On the Inopportune Nature of Capital Punishment

Most arguments about Capital Punishment focus on whether it is intrinsically right or wrong. But perhaps there is a middle position, wherein Capital punishment is not described as intrinsically wrong, but its use is described essentially as inopportune. Let’s just call this the inopportunist position.

This is largely where I stand. I am an inopportunist, acknowledging that Capital Punishment is not intrinsically wrong, but also arguing it should seldom or ever be used under current circumstances. More on that in a minute.

But first to say, I think it is clear that Capital punishment is permitted by the Scriptures, under certain circumstances, even in the New Testament. For example, St. Paul says,

Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. (Rom 13:3-4)

With a text like this it is clear that the Church cannot simply declare the death penalty intrinsically wrong. In this sense it is different from abortion, for in abortion the innocent are murdered. In capital punishment the (presumably) guilty are killed, to both punish them and protect others.

It is also a true fact that, when asked to enforce the law that an adulteress be stoned to death, Jesus did not do so and did not agree with any insistence that the Law must be followed. Yet he did not act to abrogate the law in this respect in any judicial sort of way.  So while it is hard to demonstrate that he set aside the law, altogether, it is clear that he does not insist that punitive regulations requiring the death penalty be followed. Hence, neither are we required to apply this penalty according to Old Testament provisions.

So, to be clear, since scripture cannot be merely set aside, and since the New Testament does not explicitly abrogate recourse to the death penalty permitted in the Old Testament, then the Church does not, and I would argue, cannot, declare it to intrinsically wrong. But neither can or should we insist that all Old Testament punitive law requiring the death penalty for certain crimes, be enforced.

Prudential Judgment – So, lets argue that, given the New Testament record, we are permitted but not required to use the death penalty.  And if we are permitted, but not required to do do something, we are now in the realm of practical or prudential judgment, not merely moral judgment. And, for the Church, we are also in the realm of pastoral judgment.

“Pastoral judgment” here indicates a judgment, based on careful discernment, by the pastors of the Church (The Pope and Bishops, effectively),  of the best stance and teaching for the Church on this matter. Their judgment should be based in Scripture and Tradition, but also, as a practical and prudential judgment, takes into account the current context, and how this issue affects and influences other teachings and the Church’s capacity to teach and witness to them.

With all this in mind, I would argue that the Church has adopted, as a prudential judgement and pastoral approach, what I am calling the “inopportunist” position. Namely, that Capital Punishment, though not intrinsically evil, and permissible under certain very specific situations, is not required, and should almost never be used. The Catechism states this clearly enough:

Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person. Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 2267)

As a prudential judgment and pastoral approach the Catechism states some of the following reasons that Capital Punish be rare, if not  non-existent. Such a position is:

  1. more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common goodIt would seem that here there is a reference to the overall pastoral vision of the Church to restore greater respect for the sacredness of all human life. We live in times where this is particularly doubted by many. The Church has battled powerfully to end abortion, withstand euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research and so forth. Further, there is the often hidden but profound tragedy that over 90% of pregnancies with a poor prognosis (i.e. birth defects, Down Syndrome, etc) are “terminated.” In other parts of the world, and even here in America, some use abortion for sex-selection. But the Church insists that human life is sacred, even when coming to us in the non-preferred sex, or with the burdens of handicaps and challenges. Given the overall and increasing disrespect for human life, especially with regard to troubled human persons, the Church has adopted as a pastoral approach that serves the wider common good of respect for all human life, even of the guilty. This pastoral stance makes sense, for the credibility of our witness to life and to the common good that such a witness serves. And though it is possible for us to make distinctions as we did above, such distinctions are often lost on an often cynical populace. There is not a pro-lifer around who hasn’t had to answer questions cynically raised by those who scorn pro-lifers’ consistency on the issue of life. There is a good pastoral and prudential judgement that says, Capital punishment should be off the table – just don’t use it.
  2. more in conformity to the dignity of the human personThis largely includes what is said above. It may be hard for us emotionally to see and accept this, but even serious criminals do not lose their fundamental dignity. Note the Catechism does not say that Capital punishment intrinsically violates human dignity, only that eliminating it practically is “more” in keeping with human dignity.  In this regard, note that in God’s original dispensation, long before the Mosaic Law, God confronted Cain for killing his brother, and God punished him with exile in the land of Nod. But Cain feared for his life. But the LORD said to him, Not so; if anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over. Then the LORD put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. (Gen 4:15). Hence, though punished, Cain did not loose his dignity nor was the sacredness of his life forfeited.
  3. without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himselfWhile some argue that the impending death of a criminal will help him repent, the usual human experience is that repentance and conversion take place more slowly over time. God himself adopts a great patience with us as Scripture says, The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Rather, He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). For us who would be like God, we want every one to come to repentance and be saved, even those who have done terrible things. Hence the Catechism teaches it is fitting for us to allow the guilty to live in hopes that they may come to life saving repentance.

Hence, the Church, without ruling Capital Punishment intrinsically evil, sees its use to be inopportune for the reasons stated. So what is a Catholic to do?

Why not just stand with the Pope and Bishops on this? We’re in a tremendous battle to recover the dignity of all human life (not just some) and the death penalty is a fly in the ointment. It distracts from the pro-life vision and renders the witness of many pro-lifers less effective. Recent Popes and most all the world’s bishops and the Catechism have adopted a position which excludes recourse to the death penalty and such a position makes good sense given the climate we are in.

Again, why not just stand with them? They are our pastoral leaders and have asked precisely this, that we stand together with them on this and all other life issues.Why not just do it? Why not set politics aside, and personal preferences too and say, “For the sake of unity and a more coherent and powerful pro-life witness, I will stand with the Pope and Bishops on this.”

Is insisting on the death penalty really that important? Why die on that hill (pardon the expression)? Given that the Church does not say it is intrinsically wrong,  and thus your conscience is respected, is it really so awful to say, “I will stand with the Church on this and oppose frequent use of the death penalty, that I will ask that it almost never be used” ?  Is what the Pope and bishops teach really so bad?

Think about it. Perhaps there is a “third way” in this case. Perhaps we need not argue forever on whether the death penalty is right or wrong, just that its use is inopportune, given current conditions and the pastoral challenges to restore respect for life in accord with the common good. Think practically and prudentially. Again, think about it.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In this Video Senator Rick Santorum looks at the Pro-life continuum in a stunning way:

98 Replies to “On the Inopportune Nature of Capital Punishment”

  1. I agree with limited use of the death penalty as well. But I don’t see how Jesus not requiring it in the case of the adulteress is the best example. Today (not that it’s a new thing) we have numerous cases of serial killers; people who have knowingly killed many people in the most heinous ways. I fail to understand how the dignity of the human person is preserved by maintaining the lives of such. Why should the resources of law abiding citizens be used to keep such people alive? Many of them even acknowledge that if they attained freedom they would do the same things again. There is much more I could say on this score but I don’t want to write a book here. There are some unmistakably evil people who have left an unmistakable trail of death. Why should we have to pay to support their human dignity for the rest of their lives?

    1. I am puzzled. You say one thing in the first sentence and then take away everything in the succeeding ones. What is your choice? Do you stand with the Pope, the Bishops and the Catechism or not?

      1. I was sloppy with my words, trying to say too much in a limited space on an emotional issue. When I said limited use I was thinking of making sure that those on whom the sentence is carried out are clearly guilty since we’ve had cases where DNA shows innocence. As far as standing with the Pope, Bishops and Catechism, I would still like to understand how I make my standing as much as possible. Maybe I’m wrong. But I want to understand why we should support for the rest of their lives people who have clearly done evil by destroying the lives of others. Really, I want to understand that.

        1. Because we are driven by other values than they are. Because our actions are not driven by egocentric utilitarianism — or fear — like criminals’ are. When we choose not to kill, we effectively say “we are not like you”, “there is another way than yours” to those who have.

          But I’ll make a small parenthesis in that the utilitarian cost/benefit analysis is somewhat biased. Indeed it is possible to get detainees to contribute to society and their own sustenance in many different ways. I don’t understand why proponents of capital punishment systematically ignore or downplay this fact.

          Msgr. Pope goes great lengths to make a distinction between inopportune and evil. I do think the death penalty is totally, completely, and irreversibly evil. A poisonous inspiration left by Satan himself, inviting man to play God under guise of “justice”. So much so that the fact really didn’t HAVE to be written down all so often. The First Commandment is not the first for no reason. Without Life present, the other Commandments are void.
          I know God is present in all human relationships, up or down. When we choose to eradicate one of those relationships by killing a person, we also destroy God’s presence in all of his/her relationships, and breach all other Commandments on behalf of many persons by the same token. And in doing so, we sentence ourselves too. I think this is not to be taken lightly, as the word “inopportune” would seem to suggest. It is going to be a tough one the day when God asks us how we could possibly choose to exterminate an incapacitated child of His in cold blood, hiding our personal responsibility behind laws and systems, and ignoring the collateral damage done to other innocent people like an inmate’s relatives or friends while we had the chance to factor it in. Thinking deeper about this, we would have to recognize that we actually did something much worse than a series of first degree murders.

          I know that many contortions have been and are still being attempted and tried to still make capital punishment fit with the First Commandment anyway. God rarely interferes with mere human affairs and leaves a lot of room for us to choose our own behaviour as a society. I think it only reveals how human Humans are, in that over the centuries they have proven themselves pretty unable to depart from their atavistic longing for revenge — which in my view is the ONLY true reason why people want to see another person die under the law.

  2. Capital Punishment, though not intrinsically evil, and permissible under certain very specific situations, is not required, and should almost never be used

    I would suggest that this is not the best way to put it and, in fact, it puts the cart before the horse.

    A better way to put it is that, in some rare instances, it IS required, and it is ONLY when it is required that it is permissible. When is it required? When there are no less drastic measures by which to protect the lives and safety of others. If a prisoner still presents an on-going continuing threat to others by his actions or merely by remaining alive, even if held in the HELL that is a super-max prison, it may very well be required.

    We have a duty to protect life. Not only the life of the prisoner, but the lives of other prisoners, and the lives of guards, and the lives of people outside the prison. If taken alive, would Osama bin Laden have presented a continuing threat to the safety of others and a threat to our national security? How many innocent people should we sacrifice to keep him alive in that case? Or consider the case of the prisoner who murders other prisoners or kills guards or attempts to do these things. What do we say to the widow of the next murdered guard whose death could have been prevented? Or what about the mob boss who can still control his gang and order hits on people even from inside prison? Do the people of Iraq sleep easier at night knowing that Saddam Hussein is lying cold in the grave?

