin or the last on the Tiber.

    • Dominic Deus

      Dominic Deus here. James B, well me more. I want to know.

  • mr. producer

    “What is accomplished with the death penalty?” the Slovakian Jesuit asked. “Do you obtain the true repentance of criminals? Do you offer them the possibility of correcting their ways, of asking for forgiveness?”

    YES, in fact they are more likely to repent given the death penalty.

    • Dominic Deus

      Dominic Deus here. This is a truly chilling line of reasoning on the part of Fr. Rutler. As a physician who has served (twice) as a prison doctor I must tell you I cannot discern a grain of truth in what he is quoted as saying. It is the worst and most deficient kind of reasoning, priestly or otherwise and sounds suspiciously like the last words of a serial killer claiming that his atrocities were grounded in a desire to “purify” the helpless victim.

      The invocation of “medicinaI reason” is particularly offensive. Stay out of my sacred profession, clergyman.

      I am normally very indulgent on these things but if you can find way to contact the good Fr. Rutler, please do me the favor of telling him there is a physician and scriptural scholar who would like to speak with him. Thank you.

      • mr. producer

        Comparing a holy priest like Fr. Rutler to a serial murderer is truly despicable, but no surprise coming from the Modernist progressives. Scriptural scholar? lol! Shouldn’t you be busy writing papers on gender studies, or some other kind of liberal drivel?

        • Dominic Deus

          mr. producer–Neither Fr. Rutler’s holiness nor mine nor yours is at issue.

          Assuming he made the statement and you quoted him accurately (I am not suggesting you didn’t) the next step is for him and you to either rise to challenge or ignore it. It doesn’t work to try to shut down the conversation by citing 2000 years of this or that, invoking special privilege or implying that a well placed epithet stands in for reason. None of them do and all of them together do not.

          Reasonable believers demand..reason. Simply having access to a pulpit, religious or otherwise, is no longer good enough.

          As it turns out, I know good and well who Fr. Rutler is: a an author of books and prolific pamphleteer. The latter shields the author from critical review entirely and serves mostly to create and stoke emotion. Think Fox News. The former suggests the possibility that the author could hold his ground in a discussion but maybe not. Think Scientology.

          Speaking from one of those aforementioned pulpits tends to convince the speaker that they’re giving a homily, when what the Church needs is dialogue. I’m agreeable to dialogue.

          It is you who invoked Fr. Rutler and acted as his apologist in your second post. That is great. I thank you for that. It’s up to you to bring him into the discussion or not. I’ll be here.

          Thank you again for your dynamic posts.

          • mr. producer

            Wow, more ad-hominem attacks against a good priest. As a Catholic, the onus is on you (and the pope) to prove that the DP is contray to Sacred Scripture, Tradition and the teachings of popes and bishops for the last 2,000 years. So far, all I’ve seen is feel good emotivism about “mercy” and calls for “dialogue”, which have accomplished nothing in the last 50+ years of the effeminate post-Concilar Church (except to weaken the faith).

          • Dominic Deus

            mr. producer–Thank you for your reply. I must, however, post a clarification on the methods of vigorous discourse.

            An “ad hominem” attack is one directed at the person rather than the argument they raise. A vigorous challenge to a particularly offensive, irrational or otherwise deficient argument is not, in itself, “ad hominem.” To the extent that it discredits, impeaches or casts a different and more revealing light on a statement of faith or belief, religious or otherwise, it is distinctly “pro-hominem” because it argues not only against what it perceives as falsehood but in favor of rationality and the greater illumination of science, religion, human virtue and human vice.

            To the extent that any persons, ourselves our those invoked by us, find themselves exposed, embarrassed or even shamed in this, it is due to flawed argumentation, deficiency in reason, or very often, a bruised ego.

            In other words, “If you not are prepared to feel the burn, go to your room, study, examine your motives and methods, and come to the light when you are ready to engage.”

            I doubt Fr. Rutler is afraid to engage. He is quite accomplished in many ways. Here is another statement that might confound you. He and I might get along quite well together over wine and philosophy, possibly even religion. Vigorous disagreement often promotes fellowship.

            I still have not heard from your principal. Have you contacted him?

          • Dominic Deus

            Dominic Deus here. Glad to read that you heard the call to mercy and dialogue. Also, I agree that the Church has become more inspired by feminine wisdom, strength, grace and power–much to the good of us all.

      • Charles C.

        Dear Dominic,

        You did see that the use of the word “medicinal” was metaphorical, I’m sure. It was meant as healing the soul from the disease of sin, just as confession and prayer are healing “medicines” for the soul.

        But, as I say, I’m sure you saw that and realized that he wasn’t crossing into the realm of vaccines, antibiotics, and pain relievers.

        • Dominic Deus

          Dear Charles–you were up late last night! I’m up near Canada enjoying the first snow. Always nice to hear from you.

          I do indeed take the term “medicinal” literally as used by Fr. Rutler. The concept of healing medicine of any kind is sacred to my profession and our fellow healers, particularly nurses but many others as well..

          Add to that the fact that religions, very notably my own Catholic Church, often claim the right to misappropriate the meaning of words, and even the words themselves, repurposing them for their own purposes. A particularly foul example was Rutler’s use of the term “medicinal” to justify extinguishing the light of a human life and even more heinous, piously claiming medicinal benefit to the soul.

