Support This Website! Shop Here!

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Pope Francis and the Death Penalty

Pope Francis recently announced that capital punishment “is in itself contrary to the Gospel.”

Traditional Catholics, whose failure to understand the Gospel is legendary, began caterwauling precisely on schedule.

So, let's review the basics of moral theology again.

We can inflict a natural evil (e.g., the pain of surgery) if we have legitimate hope that a natural good will result that is greater than the natural evil. However, we cannot inflict a moral evil at all.

Thus, we cannot take a human life (commit murder via euthanasia or abortion), even if this would restore a natural good (e.g., financial well-being to the family, health of the mother). We cannot torture another person, even if we have legitimate reason to hope that the tortured person will give up information that will prevent a great physical catastrophe. John Paul II pointed out that, given the current cultural climate, there were virtually no circumstances under which capital punishment was legitimate. Pope Francis merely stands with JP II.

Christ came to give life, and that abundantly.
He didn't come to take it.

In that sense, capital punishment has always been against the Gospel. And, it is worth keeping in mind that the Church has never, herself, imposed the death penalty. At most, she handed heretics over to the secular authority. Sometimes, the secular authority chose to execute the heretic, reasoning that anyone who was willing to rebel against God would have few cavils about rebelling against a human monarch. Other secular authorities (I'm looking at you, monarchs and princes who protected the likes of Jan Hus, Martin Luther and John Wycliffe) decided they liked what the heretic had to say and either left him alone, or actually supported him. But the death penalty was always and only a secular affair, never a sentence imposed by the Church.

Actually, the "change" in the teaching on the death penalty is virtually identical to the "change" in the teaching on usury or the Church's stance on slavery. Sure, usury is intrinsically evil, but the definition of money changed, so the phrase "interest on a loan" no longer means what it meant in the 12th century. Thus, when we say "charging interest on a loan is a mortal sin", the phrase doesn't mean now what it meant in the year 1000 AD.

Similarly, the Church permitted enslavement in the subsistence-level society of the Middle Ages, precisely because a subsistence-level society cannot afford to have many people in jail. A subsistence-level society requires that every able-bodied person work, so that the entire community does not starve. Useless moouths in jail couldn't be sustained. Prisoners either had to be killed, put to work or banished (which was equivalent to a death sentence). In justice, slavery was the only decent way to treat someone who offended against society. But, by the late 20th-century, we no longer have a subsistence-level society. We can afford to house legions of prisoners (and we do). The word "slavery" no longer means what it did. Thus, Pope John Paul II uses Veritatis Splendor #80 to pronounce "slavery... intrinsically evil."

In the same way, the circumstances which made the death penalty legitimate for state actors in the 12th century simply no longer obtain in the 21st. We aren't a subsistence-level society anymore, we have many more means to contain violence now than we did in the 12th century, so the reasons of self-defense which the state could use in the year 1000 simply don't exist anymore. The death penalty can no longer be legitimately referred to as a kind of self defense.

If the Church has permitted the death penalty, She has permitted it in the same way that Aquinas and Augustine were willing to permit prostitution, and the same way God Himself permitted divorce - not because it is a legitimate right, but because they were dealing with stiff-necked people.

"Stiff-necked people" ... That would be us.

By grumbling against Christ's mercy, shown forth in the Holy Father's words, we are acting like Korah and his associates. That didn't work out well for them.

Now, I don't expect this article to sway traditionalists. After all, when the people were told by Moses, "Look, I'm going to let God judge between me and Korah. If the ground opens up and swallows Korah and all his people in a flaming crack, then maybe you will admit that I was not entirely wrong." And when the ground opened up in a flaming crack and swallowed Korah, along with all his followers, the people - remembering Moses' warning - instantly responded, "See? Moses killed Korah."

Because that's how people are.
They don't like to admit that they are ignorant or idiots.
But for the rest of you - people who can be reasoned with, that is - these words should be sufficient.


Michael said...

When I heard what Pope Francis had said on the death penalty, I thought it was just a natural progression of the teaching of the gospel; that is, I thought it was only newsworthy because Pope Francis said it, and secular news propbably don't like to hear it.