    I think that the Catechism and Evangelium Vitae are overly optimistic in overstating the “possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm.” (And one also overstates the case to say that the popes and bishops have rejected modern capital punishment per se.) In some cases, there is NO effective way to render the offender incapable of doing harm. In other cases, the only way to render him harmless, other than to totally incapacitate him by taking his life, is to subject him to a tortuous existence in 24-hour lockdown in an isolation cell in a super-max prison. This latter approach I would suggest is as morally abhorent as is execution, if not more so.

    Now, do the above cases represent most people convicted of a horrible crime? No. Absolutely not. Probably well over 95 percent of executions are not justified — they are not required in order to protect the lives and safety of others. But some are. Unfortunately. It would be far preferable not to have to take someone’s life at all, but when they present a threat to others, the use of deadly force might be necessary.

    The question of the value and dignity and sanctity of human life is a question of moral truth. It is a question that deals with absolutes. That absolute is — human life is so precious that it is wrong to kill, except that, in order to protect life, it might be necessary to take the life of an aggressor.

    The question of capital punishment, however, is not susceptible of absolutes. It is an inherently relative matter. Today in the United States, at enormous financial expense, we have super-max prisons of concrete and steel. Other nations today do not have those resources or manpower to construct, maintain, and guard such prisons. Even 100 years ago, the United States did not either. Towns in the old West might have had a one-cell jail in a brick building, from which escape was quite possible. And out on the frontier, there were no jails at all. What to do with a killer or a rapist who might escape or will be released at some point and might go looking for revenge? The only effective way of rendering them incapable of doing harm was by use of a rope. It was because there were no prisons as we have today, or resources to operate them and house prisoners for life, and because offenders could not be trusted not to re-offend after being released, or could not be trusted to not return if banished, that people up until the 19th century were hanged for not only murder, but rape and robbery and mayhem and burglary.

    The question of the dignity and sanctity of human life is a question of moral truth. But the question of “capital punishment” is entirely relative, depending upon specific facts and situations. And we should not blur or confuse the two. The Church is on firmest ground proclaiming truth, which is absolute, rather than going further and trying to absolutize the inherently relative.

    As a “punishment” or as a “penalty,” given the absolute moral truth of the sanctity of human life, it should absolutely be opposed. And, properly understood, THAT is where I believe the popes and bishops stand. And that is where we should stand. But as a remedial matter, as a protective matter, as the only way to defend and save human life, the use of deadly force by execution might in rare cases be required, and therefore permissible. “Rare” means rare, and we should not be in the business of twisting the words of moral truth and arguing that “rare” really means “never.” It doesn’t.

    1. As for all those Old Testament crimes, as well as adultery in Jesus’ time, they still carry the death “penalty.” The law is still in force. But it is not for man to be the executioner in these cases. The offender is his own executioner, he hurls the stones at himself, and the death is not mere physical death, but eternal death. That is, unless he can find pardon and have Someone else take his place at the execution.

    2. To some extent I think you are right in that we seem to lack the political and moral will to keep dangerous criminals locked up or under sufficient restraint to prevent them from killing in prison. That said, I think we ought to work on that rather than resort to death, I say this for pastoral reasons of the common good for the reasons stated. I have asked the few bishops I know to consider raising the issue of providing greater protection to society when they speak against the death penalty. Simply saying there are other sufficient ways for the State to protect citizens is not the same as the State actually doing that.

      All that said, I still have my question: Given the current climate, and the need for a strong and consistent pro-life message that the world cannot distort or misunderstand, are you and I willing to stand with the Pope, Bishops and catechism against the use of the death penalty in almost every circumstance?

      1. are you and I willing to stand with the Pope, Bishops and catechism against the use of the death penalty in almost every circumstance?

        Yes. Absolutely. But that is a key word there — “almost.” And the problem is that the anti-capital punishment absolutists totally ignore that “almost.”

        Capital punishment is a horrific thing. As is war. As General Sherman said, “War is all hell.” That said, there are times when it is necessary and just.

        An extreme pacifism with respect to war would be and is morally problematic when we have a duty to protect life as well. The question of capital punishment really is not a different teaching, it is the exact same one as with war or with personal self-defense — it is permissible to use deadly force only when there are no less drastic measures to protect life. And the extreme pacifism position is just as morally problematic when it is applied to capital punishment.

        1. And for the record, with all respect to Tom below, but I totally reject the idea that “the state is also meant to be God’s servant in punishing the wrongdoer” (5:15 a.m.), especially since the state has shown itself throughout history to be the greatest wrongdoer of all.

          I am content to leave matters of “justice” and “punishment” for wrongdoing to God — they are matters between the offender and God. If God wants to forgive and let a murderer in heaven, who are we to insist that justice demands that he be killed? If God chooses a guy who was an accessory to murder and terror to be his Apostle to the Gentiles, who are we to disagree? It is enough that we should be concerned with public safety.

          Indeed, I think a lot of the death penalty enthusiasts are going to be surprised to see walking around in heaven a few guys who were on death row here on earth. (cf. C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce)

  3. Monsignor,

    The term “prudential judgment” seems to have a sort of subjectiveness to it such that this all could take a 180 degree turn in the future if whatever circumstances changed.

    While it is valid to make an argument for limiting Death Penalty, my primary “concern” with the case you presented is that it runs the risk of becoming conflated with the Pro-Life position, which in turn can cause not a few people to mistake it as on par with abortion and such. This in turn has caused it’s own headaches, and ones in which Catholics are effectively silenced in their Pro-Life outreaches because their stuck doing damage control (e.g. wasting a golden opportunity having to argue abortion isn’t anywhere near the same as DP). For example, in the three numbered points you gave, you used phrases such as “respect for the sacredness of all human life,” and “more in conformity to the dignity of the human person,” which are almost ‘trademark’ Pro-Life phrases. Imagine if a bishop or candidate for office were a good Catholic but upheld DP even if minimally, in light of phrases like that, they’d be shut down by any Pro-“Choice” objector.

    Also, such arguments have been used to make a mockery of Scripture and Tradition, because I’ve heard people argue that Scripture and Tradition have been barbarous and mean because the allowed DP, and thus cast a black splotch on their record. It gives credence to the “liberal” crowd that says the Church is developing and “tossing out all this stuff they had wrong all these years.”

    The key to a good argument for limiting DP has to rest in more “concrete” alternatives. For example, I would argue that if someone really wanted to push to limit DP, they would push for a huge campaign for prison ministry. The idea that someone, given time alone, is going to have a better chance at having a change of heart is a joke if a strong prison ministry is not in place. (And this goes hand in hand with preaching the need for Confession in general – for a woman who has had an abortion is just as much a murderer).

    Second, you should be proposing realistic rehabilitation schemes, built around abolishing life imprisonment, or even sentences longer than 10 years. You can’t convince me that locking someone in an 8′-by-8′ room *forever* upholds their dignity as a human, for they’re no different than an animal. How is someone going to change their mind or be rehabilitated if they’re literally in a dead-end place? I believe it is realistic to have genuine rehabilitation systems in place that help the person recognize their guilt, genuinely repent, make some sort of amends, and eventually be set free. The hardest part about this though is that in our secular world, genuinely helping someone repent is difficult, and with the abysmal state of public schools and such, it seems like a long shot to get top notch rehabilitation systems in place.

    Lastly, the biggest difficulty anyone will face when it comes to this prudential judgment is that only “first world” countries can really apply it, since it’s fundamentally based on world-class incarceration systems, which naturally leaves the rest of the world in the dust. If we have all these poor South American and African nations without world-class facilities, then this prudential judgment isn’t that much of an option for them, and thus the DP will continue as a normal, feasible punishment right along side the rich nations that forbid it on the grounds human dignity is upheld.

    1. Well, if it’s not a prudential judgement then what is it? Is it a scientific one. Is it merely a judicial one? Even judges would question that for every case is taken on its own basis. It is a toto genere suo scenario? If not prudential then what is it?

      But again, all this side steps my question. You are arguing the issue, frankly that gets us no where. But my question again is:

      Given the current climate, prescinding from the right vs wrong question, and acknowledging the need for a strong and consistent pro-life message that the world cannot distort or misunderstand, are you and I willing to stand with the Pope, Bishops and catechism against the use of the death penalty in almost every circumstance?

      1. Hello,

        I’m not saying “prudential judgment” isn’t the right term, I’m saying this specific PJ was not defined narrowly enough to make it readily applicable.

        Given that, I would have a hard time answering your question one way or the other because “a strong and consistent pro-life message” doesn’t seem to apply to the dp (else it would be intrinsically evil), and thus I can see the world “distort or misunderstand” the Catholic position. The Pope, Bishops and Catechism didn’t say they were against the use of DP “in almost every circumstance,” for the language was contingent upon having a world-class incarceration system in place, which South America, Africa, and Asia simply don’t have access to. So it becomes a situation of “The DP tarnishes the pro-life position and should be opposed, except in all those areas which are allowed to have recourse to DP on a much wider latitude.” I’ll be honest, that’s how I see it, and I cannot think of any satisfying answer to that dubious proposition.

          1. I’m not sure what you mean by “our context is America” – surely you’re not saying the CCC only applies to us. Since it applies to all countries, then it’s naturally not exclusionary to first world countries.

  4. You begin by acknowledging that scripture permits capital punishment for two reasons: punishing the guilty, and protecting the innocent. Yet you subsequently ignore the former and only address the latter.

    I agree that capital punishment is rarely needed today to protect the innocent. And your three reasons to oppose it are all good reasons.

    But if the state is also meant to be God’s servant in punishing the wrongdoer, mustn’t we weigh the reasons for opposing against the responsibility to punish? Prudence is exercised in deciding in each instance whether the death penalty is warranted, not in categorically opposing the practice.

    1. But again, you are arguing the issue, I am not. Let’s just grant that it is not intrinsically wrong for the reasons you have stated. I grant your points.

      All that said, I still have my question: Given the current climate, and the need for a strong and consistent pro-life message that the world cannot distort or misunderstand, are you and I willing to stand with the Pope, Bishops and catechism against the use of the death penalty in almost every circumstance?