          His narration infuriates me at a deep level and the only concession I was willing to grant was to refer to him as a “clergyman” rather than writing “Stay out of my sacred profession, priest.” Of course, I would never write that.

          I was tempted to do so as a reminder that, while there are few contemporary vowed vocations older than the Catholic priesthood, physician is one of them. Show respect, youngster. 😉

          I feel much better now. More coffee and oatmeal for breakfast. An age appropriate breakfast. If I were a cardinal I’d be too old to vote.

          • Charles C.

            Dear Dominic,

            This response is tricky and I’ve been debating whether to send it. I have great regard for the medical profession and for those who use their skills to prolong life and reduce suffering, a noble calling indeed.

            The proper use of words is important, but to enhance understanding, not shut down discussion or win a point solely on semantic grounds (I am not accusing you of that by any means).

            In Jeremiah 30, Jehovah sends a message to Israel:

            “12 For thus saith the Lord: Thy bruise is incurable, thy wound is very grievous. 13 There is none to judge thy judgment to bind it up: thou hast no healing medicines.”

            And St. Ignatius wrote to the Ephesisans:

            “Especially [will I do this ] if the Lord make known to me that you come together man by man in common through grace, individually, in one faith, and in Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David according to the flesh, being both the Son of man and the Son of God, so that you obey the bishop and the presbytery with an undivided mind, breaking one and the same bread, which is the medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying, but [which causes] that we should live for ever in Jesus Christ.”

            But if any repurposing of words is abhorrent to you, what shall we do with “Gay?” For that matter, what of the words which now replace thought and discussion such as “Racist,” “Sexist,” “Homophobe,” “Fascist,” “Misogynist,” and all the rest?

            I admire the vow of physicians and agree that it is a profession which has been under vows for centuries, but are they the only ones? I think I could make a case that soldiers, spouses, and kings have taken vows for as long.

            Yes, the vows taken in each of those cases have changed over the years, but what of medicine? Do any American medical schools still require the Hippocratic oath? The oath that requires a refusal to counsel or assist at euthanasia, procure an abortion, and requires keeping patient information secret (even from Big Brother government)?

            None of this is to detract from you or any other health care worker, I’m just trying to expand on some topics you’ve raised.

            Father Rutler? I don’t care to explore his words, but according to Boswell, Samuel Johnson said:

            “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be
            hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

          • Dominic Deus

            An excellent post! I must retread and learn. More later. I’m going to read a romance novel.

  • DJR

    “Obviously, the church does not intervene on the level of civil legislation,” the archbishop told CNS, “but today the pope authoritatively affirms that from a deeper understanding of the Gospel emerges the contradiction between the death penalty and the gospel of life.”

    There is no contradiction between the death penalty and the gospel of life, as God Himself teaches, and His Church reiterates.

    The contradiction is between thousands of years of Catholic teaching and hundreds of popes against what is being said by Archbishop Paglia and the present pope.

    It is Paglia and the pope who are involved in a contradiction.

    • Dominic Deus

      Dominic Deus here. Thank you for you post DJR. Your statement of your views is clear and concise but a statement of belief alone does not invite discussion. Please tell and other readers how you arrived at these two conclusions:

      “There is no contradiction between the death penalty and the gospel of life, as God Himself teaches, and His Church reiterates.”

      “The contradiction is between thousands of years of Catholic teaching and hundreds of popes against what is being said by Archbishop Paglia and the present pope.”

      Just a few explanatory sentences would be great. Thanks again for your comment.

      • mr. producer

        Looks pretty self explanatory to me, unless you don’t know Sacred Scripture, Tradition and the teachings of popes and bishops passed down through 2,000 years.

        • Dominic Deus

          Mr. Producer–Thank you for responding but the question was posed to DJR and I await his response.

  • Dominic Deus

    Dominic Deus here. There is, indeed, an absolute contradiction between current Catholic teaching and revenge, even if it is cloaked in judicial robes.

    It is no coincidence that, in this country, the death penalty is most popular and most frequently carried out in states that formerly celebrated lynching as virtuous and even inspired by the Bible. When this nation finally decides that the death penalty is no more moral than the lynching it replaced or the public executions from which it grew, we will be a better country. Until then, in the eyes of many other nations and their citizens, we will be less than we could be, less than we should be, and more violent than we need to be. The death penalty draws us just a bit closer to the darkness we see in the condemned. In the end, the executioner becomes indistinguishable from the murderer.

    That happened in Minnesota and we did away with the death penalty. What’s different in the states that did not? What’s different in the people who want it back?

    • mr. producer

      Retributive justice is not revenge. Even the Church carried out the death penalty at one time, when it had the authority to do so under the Papal States. The trend towards eliminating the DP reflects a society that increasingly does not believe in an afterlife. We surely aren’t becoming a less violent society because of it.

      • Dominic Deus

        Thank you for your reply.

        Retribution is a sophistry–a way for perpetrators to deny revenge was their motive. Word play in the oppression of the helpless or the elimination of the less powerful, is a centuries old technique. One of the first things students are asked to do in a peace studies calls is list all the words they can think of that are used to describe killing people. The list is always surprisingly long.

        The Church does, indeed, have a long and bloody history. The whole of Christianity fares no better, in my catholic opinion, but should we not grow wiser and more merciful over time?