I didn't think catholics would be so offended by what he said. Until I did a search.

How ironic that the same sites who fiercely write against abortion rights and every other moral evil, rally against any opposition to their beloved standing on the death penalty, edging on branding the Pope a heretic.


Confitebor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Confitebor said...

The analogy that Jesus has tolerated the Apostles and His Church to falsely teach for nearly 2,000 that the death penalty can be justly administered and that the State has divine authority to administer it can no wise be compared to Moses' toleration of divorce or Aquinas' stating that in some times and places the intrinsic evil of prostitution might be temporarily tolerated. Moses' toleration of divorce in a pre-Messianic Bronze Age stage of Salvation History has no bearing on the dogmatic economy of the Messianic Kingdom, the Catholic Church, who has been entrusted with the fullness of truth and is protected by the Holy Spirit from formally teaching error even for a day, let alone two millennia. It is also intellectually incoherent to appeal to Aquinas' mention of a hypothetical toleration of prostitution, given the fact that Aquinas strongly supports the Holy Spirit's affirmation of the State's right to administer the death penalty. (But what does Aquinas know -- he was just one of those stiff-necked, rebellious pre-Francidian Catholics. Nobody understood the Gospel until the reign of Pope Bergoglio, right?) The Church traditionally holds and has formally taught that the application of the death penalty is one of the ways Christians obey the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill." That's not a mere toleration of an intrinsic evil due to the Catholic Church suffering from hardness of heart for 19 or more centuries -- that's a positive endorsement. No authentic doctrinal development ever flatly contradicts everything the Church has always held to be true on a particular article of the Faith. If the Church's doctrine on the death penalty can be reversed, then what can't be reversed? Perhaps adultery, sodomy, and contraception can be approved? Perhaps Jesus isn't God after all?

No, the record is clear on the Church's ancient and perennial tradition regarding the death penalty, and Pope Francis' personal opinion which contradicts that tradition is only a few days old. I'll stick to what the faithful have held always, everywhere, and by all. You should too. After all, Francis' opinion will never be formally defined and bound on the Church as doctrine. Eventually the teachings of Jesus and St. Paul approving of the death penalty will be reaffirmed and Francis' opinion will be anathematised. Until then we must give no heed to doctrinal innovation and steadfastly hold to the faith, and continue to pray fervently for the pope.

Confitebor said...

"Thus, we cannot take a human life (commit murder via euthanasia or abortion), even if this would restore a natural good."

Yet the Church maintains that one can and sometimes must take a human life in cases of self defense, just war, and the death penalty, for to fail to do so would be an offense against social justice, public order, human dignity, and the right to life.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Confitebor, first, I wish to thank you for living the stereotype of the ignorant traditionalist. You prove my points better than ever I could.

Second, you will have (failed to) notice that Pope Francis did not speak out against self-defense or just war, but only the death penalty. Societies change. Pope John Paul II recognized that when he pointed out that there were virtually no circumstances under which a modern government could morally wield the death penalty.

Thus, it's not a real surprise that, over thirty years later, when extreme physical poverty is on the verge of being totally eradicated for the first time in human history, that the Pope would judge the circumstances for governments to use the death penalty simply don't obtain at all anymore. Every government is wealthy enough to identify, incarcerate and safely house even the worst inmates, if they put their minds to it.

Third, your refusal to refer to Pope Francis *AS* Pope Francis highlights your drift away from the Church.

We all pray for you to one day return.

Rl Mandock said...

One of my colleagues directed me to your blog because he takes offense at your hard-hearted, flame-throwing demeanor. I have to admit that he has a point. I hope you frequent the Sacrament of Penance every week and complete an examination of conscience prior to falling asleep every night.