  5. I think one of the biggest mistakes that many Christian supporters make in their arguments in favor of the death penalty is that they stop at the intrinsically wrong issue, thus making it out to be so much different than abortion, which is intrinsically wrong and thus never permissible. But such people mistake the intrinsic nature of a wrong itself with the gravity of the wrong. True, the death penalty isn’t intrinsically wrong, meaning there can be a theoretical instance when it’s acceptable, but if it’s true that we’ve reached a point in our society when such a case exists only rarely, if at all – as our current and previous Holy Fathers have strongly stated – then that means that the overwhelming majority of death penalty cases are, in fact, wrong, morally evil. Then it becomes a matter of discerning the gravity. And given the manner of institution of the death penalty in the United States today, I think it’s far closer to the gravity of moral evil of abortion than most people care to admit. When we consider the institutional racism at work in our American death penalty – and racism is an intrinsic evil – and when we consider the class disparity in its institution – the very opposite of our Church’s teaching of a preferential option for the poor – then we can see, I think, that for us to support the death penalty in the United States is indeed a form of cooperation in grave and serious moral evil.

    1. Here too, I will grant your points. But I am trying to find a via media rather than argue the points one by one and do the Right vs wrong scenario all over again. What will likely happen is that others will write to counter some of your points. All the debate is fine and has its place but, given that Catholics are theoretically permitted to differ on this, my focus was to try and couch the discussion on simply standing with the Pastoral leaders of the Church, accepting their prudential judgment in this matter and as a strategic matter standing with them. That said, I understand well the concerns you raise here.

      1. I agree with Msgr. Pope. The issue of whether a given society is using the death penalty to oppress the poor and minorities would be some of the circumstances involved in the prudential judgment. The death penalty will never be “intrinsically” evil, although like even intrinsically good acts, it can become evil under certain circumstances. Therefore, it is best to work on the circumstances in which it would apply to ensure that they are sufficiently grave with a sufficiently high degree of certitude of guilt irrespective of race or social class, rather than its abolition as we would for abortion.

        Its funny, because we tend to work on restricting abortion as an interim approach while we work toward its abolition, yet our approach to the death penalty is to work directly on its abolition rather than on its restriction. I believe that such mentality reflects the influence on our thinking of the communications strategy of the culture of death. It is ironic, too, that supporters of legalized abortion of the innocent are among the most ardent supporters of illegalizing the death penalty for the guilty. Given this, shouldn’t we hold in suspicion the attempt to illegalize it altogether?

        (For instance, it would be helpful to provide concrete data about the relation of the death penalty to race/class oppression in the US, as this smacks of something “everyone knows” because it has been said constantly for the last two generations — after all, executions are rather rare compared to the size of the population and it just does not seem like a very efficient mode of oppression — but it does seem like an efficient mode of propaganda.)

  6. In John 8, while Jesus did not abolish capital punisment, He did give the qualifications of the executioners.

    There is no example in Church History of either the Most Holy Theotokos or newly baptized acting as such.

    1. An interesting take, rather than speak to the punishment the Lord sets the bar high for those who do it. Even married, quite qualified as she was, did not throw a stone (despite what the old joke says).

      As interested as I am in your insight, I want, again, to reiterate my hope for a via media, a practical coming together and agreeing on the tactics even if we cannot reach a full internal consensus, for I am sure that, despite your insight, some will want to challenge it and the cycle just repeats.

  7. Good article. I think that America is unfortunately too polarized for a nuanced position to carry the day, politically.

    For my own part, I oppose capital punishment, not only for the reasons you’ve expressed, but because I think it is very important that we are clear on why we punish people. Capital punishment is neither restitution, since it does not give back to the victim what was lost, nor is it rehabilitation, since it does not make the perpetrator better. It is not very good and being preventative, since history shows clearly that the fear of capital punishment has never stopped the commission of capital crimes. We are not in a time of complete desperation, in which the support for the incarcerated convicted is such a terrible burden that it threatens our own lives. The only thing that really makes sense is that it is reducible to a kind of revenge, an eye for an eye mentality that I think is out of place in the post-incarnation world. It is not that it is necessarily “unjust” in the sense of being, as you say, simply “wrong,” it is that it is not the best answer.

  8. The position of the pope and the bishops is to be followed because they are the custodians of morals and faith. And their authority comes from Christ through peter(matt. 16:18) by succession. So when they speak they do so in Christ’s authority. Thanks msgr Pope.

    1. Yes, the First Vatican Council states: ‘Loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given, in a special way, to the authentic authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra, in such wise, indeed, that his supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect, and sincere assent be given to decisions made by him.’

      This is repeated both in the Catechism and in Canon Law (749, 752)

      1. I’d like to see where Vatican I taught this. I can’t seem to find it anywhere. The Catechism only makes a reference to Lumen Gentium which is the document from which I think you are quoting. Neither the Catechism nor Canon Law are infalible sources of doctrine and should not be treated as such, especially since they can be revised tomorrow (and have been already as a result of errors). The purpose for the Catechism should be as a compendium of what the Church has always taught, and as such everyone of its statements should have an unambiguous magisterial source. The section on the death penalty an example of both revision and ambiguity. The following content:

        If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

        Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

        was not part of the first edition of the Catechism as it is a result of JP2’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae. As such it represent’s his personal opinion and not that of the perennial teaching of the Church. And so now we have a pope presenting his personal opinion in such a way as to attempt completely rule out the licitness of the death penalty.
        In answer to your question, I do not stand with JP2 on this because it is his personal opinion which lacks sound reasoning.

        1. Religious submission of the will and intellect must be given, in a special way, to the authoritative Magisterium (authentico magisterio) of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra; indeed, that his supreme Magisterium be acknowledged with respect, and that one sincerely adhere to decisions made by him, according to his manifest mind and intention.” (Lumen Gentium 25.2)

          Catechism 892 says, Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a “definitive manner,” they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful “are to adhere to it with religious assent” which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.

  9. Thisis one of those places that I see where the Catholic Church has formed, shaped and changed me in only a few years. Years ago, I worked for a time as a medical examiner and was involved in a serial killer case of some notoriety–I was there when the body of the last victim, a child of 12, was found. The experience remains as fresh as the day it happened in my mind nearly thirty years ago. I would cheerfully have pulled the switch on the killer at the time (a part of me would still do so), and after coming into the Church, I retreated into the protection of conscience (“capital punishment is not inherently evil and remains a right of the state”) for a long time whenever I thought about it because it bothered me to think that I’d have to give up that position. But at some point, obedience got the better of me, and I realized that I owed the Bishops my support in obedience and unity if nothing else. I stopped speaking about the validity of capital punishment, though I still supported it in my mind. At some point that external assent of faith and obedience opened my heart to listen to something different and changed me inside too. I began to realize I was in favor of capital punishment not for punishment and deterrence or protection of the innocent (there are ways to do that effectively without the electric chair or lethal injection), but for revenge, and that’s not appropriate. LIttle by little, I began to see that I am meant to take very seriously the idea that I must find Christ in EVERY man (even that serial killer) and be willing to sacrifice for him–in this case, sacrifice the desire for revenge and be willing to grant time for conversion of hearts–the killer’s, and mine as well. Not easy and I still rebel against it, but I am so grateful for the BIshops’ stand that made me stop and reconsider just what loving my neighbor means in the most difficult of circumstances, when I a determined not to and feeling very justified in not loving. You are so right, Msgr. Thank you for a thoughtful post.

  10. In my rush to whip out a rebuttal, I forgot one essential point regarding the repentance of the murderer.

    A prison sentence instead of a death sentence undermines the Church’s teaching on penance. Giving one’s life is the greatest temporal penance we can do which is why the Church values martyrdom so highly. By denying the murder the opportune to atone for his crime by death, we likely condemn the murderer to significantly longer time in Purgatory. This is hardly an act of mercy on the part of the Church and undermines the Church’s teaching on Purgatory.

    1. Cassandra said-
      A prison sentence instead of a death sentence undermines the Church’s teaching on penance.

      Your posts are a perfect example of why all should be obedient to the bishops and pope. Your attitude is completely fatal to the virtue of faith and unity of the Church. The gift of faith consists in submitting but your penchant for private interpretation consists in judging. In faith by hearing, the last word rests with the teacher; in private judgment it rests with the reader. Though you have not the competence, you have made yourself the judge of your teachers through your private interpretations. Shame on you!

  11. If I could be ASSURED that those given a life term would NEVER be released –then I would no longer be in favor of a death penalty. However, time and again criminals were released and killed again.Our “justice” system is faulty, and when it is faulty, innocent people become vicims. There is a site I went to recently that showed a long list of examples from the 1980’s to present of murderers that were released after serving a “life sentence” (sometimes 20 years), and imeediately murdered again–and sometimes an entire family. I also viewed a PBS program that had examples of a justice system that failed and people died. So I continue to support the death penalty— not for revenge but to protect the innocent.

  12. Also, it is not a venial or mortal sin to support Capital Punishment, God gives a free will in this.

  13. Wether or not the use of the death penalty is something that in and of itself might sometimes actually prevents the committing of crimes that warrant it’s use, is a judgment that is beyond the competency of the Bishops.

    As for the statement,

    “The Church has battled powerfully to end abortion..”

    Respectfully, I most earnestly disagree. The Church has certainly argued powerfully against abortion, but in regards to the countless number of “Catholic” politicians who have done everything in their power to promote, legally sanction, and fund abortion, as well as homosexual “marriage”, sex education to children, and other unspeakable evil, the Bishops of the Church have done, quite noticeably, next to nothing.

    It has been reported widely, and often that many, if not most of the “Catholic Universities” in American openly teach against the Church’s position on abortion, and have for decades. The Bishops have also done precious little to nothing to address that scandal.

    And please correct me if I am in error, but has not the Church stated that those who support abortion legally and financially are not to receive Communion? And has not Cardinal Wuerl decided not to comply with that directive?

    1. I especially wonder at a priest disagreeing publicly with the Bishops, even over non-infallible teachings or policy matters. Is it our role, Father, to dispute bishops or represent them? I may or may not have minor disputes with my Archbishop on his priorities or policies, but IF I did, the people of God would not hear from me publicly on them. I would speak to him directly or confide quietly with a spiritual director or a wise priest.

      1. And when that fails, what recourse? Your Ordinary has very publicly stated that he will (ignoring the instructions from Rome) allow pro-abortion politicians to receive Holy Communion.

        From then Cardinal Ratzinger If a pro-abortion politician “”with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it.”

        That was not a suggestion, and yet with few exceptions the Bishops have gone against Rome. Where then lies the allegiance of the priest?

        And as I pointed out in the now deleted post, the Bishops have demonstrated time and again that the protection of the most innocent of society is an area where they often fail, as individuals and a group.

          1. I understand Father, and thank you for your advice, and pray for the success of your blog in leading people to Christ. But I am tired, tired and fed up when I am asked by a member of the faithful why Bishops are deliberately going against Rome and all I can muster the strength to do is shrug in despair and lower and shake my head and ask for their prayers for both for myself and the Bishop.

            But my question remains, when a Bishop is publicly disobedient to Rome, and the priest is left with the choice of disobeying the public directives from Rome, or his Ordinary, where lies his responsibility?

          2. I agree with you Father, and I found it appalling that two priests were silenced by their Bishops for speaking out against homosexuality (Texas and Canada). Bishops seem more concerned about being Politically Correct than saving souls.

      2. Msgr.

        I believe you are personally obliged under canon law to refuse a known public sinner the sacrament of Holy Eucharist. If your bishop interferes with that duty for political reasons, that is on his soul.

        Peter Chabot

    2. Fr Maximillian,

      Are you really a priest? Tell the truth…. are you in communion with Rome? 99% of the time when I read a priest condemning bishops, they wind up being some sort of schismatic. If you are in communion, your public rants against the episcopacy are scandalous and shameful. If you have a problem, there is a proper way to handle it and this is not it.

  14. Re: Some Personal Observations

    I served on a Special Response Team that covered a prison. I also served as a Special Forces soldier on tasks in countries where there was not only a complete break down of law and order but a dissolution of society. Based on the above I think the Church has got it exactly right. The State does have a right under certain circumstances to resort to Capital Punishment; but that right should be rarely exercised. Right now, in the USA, it is hard for me to imagine circumstances that would justify executing a condemned criminal. However in the absence of a functional justice system a person or persons acting with just authority may have to resort to Capital Punishment to protect the innocent.

    God bless

    Richard W Comerford

  15. Much against my nature, I’ll be very brief in my comments on this subject.

    1. I sincerely wish that people who are opposed to capital punishment would be more general in their subject matter. For example, if capital punishment is an offense against the prisoner’s dignity, what about incarceration for life? These prisoners will not be given house arrest at an Italian villa. And let’s not kid ourselves: a long prison stint will ruin a man’s life, making him nearly unemployable and probably destroying his family. I always hate it when people get so excited about how important it is to “get everything right” in a capital case, as though we can afford to be sloppy in other cases.

    2. All judicial punishment is in some sense an acknowledgement of the dignity of man as a moral agent. We may catch an alligator that has wandered into a suburban neighborhood or euthanize a mad dog; these are merely prudential measures, and questions of justice are not relevant. The situation could not be more different when we hunt down the last surviving war criminals from Nazi Germany; these old men are certainly no longer a threat to anyone, so prudence is not relevant — but unlike the alligator or mad dog, they have committed moral wrongs, and it is unjust to leave them unpunished.

    3. Too often, when the prudential aspect of capital punishment is put in the foreground, the idea of justice disappears altogether. The State certainly does NOT have the right to kill innocent people for “the public good”; the question at hand is whether the State has the right to kill people WHO HAVE COMMITTED CRIMES THAT WARRANT DEATH. Otherwise, we find ourselves in agreement with Caiphas in that “it is expedient for you that one [innocent] man should die for the people.”

    4. As a prudential matter, the possibility of a death penalty AFTER A TRIAL BY JURY provides protection to the accused from being killed with no trial whatsoever. This is particularly important if you happen to live in the nation that coined the word “lynching”, or a nation whose government has just used a drone-launched Hellfire missile to kill one of its citizens.

    1. 6. Justice is a cardinal virtue. It is possible, perhaps, to imagine justice being carried out by some sort of robot. Charity (love), on the other hand, is a theological virtue; it is NOT possible to imagine it coming from a robot. Now the laws are a kind of robot, or at least a kind of software. The proper magistrate — in most cases, the state governor — may show mercy, because he is a person, but a piece of legislation cannot show mercy. It is better for a guilty man to escape execution because the proper man, on behalf of the State, has forgiven him (or partially forgiven him) than because the robot of law is programmed to let him off.

      7. The law should make it easy for the proper magistrate, or some other designated person when he has a conflict of interests, to extend mercy to the condemned. As I understand it, this is a problem in Texas, where the governor has very limited authority to commute sentences.

      8. Respect for the dignity of the condemned has a role in the form of execution. The idea is similar to what Chesterton wrote about cremation:

      “If I had been a Heathen,
      I’d have piled my pyre on high,
      And in a great red whirlwind
      Gone roaring to the sky;
      But Higgins is a Heathen,
      And a richer man than I:
      And they put him in an oven,
      Just as if he were a pie.”

      There is greater dignity in being burned in “a great red whirlwind” than in being put into an oven like a pie. In the same way, we should not use the same method for executing a murderer and euthanizing a sick family pet.

        1. I don’t see your discussion as suggesting a “via media”, because you (and the bishops) pay too much attention to the mere number of people who are executed (a physical evil) and not enough to the moral circumstances under which the punishment may be waived.

          Do a word search on this page, and you will see that no one has used the word “forgive” or “forgiveness” except me. How can we have a discussion of the Christian response to crime that does not talk about forgiveness?

          1. Actually I am not discussion the death penalty per se, as you seem to presume. I am granting most of the arguments presented for or against. I am asking, once again, Will you stand together with the bishops, and the Pope on this matter (about which reasonable people differ) for the sake of a united and prophetic stance against the culture of death?

          2. So, your idea of a “via media” is to agree to ban the death penalty (which you admit that the Church does not insist on) for a “united and prophetic stance” so that people who cannot distinguish between capital punishment and abortion will not be confused?


            I’m not willing to be dishonest about an issue this important.

          3. Well, I don’t think we can ban it. I would say just to stand opposed to its use in almost every circumstance. Why is Capital Punishment so important to you? Is it really that critical that you can’t yield on it for a practical reason? I really don’t think all of Church dogma will collapse into a heap if we just say, for practical reasons we don’t think it should be used, xcept in the rarest circumstances.

          4. First of all, it is a matter of truth. I don’t think that all of Church dogma will collapse in a heap if we give this generation the same grown-up advice about capital punishment that the Church has always given: do no injustice to the accused, use prudence to fulfill your obligations to protect society, and be as merciful as you can.

            You explicitly admit that capital punishment is just in some cases, but you apparently want us to act as though we thought it was not, and perhaps give the false impression that it is AS CATHOLICS that we oppose the death penalty in all cases. To say or even imply that capital punishment is unjust in all cases is a blasphemy against God, since He not only permitted but in fact *commanded* capital punishment for quite a few crimes in the Law. It is also something like a blasphemy against man, since it implies that a man can never commit a crime so serious that he forfeits his right to life — it undervalues his dreadful dignity as a moral actor. Also, by simply doing away with the penalty as an act of legislation you would eliminate the possibility of one person (the governor), acting on behalf of the State, showing mercy to the person who committed the crime. You may think they both amount to the same thing, the criminal not being executed; I maintain that there is a moral difference between neglecting to carry out a just penalty and showing genuine mercy.

            I did mention some prudential considerations which you wish to ignore, notably the fact that the end to “the death penalty” would not mean that the State no longer kills people. Israel has no death penalty; they just take no great pains to bring in terrorism suspects alive.

            And since you bring it up, how can you not see that the word “rare” is TOTALLY USELESS in discussing something like this? For one thing, what does it mean? I would think that Down Syndrome is rare, but there are far more people with Down Syndrome born each year (about 5000 for the United States) than are executed for crimes. More importantly, an important principle in a fair trial is that each case be considered separately and independently of the others, based only on the circumstances relevant to it; it would be wrong to set a quota for punishments, say “20 executions per year satisfies the criterion of rare”, and then adjust the sentences accordingly. If it’s practical results you want, give practical advice: advice that executions be “rare” is both ambiguous and completely useless in determining whether THIS man should be executed.

  16. Father,
    I don’t believe I’m in the position to disagree with the Pope, Bishops, and Catechism on moral issues. If I find myself resistant to what the Church teaches, chances are that there is something wrong with my reasoning, not the Church’s.
    I do wonder though what role punishment ought to play in the discussion. The Catechism states that the death penalty is permissible the following: If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person. Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm.
    Please correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like the the Catechism neglects the issue of justified punishment. For example, if someone rapes and murders a 2 year old, whether the state can prevent them from doing so again seems irrelevant. They did it, and deserve to be punished. So whether the state can prevent it in the future is a moot point.
    Please help me understand if I’m not thinking about this clearly.
    God Bless You.

    1. Catholic teaching on the death penalty, to my understanding, did not justify it based merely on its punitive dimension but also linked it to the common good such as deterrence and prevention of further harm. This would also be the case with incarceration which is not understood to merely punitive but also should aim to be reformative and cognizant of the overall common good.

  17. Some people believe that supporting not only the existence but the actual use of the death penalty can be pro-life, as this fellow does: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-faith/post/the-death-penalty-can-be-pro-life/2011/09/15/gIQAiRudUK_blog.html

    I agree with Msgr. Pope (and I commend you, sir, in the serenity and consistency of your responses) in that the existence of the death penalty and its prudential use are not intrinsically evil and may even need to be preserved as circumstances warrant, but that the prudential reasoning employed needs to be better formed, as the Church as said. It can hardly be pro-life or conducive to our own salvation to wish for the death of someone guilty of mortal sin. But, that does not necessarily mean that the death penalty can never be employed by civil authorities in a pro-life society. It means that the circumstances need to be well defined and sufficiently grave.

    I have a response to the WaPo post saying as much at my blog here: http://authenticbioethics.blogspot.com/2011/09/can-death-penalty-be-pro-life.html

  18. Monsignor, you are pressing the point, but it is unfortunate that you started off with a conflation by structuring the argument so that it smacks of sophistry. Capital punishment belongs to Caesar, so the Church should leave it to him and the justice system that is in place by common consent, not just a secular dictat. Murder may, in places, be punished by death; Sts. Augustine & Thomas Aquinas were quite clear on the issue, I believe, and it is of no benefit to the Church to meddle.