Now to the matter at hand. Any pope when not speaking from the Chair of St. Peter, and especially on matters outside his area of expertise (e.g., theology), can err and can do so repeatedly. From the day the encyclical was issued, I have taken exception with St. JPII's reasoning (i.e. "steady improvements in the organization of the penal system") as some sort of secular justification for his moral instruction. He needs no secular justification. I spoke with my metropolitan archbishop about the matter in order to clarify my own understanding. St. JPII recognized that there may be cases where capital punishment must be executed. This is why he used with precision the words: "very rare, if not practically non-existent." First of all, the penal system is not so universally well-organized as to be in complete alignment with all that is fully human; e.g., North Korea. Secondly, he who has murdered (not merely "killed") and who continues to murder while in prison, either directly by his own hand or by ordering his henchmen both inside and outside of prison to do his dirty work for him, this one has already forfeited his life by continuing his aggression against innocent human beings (e.g., the principle of double effect). Thirdly, it is well-documented that "death row" has an evangelizing effect on certain inmates who might not have experienced a true conversion had they not found themselves in that predicament. For example, see the cases of Claude Newman and James Hughs.

Now how does one define "very rare?" 1%, 0.1%, 0.00001%? If the latter, then "very rare" still might pertain to one prisoner in the world. In a certain sense, the application of capital punishment to a single prisoner is infinitely greater than applying it to zero prisoners. This example helps us to see the complete congruence between St. JPII's instruction and previous theology, but the complete break of Pope Francis' thinking with this same theology. Do I personally favor capital punishment? Only in a very rare, practically nonexistent, number of cases.

The "seamless garment" of Pax Christi is as invalid as it is illogical. As one of the other commenters noted, to kill one who has already forfeited his own life by failing to discontinue his unjust aggression is categorically not murder, but protection of those innocent victims who would find themselves next in the aggressor's targeting.

End of Lesson One.

I am forced by your character counter to continue my lessons in a second comment.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Well, if you're holy enough and smart enough to take issue with a saint who is a Pope, then I have no hope of changing your invincible ignorance. Goodbye.

Rl Mandock said...

Lesson 2. You wrote: "when extreme physical poverty is on the verge of being totally eradicated for the first time in human history." Are you and I living on the same planet? You seem unaware of the extreme poverty being caused by totalitarian governments and forces in South America (e.g., Venezuela), Africa (e.g., Eritrea, Yemen, Central African Republic, South Sudan, et al.), and Asia (e.g., Syria, Iraq). Otherwise you would not make such an ignorant bungle. Get your head out the sand, man. Donate to "Aid to the Church in Need." Merely visiting their website daily will alert you to the extreme poverty (as in starvation, lack of medical care, lack of adequate shelter) afflicting millions of innocent victims worldwide, not to mention the poverty of hope and denial of freedom inflicted upon more than 40 million souls who TODAY are imprisoned as slaves, primarily in Africa and Asia.

Christ was speaking to you when He said, "Let he who is without sin throw the first stone." I know Traditionalists, having been affiliated with the FSSP and the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest for more than 20 years, and I know that your portrayal of them is unjust. Yes, some of them could use further education in the finer points of Catholic speculative, positive, and practical theology, but their heads and hearts are often where they ought to be. Get off your high horse, pray to God for forgiveness, and reach out to a Traditionalist every day. A dose of Pope Francis' insistence on mercy would not hurt your public façade.

Lee Gilbert said...

"However, we cannot inflict a moral evil at all. Thus, we cannot take a human life (commit murder via euthanasia or abortion) . . ."

When the question is whether capital punishment is a moral evil, simply asserting that it is does not add up to a convincing argument.

Murder is the unjust taking of a human life, but the question at issue is whether capital punishment is the unjust taking of a human life.

Your argument runs in circles, but for the moment I cannot think what is the name in formal logic for a fallacy in which the thing to be proven is assumed in the premises.

You say, "We can inflict a natural evil (e.g., the pain of surgery) if we have legitimate hope that a natural good will result that is greater than the natural evil."

When Pope Sixtus V took office he found Rome and environs infested with brigands. Early in his reign, Rome awoke to find the Ponte Sant'Angelo festooned with 24 lances, each carrying the head of a recently slain criminal. That went a long way toward restoring the natural good of peace and safety of its citizens. it is a natural good that citizens enjoy more safety from murder when murderers are put to death

When virtually all governments in the US are deeply in debt and run on borrowed money,it cannot legitimately be said that we can afford to warehouse criminals for what would ordinarily have been capital offenses.