    A guilty criminal meeting his just reward is miles apart (light years, really) from an innocent child being killed by a willing individual and accomplices, all approved and funded by the state. This is where the state gets it morally wrong, and the Church is effectively obliged to point it out and object vocally.

    I cannot help but see as unfortunate some of the phraseology used to present the issue in political terms (“current climate” or “human dignity”), since it effectively admits weakness vis-a-vis the patently fallacious arguments coming from none other than secularists and/or atheists, who now often call themselves “humanists” instead of the historically more fitting “libertines”. In general, it seems we are heavily affected by the aftermath of Vatican II, perhaps the most inopportune stage in the history of Catholic Church. Mincing words, and principles with them, may have served at times, but this is not one of them.

    1. Your escorting of the Church to the margins on an important moral and social issue can be well applauded by any secularist who would apply that other issues such as abortion and homosexual “marriage” which they assert as “Constitutional issues” that the Church “should stay out of.” Your second paragraph I have stipulated and need not debate it, but it is beside the point. In paragraph 3 what you are objecting to are direct phrases from the Catechism. You ought to be careful of being more Catholic than the Pope. Your stance is quite harmonious with other dissenters who pick and choose what the Catechism is “right” about. The Catechism in no way departs from the traditional Catholic teaching since it is clear that C.P. is not intrinsically evil. That said, determining when and how capital punishment should be accessed is something that prudentially assessed by our appointed leaders and, as a general rule it makes sense that we ought to accept their leadership in a matter of great moral consequence in terms of the the wider and prophetic pro-life stance.

      1. Monsignor, I notice you have penned your final comment already, but allow me to deal with your criticism of what I have said:

        You accuse me of marginalizing the Church on a big issue; not so. If, as I can only assume, you specifically refer to capital punishment, it is none such. Having checked the U.S. Execution Calendar for this month, there are six executions scheduled; not one has taken place. I do not think I need to go into abortion figures, but having checked the suicide rate in U.S., I daresay that up to three thousand Americans are likely to take their own lives this October. I believe the point is obvious.

        Secularists have their own agenda, and they will make use of the Catholic Church quite pragmatically – they will attack when it suits them, and they will hide behind Her skirt when advantageous. I should like to see a rational explanation why the Bishops have devised spurious linkage between the death penalty and abortion for I cannot see how they could possiblyhorse-trade one for the other. The underlying concept is incomprehensible to me, to assess it mildly; should this be a tactical device, I cannot see it succeeding. As, no doubt, you have found out through the comments here, such baseless linkage can only alienate the faithful. Moreover, should it be in response to an inane argument (How can you be against abortion and not against the death penalty? Lives are lost in any case.), the Church has a long tradition of dealing with the issue, and new instruments are hardly needed. It is about standing firm instead of getting involved in flawed, ad-hoc, utilitarian reasoning.

        I suspect that using demagoguery (sorry, it comes across like that) by calling for unqualified support suggests uncertainty and lack of conviction. No wonder, as long as the platform you have to stand on is so shaky. There is no burning need to address the issue of capital punishment precisely because CCC has dealt with it sufficiently. Come to think of it, CCC only describes the situation as is, and I have no quarrel with it; executions in U.S. are rare. It seems like the Bishops who have taken a step beyond CCC, and they better had a justification for that.

        I think it would be good to keep a sense of proportion in the whole matter: I do not see bloodthirsty, fractious Catholics here or anywhere else, only people whose basic instinct of natural justice and/or ability to reason has been offended. The exercise has been counterproductive.

  19. I think you are correct about the death penalty is unwise. ( I would agree, if for no other reason than the potential killing of someone unjustly accused) There are several other problems however with the “why not just stand with the Bishops and Pope John Paul II on this issue approach) : They are as follows:

    1) There position is not consistent with the way Catholic moral theology approaches any other issue of prudential judgement and therefore to suggest we treat it differently is misleading indeed detracts from the opposing that which is intrinsically evil. As you note Scripture and in fact previous Papal statements have implied the Death penalty was morally permissible, more recent statements say in our current situation it is a bad idea . Therefore as you put it the issue becomes one of prudential judgement. But issues of prudential judgement depend on knowledge and interpertation of specific facts. On most questions the Bishops and Popes have no pivileged knowledge of specific facts. That is to say the teaching magisterium does not make one an expert in medicine or engineering or say economic policy or criminal justice and law enforcement. For example, If a Bishop or Pope told me you need to use do your best to take care of Patients, I think that is a moral principle I must obey, If they say you must use drug X and not Drug B.. I say this is a technical decision requiring specific knowledge and the Bishops can not really recommend one drug over the other in a morally binding way. Taking the thought experiment one step forward, looking at issues of public policy, prudential judgements require knowledge and expertise in certain areas which Bishops and Popes simply do not uniformly have. This is certainly the classic teaching about Just War. Indeed there are principles which are morally binding, but the principles themselves are given to interpretation and depend on knowledge, sometimes classified, that perhaps only the political leadership has. Certainly this must be why, even though John Paul II clearly opposed the Iraq war he did not simply declare participation in it “sinful”, for if it was a certainly unjust war, volunteering to fight in it would be a sin. One must infer that you have a right (maybe even a duty) to use your best judgement in these kind of “prudential” matters, and while one has a duty to listen to the opinions of the teaching Church, and certainly a duty to apply the moral principles, you are free to disagree with the conclusions. So presumably if you were a military officer you could simply say, I think the by my evaluation based on what I know of the national security situation this meets the just war criteria and thus since I have a duty to protect my country….. then I have a duty to disagree with the Pope. Obviously this kind of logic can not apply to the issues of intrinsic immorality ( So if the Pope says Abortion or divorce or lying are intrisnically wrong you can not disagree) In fact some of the Bishops made the point explicitly, as does the catechism that the burden of applying the just war principles falls to the political leadership. Now we come to the death penalty.. historically the Church allowed for the death penalty when the state determined it as the only just penalty. Frankly I find the death penalty rather repulsive on a personal level, but the teaching was the teaching. So It must not be intrinsically wrong.. .so again If I think that there is too much risk of executing the innocent fine I can oppose it, but if you are a law enforcement expert and you think that it clearly lowers the incidence of certain horrific crimes and well some crimes are so evil that as Pius XII and Thomas Aquinas said the criminal forfeits his right to life if he commits them, it is unclear that it makes any sense to “just stand with the Bishops” The Bishops might very well be wrong, and in fact having capitiol punishment might make for a society with fewer murders overall. ( Not saying this is so, merely that if capitiol punishment is not intrinsically evil I am not sure the Bishops necessarily can say for sure whether we should have it or not, nor why their judgement should trump that of a devout Catholic expert in law enforcement who thinks differently, or even the prior Popes who historically thought differently than John Paul II. ) Again my personal political opinion is to agree with you, were I a legislator I would oppose the death penalty, but not because I want to stand with the Bishops… The historic teaching is that It seems morally I can take either position. As you point out, it seems the one position that would be impossible to take is that the Death penatly is intrinsically immoral, if I took that position I would have to say prior Popes, Aquinas, Scripture were wrong.

    All that said.. I think it most unwise for these kind of prudential judgement issues to be lumped together as policy perscriptions with things that Catholics do have a duty to morally obey. As a practical matter it is most confusing on the pro-life issues since there are many politicians who are opposed to abortion and for capitol punishment ( this is not my position, but it was the position of most of the United States prior to the mid 1960s not to mention the teaching of most moral theologians through that time so it does not strike me as unreasonable,) To confound the issues gives those who have liberal policy preferences the green light to vote for the pro-abortion candidate under the illusion, that if on the death penalty they are opposed they are “pro-life”. In fact the priorities really should be just the opposite.

    It is the same misleading situtation that the Bishops create when the make public pronouncements on economic matters, which are even more tangentially related to morality and even more matters of prudential judgement. ( The Bishops have favored an increase in the minimum wage, although some economists think this increases unemployment, So should I listen to the Bishops or the economists? But what if the economists are correct, after all it seems like at some level raising the minimum wage must be harmful otherwise we could simply raise it to 500.00 and hour, so at what point is the wage “just” but not harmful to those at the bottom end of the economic ladder by pricing them out of the job market? How do the Bishops calculate this value? Obviously they can not. This is the folly of conflating policy perscriptions with moral pronouncements. ) Since the Democrats reliably favor the liberal economic policies endorsed by the Catholic left, this is often used as the reason that a Catholic may vote for the pro-choice candidate. So you ahve most Catholics voting to in effect promote the abortion license and 5o years post Roe v Wade and 5o million abortions later the evil goes unabated and in fact is routinely accepted such that popular TV shows like “Grays Anatomy” can have major characters promoting it.

    Historically this kind of confusion is what is causing a diluted pro-life witness. In the United States of America in 2012, you will largely have a choice of candidates from the Republicans who are relatively opposed to abortion and more often than not ok with the death penalty, and the Democrats who are wildly enthusiastic promoters of abortion, who also will tend to not object to the death penalty, although some of them might . ( Given that Gallup shows 64% of Americans including 2/3 of independents favoring it there will be few politicians of any stripe who openly oppose the death penalty. ) It makes little sense that conflate the 2 issues. The obvious message to the extent that the Bishops care about stopping the abortion juggernaut is to focus on the intrinsic evil, at least in terms of the voting issues.

    So why not stand with the Bishops:

    1) On matters of Prudential judgement you have to weigh the actual arguments because the Bishops and Pope may be wrong, especially when the latest prudential judgement is not consistent with the prudential judgements of other Bishops and Popes in the past

    2) To say otherwise risks distorting the moral reasoning used in most issues of prudential judgement. Are Catholics now required to stand with the Bishops on all specific policy questions?

    2) As a practical political matter it will tend to detract from most effectively campaining to stop the murder of the unborn, and to stop the killing of the innocent needs to take priority over a softer penal stance towards the guilty

    1. I think your sense of specific vs general is off the mark. One can specify forever, however I am talking about the big picture and an overall strategy which the Pope and bishops, as our appointed leaders by God, have set. We ought to have far more serious reason to decline to assent than what you have set forth here. It hardly seems clear that maintaining the teachings, distinctions and application by the Catechism of the Catholic Church is to risk distorting moral reasoning. You seem in danger of being “more Catholic than the Pope”

  20. Religious submission of the will and intellect must be given, in a special way, to the authoritative Magisterium (authentico magisterio) of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra; indeed, that his supreme Magisterium be acknowledged with respect, and that one sincerely adhere to decisions made by him, according to his manifest mind and intention.” (Lumen Gentium 25.2)

    Catechism 892 says, Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a “definitive manner,” they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful “are to adhere to it with religious assent” which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.

    1. Is that the best you can do Father (I’m now questioning the prudential wisdom of the pope in naming you monsignor)? Repeat mantras. I agree with Joseph D’Hippolito below who questions your inability to address the main arguments. I can imagine you with hands over ears yelling “La la la” to avoid the discussion.

      When I was in the military they taught us to obey all lawful orders, but that you may not obey an unlawful order. What you keep repeating as a mantra (obey, obey, obey) applies to commands in keeping with the Faith. I have pointed out several points of the Faith that the current stance undermines: the dignity of the human person, the proper ordering of goods, Purgatory, penance, justice. You have refused to even address any.

      I have no reason to believe, given your unthinking responses, that you would have acted any differently than the other foot soldiers who aided bishops in shuffling abusive priests around—“because the bishop said so!” This is a more serious matter than that, because this involves the Faith itself, not just behavior.

      Honestly, the Church needs better priests.

      1. Yes, better priests. Something to pray for. As for “la la la” you want to argue the right v. wrong of Capital Punishment, which I have repeatedly said I do not want to engage here. What I ask is a far simpler question: Will you stand together with the bishops, and the Pope on this matter (about which reasonable people differ) for the sake of a united and prophetic stance against the culture of death? For you, apparently the answer is no. I don’t know what that has to do with me being a bad priest but I am more than willing to be lowly in your eyes, to call the question for the sake of unity. I am not sure why you are so adamant in your support for the death penalty, but it just doesn’t seem worthy of the venom you are willing to heap on the pope, bishops or on me. What you call “obey, obey, obey” is rather by me, a call for assent (a freely given cooperation for the sake of something greater). As a former military person, I remind you that battle plans, set forth by leaders, were important to follow, otherwise the army and victory are threatened. Discipline within the ranks in a good thing especially when the matter in question is a matter about which reasonable people differ. Some one has to be in charge and in the church the Pope and bishops are. They should have to feel like they are herding cats all the time.

        1. NO! You’re completely missing the main thrust of the argument. This is about the salvation of souls and the Faith which are higher goods than the pretense of unity on a pastoral statement. Did you read my points on why this is a danger to the Faith? Or didn’t you get past the paragraph showing why we have just cause to question the judgment of two popes?

          As for venom, I heaped none in the first post. I merely laid out the facts. Granted I took a shot at you in the second, but I’ll still stand by that. You have loyalty to the pope and your bishop. Awesome. Hard to find these days. However, there can be a point where personal loyalty must give way to loyalty to the Faith and God. Unthinking belief is what I believe they call fideism. The tales of the abuse scandal include many faithful Catholics, even police officers, who deferred to a bishop or Vicar because they trusted that they would take care of the matter internally “for the sake of the Church.” Look where that loyalty got us.

          Think that is a by-gone era? Think again. Cardinal Wuerl has said that none in his diocese are to be refused communion over Canon 915. Are you dutifully following his orders? Have you read (then) Archbishop Burke’s canon law treatise on the matter? http://www.therealpresence.org/eucharst/holycom/denial.htm
          “no ecclesiastical authority may dispense the minister of Holy Communion from this obligation in any case, nor may he emanate directives that contradict it”
          “the burden is on the minister of Holy Communion who, by the nature of his responsibility, must prevent anything which profanes the Blessed Sacrament ”
          “Father Felice Cappello, S.J., … reminds us that the minister of Holy Communion is held, under pain of mortal sin, to deny the sacraments to the unworthy”

          You serve in the Diocese of Washington. Are you willing to commit mortal sin for the sake of unity with your Cardinal? Think it over. Carefully.

          You had a post recently about celebrating the Tridentine Rite. Do you not appreciate that if it were not for the fierce opposition of traditionalists against the injust prohibition of it by bishops that you would never have had the opportunity to do it without disobeying your bishop? Traditionalists had to fight not only progressives, but conservative orthodox Catholics who accused them of being disloyal, just as you are implying that I am by “not standing by the popes and bishops” on this matter. I did not have to endure the majority of that hostility as I was a johnny-come-lately convert to the Faith. But I am still waiting with the traditionalists for the apology due to them from the so-called loyalists.

          Priestly (and lay) obedience to a bishop is a grave matter that I take very seriously. It should never be controvened over trival matters. But the salvation of souls is not a trival matter. Your formation seems to be lacking in understanding the proper hierarchy of goods in this matter. You rightly state that “discipline in the ranks” is important, even crucial, on the battlefield. But that discipline must be broken by the individual soldier when obeying means treason or war crimes. i consider the bishops’ stance to rise that level.

          Take a look at the death penalty from the point of view of the murderer’s soul. You can absolve him of the eternal punishment for his sin, but you cannot remove the temporal punishment due. And it will take more than 10 Hail Mary’s for penance. If he accepts the death penalty as a just punishment, he pays the greatest penance he can do. If he can not offer his life, how long do you suppose you are condemning him to in Purgatory where the pains are so much greater? Which is the greater mercy? Sentimental progressivism or a traditional view of the Faith? Justice will have its due. Pay it now, or pay it later.

          1. We will be judged by our own standards… How about trying to instill a little TRUE LOVE in our understanding of God, Soul, and Faith? If we don’t, we’re up for a little surprise when we finally get to understand what God’s Justice is really about. I don’t have the full answer, no one has, but I’m willing to bet all I have that it is NOT about payback. We can leave “an eye for an eye… yadda yadda yadda…” to Pharisees. Praying for you.

  21. Monsignior, I will be blunt: For you or anybody in Catholic authority to assert that a Catholic must follow the CCC, the Pope or the bishops on this opinion — a opinion that explicitly contradicts Scripture and Tradition — is nothing but an exercise in totalitarianism. You suggest that if the Pope, CCC and bishops are wrong, you must obey them! The Pharisees had the exact same hifalutin opinion of themselves (see Matthew 23).

    This is not a matter of being “more Catholic than the Pope.” This is a matter of Church authorities seeing themselves as holier and more moral than God!

    I notice that you ignore completely Genesis 9:5-6, in which God *demands* the execution of murderers because murder is the ultimate desecraton of the divine image in humanity. The rest of the Pentateuch (which Catholics consider divinely inspired) states the same thing. In fact, executing murders is the ultimate expression of *proportionate* justice. “Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” does not justify personal vengeance through vigilantism; indeed, it argues *against* it, since the human tendency is to overreact (see Genesis 34). Instead, it argues for punishment proportional to the crime meted out through uncorrupted due process.

    The Church is trying to set higher standards than God ever set on this issue — and God is the ultimate arbiter of righteousness, morals and ethics. Indeed, that’s how the Pharisees proceeded in their day.

    In addition, the Church is ultimately relying not on logic, reason or revelation but on intimidation through collective control, as your comments about “standing with” Church authorities on this issue reveal. This behavior is no different that the behavior the Church exerted in medieval times…and is a fundamental reason why the Church will be scourged by God for its disobedience, institutional arrogance and sense of fundamental entitlement, if God is not doingn so already.

    1. Well, you’re pretty far afield from Church understanding of Scripture which has a linear progression wherein somethings are retained, others abrogated by later texts and still others clarified and nuanced. You are free of course to set aside any teaching, whether doctrinal or merely prudential. Hence the word “totalitarianism” does not fit. The Church cannot compel you. However, at some point you risk making your own church, particularly when you speak of not needing to follow the Pope or bishops or the catechism in an important moral matter, even if prudential in its request. You may have some sense of Scripture and Tradition but it is risky to merely declare yourself the authentic arbiter of how it is to be understood and applied, and even more that the Catechism and recent Popes depart definitively from it. Careful Joseph.

  22. Father,

    Are you willing to assert with confidence that the West, with our collapsing demographics, unserviceable debt, cultural collapse and instability could boast to have the structures in place to last the length of the lifetime of criminals?

    Is it just to spend the money in incarceration over widows and orphans? Is it just to enslave our children with debt?

    1. No I am not. Again, I’ll just stipulate your concerns. But in as a matter of prudential judgement and acknowledging that our Pope and Bishops have the role to set strategy in accord with what was set forth in the article, will you stand with them?

      1. Monsignior, you are an interesting man. When confronted with the ultimate consequences of your ideas, you basically just restipulate them, demand assent to them and criticize those who disagree as at risk of being “more Catholic than the Pope” or “forming their own church.” In no way do you buttress your arguments either with facts or logic. If this is an example of proper seminary training, then the Church is in far more trouble than anyone imagines.

  23. Monsignior, I’m not asserting myself as the ultimate interpreter of anything. That’s another red herring to go along with your assumption that ambiguity exists regarding capital punishment *in all cases.* Besides, you yourself admit that Scriptural support for capital punishment has not been abrogated, so your position is not as tenable as you might think.

    It’s careless to apply a general idea (” somethings are retained, others abrogated by later texts and still others clarified and nuanced.”) to a specific situation where that idea might not apply.

    More importantly, God is the ultimate arbiter of morals and ethics. If it is His specific command to execute murderers, who is the Church to go against that? God does not change.

    I’m not talking about using capital punishment as a form of state terror, the way the Nazis and Communists used it in Karol Wojtyla’s Poland (which probably played a significant role how he developed his opinions on the issue). That is a completely different discussion. Nor am I talking about using capital punishment to punish crimes other than murder (and, perhaps, treason).

    Nevertheless, one of the roles of Scripture and Tradition is to provide a foundation that is immune from the discretionary (“prudential,” if you will) opinions of individuals, even Church hierarchs, even those who have been beatified and nicknamed “the Great.”

    1. Apparently, such blood lust really does tend to infect the entirety of the person, poisoning them with a rage that exceeds all bounds of decency.

      1. Bender, your charge of ” blood lust” is just another red herring disguised as a personal attack because those who think like you do not have reason, logic, revelation,….or even compassion….on your side.

        Suppose I were to go into a crowded McDonald’s with a loaded AK-47 and randomly shoot at the customers and workers, undoubtedly killing some. Why is it fair or just that I should retain my life when I have arbitrarily taken the lives of innocent people, depriving them of their God-given rights to life, freedom and the use of the talents He gave them?

        1. I didn’t disguise what I was saying at all. I was quite clear that your lust for blood has poisoned your every word.

          Suppose you were to go around with a loaded AK-47 and randomly shoot people, undoubtedly killing some? Huh? Just what do you think that you are doing here??

          That is exactly what you have done in multiple comments, engaging in a verbal shooting spree aimed at many specific people, but also hitting a few bystanders with your anger and bile.

          1. I’ve got to object here, Bender. I’m for fair discussion, even if the examples are only hypothetical. To say Joe is bloodthirsty in any sense is slander and ad hominem. The biggest danger in your argument is it forces you to say everyone from Genesis 9:6 until 1995 outside the First World were and are bloodthirsty.

    2. God is the ultimate arbiter of morals and ethics. If it is His specific command to execute murderers, who is the Church to go against that? God does not change.

      Joseph — do you suppose that there are any murderers in heaven? Do you suppose that there are any in heaven who aided and abetted murder, who gave counsel and encouraged the killing of innocents, and held the coats of the killers while they brutally slaughtered others?

      1. Bender, have you heard of repentence? If you’re talking about Paul, then you’re arguing by using a special, sui generis case because Jesus essentially conscripted Paul. The vast majority of the human race does not fit that description. Moreover, since when does repentance before God nullify the temporal consequences of human misdeeds?

        1. So, this God who says a killer must die and who “does not change” would grant a repentent killer life? He wants us to kill just so He can give life?

          Makes one wonder why Jesus bothered with all of that talk about forgiveness. My Bible doesn’t have the part where He then said, “Hey Mom, you’re without sin, come over here and throw the first stone at this adulteress. God demands that she suffer the temporal consequences of her sin and die.”

          1. Bender, nobody today considers adultery a capital offense and adultery is not murder, so your point is specious from the get-go.

            Do some detailed study on the passage you cite. Jesus was responding to Pharisees who had caught a woman in the act and wanted Him to pass judgement. What they did was illegal, according to the Mosaic Law, because both the woman and the man involved had to be tried. Besides, they were trying to trap Jesus. If He said that she shouldn’t be executed, they could say that He opposed the Law. If He said that she should, not only would they accuse him of lacking compassion but fomenting rebellions against Rome, since the Romans were the only authority that could perform executions in first-century Palestine (that’s why the Pharisees went to Pilate to crucify Jesus; they couldn’t do it themselves).

            Jesus’ answer did not excuse the sin. It pointed out the Pharisees’ own trechery…and the Pharisees knew it; just look at their immediate reaction.

            Not even Sister Helen Prejean, one of the most popular opponents of capital punishment, contends that the abolitionist position has biblical roots, as she admitted in her book, Dead Man Walking:

            “It is abundantly clear that the Bible depicts murder as a capital crime for which death is considered the appropriate punishment, and one is hard pressed to find a biblical ‘proof text’ in either the Hebrew Testament or the New Testament which unequivocally refutes this. Even Jesus’ admonition ‘Let him without sin cast the first stone,’ when He was asked the appropriate punishment for an adulteress (John 8:7) – the Mosaic Law prescribed death – should be read in its proper context.

            This passage is an ‘entrapment’ story, which sought to show Jesus’ wisdom in besting His adversaries. It is not an ethical pronouncement about capital punishment.”

  24. “Again, why not just stand with them? They are our pastoral leaders and have asked precisely this, that we stand together with them on this and all other life issues.Why not just do it? Why not set politics aside, and personal preferences too and say, “For the sake of unity and a more coherent and powerful pro-life witness, I will stand with the Pope and Bishops on this.”

    Because it is pointless and intellectually dishonest. Secular Europe stands with the Pope and Bishops on this issue. Has abortion been prohibited in Europe? Isn’t The Netherlands, which abolished the death penalty in 1870, at the forefront of murdering “imperfect” infants? Isn’t Switzerland, which abolished the death penalty in 1942, at the forefront of assisted suicide? Where is Europe do you find a greater respect for human life based upon abolition of the death penalty?

    Furthermore, allowing the linking of abortion and the death penalty is an outrage against the innocent unborn.

    1. Quite right. However you forgot to add that in Holland and apparently also in the Netherlands (perhaps other countries as well) they have involuntary euthanasia.

  25. I will always stand with them when they lawfully use their authority and defend the apostolic faith.

    My concern goes directly to the article in the Catechism of sufficient means. There position also also appears to be a rupture with what their noble predecessors (Popes and Bishops) have taught. I would agree with you that a Jospehite Marriage is superior to normal matrimony but I would disagree if it was preached that it was really the only acceptable way to be married while at the same time it was said that normal marriages are *technically* okay.

    If the State has an authority then they have a right (and sometimes) and obligation to use it. Just as a married couple has rights to the others body and even has the obligation to make use of it though once again celibacy even in the married life is highly commendable.

    I would have not sided with the Arian Bishops though they were in the majority. I believe that I would sin to support their position. That is if these men they try to spare from the punishment from a legitimate authority kill, rape, or commit crime again then they share in his guilt. Just as a priest might be guilty of sin (if he fails to due diligence) if he encouraged a couple into a Josephite marriage when they had not the discipline for it and it leads to one of spouses committing Adultery.

    The problem is that the Death Penalty like marriage is a case by case basis. A general encouragement of mercy is commendable but seeking to abolish it is not.

    I rejoice that I am not a man in great authority.

  26. I will stand with the Pope and Bishops and priests united to him that the death penaly is almost never needed to protect society given the improvements in the prison systems in the United States. However, I would still like to know what is the teaching on when it should be used as a punishment since that is another valid reason for it. For example, should a mass murderer (ie. Bundy) who is clearly guilty of his crimes be executed not because he poses a threat to society once locked up but because his crimes have so distorted the balance of justice that they can only be re-balanced by the taking of his life? I am more than willing to accept whatever the Church teachings are on this matter but I am truly don’t know. I have looked and can’t find any teachings on this matter from the post Vactican II Magisterium. Previous Magisterial teachings (the few that I found) are not that clear either. “In my opinion, the focus of the recent Magesterium on the protection of society angle has created confusion among the faithful who care about the hermeneutics of continuity and would like the Magesterium to now clarify what is the teaching on the death penalty in regards to punishing the evil doer.

    1. Claudio, the problem with your rationale in the first sentence is that the Church’s revisionist position marks a radical shift in focus. The focus has ceased to be on the sacrosanct inalterability of the divine image in humanity. Now, it’s on the state’s ability to protect the innocent, which can be affected by many factors (not the least of which is the amount of money budgeted by any state or federal government for the prisons…a factor that takes on crucial meaning, given these economic times and the state of government finances across the board).

  27. Fr. Maximilian, here in California, an inmate on Death Row had his cronies on the outside put a successful hit on somebody who testified against him. That action alone makes the whole idea of incarceration being sufficient by itself to protect the citizenry absurd and nonsensical.

    Bender, perhaps you would be willing to rethink your position in light of this fact?

    1. See — your rage has blinded you to what I have already said on this point (October 10, 2011 at 12:05 am).

      1. Bender, see my response to your last post. After that, I suggest you grow up and learn to conduct yourself like a man, instead of a simpering, self-righteous adolescent whose only recourse to opposing argument is personal attack and pseudo-psychological analysis..

    2. Dear Mr. D’Hippolito,

      I was living in Maryland at the time Willie Horton, a convicted 1st degree murderer was set loose in Massachusetts only to come to my state to commit acts of rape and torture.

  28. Final thought from Msgr Pope: Whew! The combox is really overheated. I am very sorrowful that the tone in the combox on this issue has been so overwhelmingly acidy.

    When our leaders ask us to stand with them, we ought not say no unless what they ask is evil. That some here seem determined to support capital punishment no matter what is very discouraging. There is no reason to die on such an ambiguous hill. At best Capital Punishment is a very regrettable last recourse. The vigorous defending of it (when I wasn’t even challenging the Church’s acceptance of it as not intrinsically evil), puzzles me. What is the motivation to so vigorously defend a tragic and regrettable last recourse?

    If recent Popes the bishops and the Catechism ask us to stand against it in all but the most rare cases, why not just concur with our appointed leaders? Its not about dogma (no one is asserting that the death penalty is intrinsically evil) its about a pastoral and prudential decision that this is the best and most effective witness to the culture of death.

    Ut omes unum sint. I have finished any commentary on this post. I have stated my case and am most saddened by some of the response that followed. May God have mercy on our poor divided Church. Domine! Miserere! Ut omens unum sint! Herding cats is easier than getting Catholics to agree on anything, even when it comes to facing down the culture of death. Sad, so sad 🙁

    1. Dear Msgr,
      You should not be quite so puzzled. As I have stated a few times now, there are studies that have made a strong case that the death penalty at least sometimes acts as a deterrent to violent crime. IF that is the case, and IF it is permissible for Catholics to be convinced by those studies, and IF, as has been pointed out and as we can see in Europe, being against capital punishment does not seem to make a society pro-life, why such frustration over the faithful’s refusal to assent to a strategy that
      1. the Bishops have not made a convincing case for,
      2. May actually lead to more murders of our fellow innocent citizens,
      3. Can see for themselves that very often, either in dealing with child abuse, or pro-abortion politicians, the strategy of the Bishops its often flawed (in dealing with pro-abortion “catholic” politicians) or simply wrong, even evil, (in dealing with habitual child molesters)?

      1. “When our leaders ask us to stand with them, we ought not say no unless what they ask is evil.”

        Msgr. Pope, some of us on this thread — and I include myself in that number — believe that what “our leaders” are asking us to support is evil.

        “There is no reason to die on such an ambiguous hill. At best Capital Punishment is a very regrettable last recourse. The vigorous defending of it (when I wasn’t even challenging the Church’s acceptance of it as not intrinsically evil), puzzles me. What is the motivation to so vigorously defend a tragic and regrettable last recourse?”

        Because when it comes to this issue, the Church has effectively become the protectors of those who perpetrate evil and has ignored the victims of evil. The Vatican’s moral compass is seriously defective when Pope John Paul II asks clemency for a murderer (Timothy McVeigh) whose guilt is unassailable and whose sentence was arrived at through due process…or when Vatican bureaucrats criticize the execution of Saddam Hussein.

        As a result, the Church has fostered contempt toward those who have lost their loved ones to murder (unintentionally, perhaps, but so fostered nevertheless). When she heard the news about John Paul’s intervention on McVeigh’s behalf, Kathleen Treanor – who lost her daughter and two in-laws in the bombing – told Associated Press:

        “Let me ask the pope, ‘Where’s my clemency? When do I get any clemency? When does my family get some clemency?’ When the pope can answer that, we can talk.”

        In 1997, John Paul and Mother Teresa were among those advocating clemency for Joseph O’Dell, a Virginia man convicted of raping and murdering Helen Schartner in 1985. O’Dell’s fiancée manipulated public opinion in Italy to such a point that Gail Lee, Schartner’s sister, told Associated Press:

        “We’re all very fragile at this point. It’s just like the Italians hate us. They in essence have said to my family, ‘You are worthless. Helen’s life doesn’t matter.’ ”

        Your former boss, Cardinal McCarrick, displayed his own self-righteous indifference when he talked to the Washington Post about McVeigh’s execution, which only victims’ relatives could see via closed-circuit television:

        “It is like going back to the Roman Colosseum. I think that we’re watching, in my mind, an act of vengeance, and vengeance is never justified.”

        The good cardinal thus equated the grieving, vulnerable relatives of murder victims with the hardened, barbaric masses of ancient Rome who found the bloody agony of gladiators and religious martyrs entertaining.

        “If recent Popes the bishops and the Catechism ask us to stand against it in all but the most rare cases, why not just concur with our appointed leaders?”

        That is an argument to succumb to authority for its own sake. It’s not an argument from logic, reason, revelation or even compassion. Ultimately, you’re calling upon Catholics to be mindless automatons for the convenience of the hierarchy, not for any moral or ethical reason.

        “…this is the best and most effective witness to the culture of death.”

        Really? I thought standing up for the victims of evil instead of the perpetrators of evil was the “best and most effective witness.”

        Your comments about the “culture of death” reflect the muddle-headedness many Catholics have on this issue, which, in turn, reflects the use of the term “pro-life” as a propaganda device to oppose abortion. Now, I don’t support abortion on demand. But because of that propaganda, the Church has reached the point where it worships life as God rather than God as God…and has conducted that worship along the lines of its own intellectual vanity, not along the lines of revelation.

        If God is the Author of life, then He has the prerogative to determine the circumstances under which life might be taken. On this issue (as in so many others), the Church sees itself as more moral than God…which is quite ironic, given all that has been “exposed” over the past decade.

        I invite everyone to read a commentary I wrote on this same subject for Front Page Magazine; many excerpts appear on this post: http://archive.frontpagemag.com/readArticle.aspx?ARTID=1463

        1. One final point, Monsignior: If the Church’s current revisionist perspective were the fashion in 1945-46, then then the Church would have opposed the execution of those defendants that the Nuremberg war-crimes trials condemned to death.

          Think about that, Monsignior. Think about that seriously.

  29. I agree with Msgr. Pope’s argument. However, I do disagree with him when he asks some of his commenters: “Do you stand with the Pope, the Bishops and the Catechism or not?” It is a rhetorical question meant to force agreement because it implies that if you do not agree with him, you are a heretic, because only a “heretic” disagrees with what “the Pope, the Bishops, and the Catechism” teach.

    As a Catholic, I have “every right” to disagree with “the Pope, the Bishops, and the Catechism” on this point – and who knows, I might be right. There are theologians in the Church who often went against what “the Pope, the Bishops, and the Catechism” said on such “pastoral and prudential decisions” (to quote Msgr. Pope) – and turned out in the end to be right.

    Now, I know Msgr. Pope says it is “best” to simply “go with” what the Catechism and the Pope have stated on this issue – and I agree with him. But when he starts pulling out the old, “are you with the Pope and the Catechism or not”, I take issue, and it almost makes me feel like I want to take the contrary position.

    And then, out of frustration that he was not able to get universal agreement, he finishes off by speaking of how “saddened” he is by how his commenters just can’t see what is so clear and obvious to him, and lamenting over this “poor divided Church” of ours – putting the blame, of course, on those who disagree with him (which is their right!). The final comment about herding cats against the culture of death in lieu of the fact that Msgr. Pope couldn’t get us Catholics to do it, was really over the top.

  30. There is a long list of convicted murderers who have been released after 20 (or less) years in prison and who have killed again, Not just in the USA but in Britian too. People that were given “life” terms. It can be verified on the internet. So–will I stand with the bishops to oppose Capital Punishment? Absolutely not!! Not until criminals given life sentences are—- NEVER released!! Lets protect the innocent (unborn and victims of murder)– not the convicted.

  31. This was an excellent post (I particularly liked Cassandra’s contributions), with great points on both sides—liberal and conservative Catholicism—but, as all seem to agree, traditional, dogmatic Catholicism does support capital punishment, about which, I wrote a book, an excerpt:
    “Regarding “society has the means of protecting itself”, the situation in the United States where our legal system guarantees right of visitation and communication in even the most secure confinement—as in a super-max prison or on death row, the aggressor still has the capacity to reach out and harm the innocent, whether through the possession of contraband cell phones, information transmitted through attorneys, guards, and visitors—and it is in this context that criminal justice professionals require the continued option of capital punishment; and it is from this perspective of still being able to threaten the innocent, that the magisterium of the Catholic Church, expressed through the centuries, continues to support capital punishment, as stated by the Holy See (1997)
    2267 The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.
    If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
    Today, in fact, 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 non-existent.’ (Catechism #2267)
    “A note on the already “very rare” use of the death penalty from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (2006) from the period of 2000 to 2006 there were 114,302 murders and non-negligent manslaughters in the United States and during that same period there were 459 executions, for an execution rate of 0.40%, “very rare” by any definition. (n.p)

    “If the system of confinement in the United States can advance to the point where the aggressor is confined so completely that communication is blocked by any means with the outside world, through outside contact by contraband cell phones, through guards, family, priests, or attorneys—all capable of being innocently manipulated or co-opted—and if the possibility of a future legislative change of current lifetime sentences resulting in release, then a truly bloodless means of protecting the innocent from the aggressor might have been reached and abolition can perhaps be then fruitfully discussed.

    “Capital punishment is essentially a theological issue and an eminent American theologian, Avery Cardinal Dulles (2004) made an important point regarding reversing the traditional support of the Church for capital punishment:

    The reversal of a doctrine as well established as the legitimacy of capital punishment would raise serious problems regarding the credibility of the magisterium. Consistency with scripture and long-standing Catholic tradition is important for the grounding of many current teachings of the Catholic Church; for example, those regarding abortion, contraception, the permanence of marriage, and the ineligibility of women for priestly ordination. If the tradition on capital punishment had been reversed, serious questions would be raised regarding other doctrines…. (p. 26)

    Lukenbill, D. H. (2009).Capital Punishment & Catholic Social Teaching: A Tradition of Support. The Lampstand Foundation: Sacramento, California. (pp. 19-21)

  32. “If recent Popes the bishops and the Catechism ask us to stand against it in all but the most rare cases, why not just concur with our appointed leaders? Its not about dogma (no one is asserting that the death penalty is intrinsically evil) its about a pastoral and prudential decision that this is the best and most effective witness to the culture of death”

    Msgr Pope:

    The problem with just standing with them is that their prudential judgement is so manifestly bad. Their own organization via the Catholic Campaign for Human Development was funnelling money to a large number of left wing organizations that promote things the Church teaches are sinful, among them contraception, gay rights, and of course abortion rights. To some extent it is not clear that this practice is fully stopped. On this basis I am not sure the smart move is “concur with our leaders” as to the best strategy to witness against the culture of Death, You must be kidding! The Bishops ( through the USCCB run CCHD) were funding the culture of death!

    How about the results of the overall political strategy ? It resulted in 54% of Catholics voting for the current President who has rewarded the Church with expanded embryonic stem cell research ( Wasn’t this supposed to be a sin?) And regulations limiting the conscience protections Catholic health care workers had and mandating that Catholic organizations fund contraceptives and abortifacients. Not to mention a health care law that the Bishops later futilly opposed, that will very likely fund abortion. What part of this strategy is not a manifest failure? So very well, one can make a prudential case to avoid the use of the death penalty. I am sympathetic to it. What one can not do is make a case to smply concur with our leaders in their prudential judgements that this is an important part of an overall pro-life strategy, while the current pro-life “strategy” is such a failure. I imaging the recent request by the Bishop of Amarillo that the Bishops ask people to stop donations to Fr Pavone’s Priests for Life is part of the same grand pro-life “strategy”. This grand “strategy” has resulted in the phenomena that the more Catholic the population of a given state is the more likely it is that its elected federal legislators are pro-abortion, Check out New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and Maryland for starters. It is not a credible suggestion that anyone simply “follow our appointed leaders” in the matter of how to most effectively witness to promoting the culture of life when these leaders have been using a “strategy” that has so little to show for it. In fact it is a stretch to say there is a real strategy, I think it has been more like sporadic resistence. On pro-life Sunday my Church did not mentioning abortion, it rather blessed pets… Was this part of our Bishops strategy?

    What really needs to happen to effectively “witness against the culture of Death” is to convince the Bishops to lose their attraction to liberal political causes. You can not have it both ways. The Party of Death is the Democratic party, To the extent that they have any political power, you get abortion friendly policies. When being pro-abortion disqualifies you from getting a vote from a practicing Catholic we will make headway. Of course pro-abortion Republicans should be disqualified as well, In most cases. In some cases if there is no electable pro-life candidate in the race the pro-life cause is better off with Republicans in power. Then important committees like the judiciary committee are not in the hands of the Pro-Death Democrats. ( look at the Senate . Democrats in power you get the fanatically pro-Abortion ( and Catholic I might add) Pat Leahy running it. Republicans in power you get the pro-life ( non Catholic ) Chuck Grassley in charge. In any case until Catholics including the Bishops start thinking this way we will not make gains. Until then expect a continued downward slide as the abortion liberty expands and corrupts all it touches. Playing around with other less important issues as “life issues” is folly, it has not worked before and will not work going forward. .

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