Besides that, the incarcerated population itself needs to enjoy safety.

As for the argument sometimes made that incarceration gives a man time to reform his life and repent, the knowledge that he going to be executed in a few days forces the moment to its crisis, and is more likely to bring about his conversion.

Michael said...

Lee, am I reading your comment correctly, that it is good for a society of this millennium to:
A) kill it's criminals to make us feel safer (even though the criminals they are killing are not roaming the streets but already behind bars);
B) kill criminals to save government money; and
C) attempt to force a conversion that might otherwise not happen but by the grace of God?

Lee Gilbert said...


I am saying that capital punishment is a legitimate, moral option in this age as in any other.

A. It is not at all a question of making anyone feel safer, but of making daily life in a society actually safer. The apprehended criminal guilty of murder, for example, having been killed will not kill again. Surely that is a positive. And whether they are behind bars or not, murderers will murder, and the prison population also deserves safety.

Moreover, in not having a relatively immediate, public execution of people guilty of capital offenses we deprive ourselves of the stark warning that this would issue to others feeling the lure of crime. This also would contribute to public safety, and that is a positive.

Of course, I am aware of people unjustly condemned to death and only discovered to be innocent after many years, but that is a separate issue. This argues for raising the standard according to which people are condemned to death, but not against capital punishment in itself.

B. The argument that in a modern state we can afford to warehouse people guilty of capital offenses is simply untrue. The fact is that we are borrowing money which will never be repaid-in itself a grave injustice-for a great many governmental operations, among them supporting a huge prison population, for we have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. That this is unsustainable we shall soon discover. The State of Illinois, for example is broke, and more broadly the bond market (where money is borrowed by governments) looks to be in a danger.

My real fear is that because we really cannot support such a huge prison population that ultimately capital punishment may be imposed on a great many criminals not guilty of capital offenses. Already there are people who argue for "electric bleachers" in preference to electric chairs. Hopefully we are still influenced enough by Judaeo-Christian values to avoid that, but there is good reason to wonder whether that will be the case in twenty or thirty years.

So I am arguing that capital punishment, judiciously and swiftly imposed would be a great boon to society and, for that matter, to the criminal himself. Is it not true that Catholic and Christian concern for people on death row is limited to their not being executed? Of course, I am sure that there must be people who pray for the conversion of people on death row, but while I have heard many prayers in the Prayers of the Faith at Mass for the elimination of capital punishment, I do not recall ever hearing, not once, prayers for the conversion of people on death row, nor for the conversion of any one such person. Yet, if "Bob Smith" were about to be executed for a horrendous crime committed two weeks ago and still in the public mind, one could be sure that his name would show up in the prayers of the faithful. As it is, after fifteen or twenty years public memory dims about Bob Smith and his crime, and as he is wheeled to his death by injection ( so much less dramatic than beheading or firing squad) some protestors against capital punishment may be found outside Stateville praying for a commutation or for an end to capital punishment.

C. Of course, no one can be forced to convert and conversion only comes by the grace of God, but there is no reason to think- so far as I know- that a man is more likely to repent of his sins after thirty years on death row than after two weeks. And as someone said, immediately facing death concentrates the mind wonderfully. Moreover, the spectacle of an unrepentant condemned criminal about to be executed prompts many people to pray for his conversion, and in the lives of the saints one finds many instances of such conversions. So it seems to me that the more or less immediate execution of a justly condemned criminal is a win-win situation for all concerned, the body politic, the state, the criminal. . .as also for logic and moral theology.

Confitebor said...

"Confitebor, first, I wish to thank you for living the stereotype of the ignorant traditionalist. You prove my points better than ever I could."

Well, I'd say, "You're welcome," but I'm afraid I'm not worthy of your thanks, since I don't suffer from ignorance on this matter (though I do strive to be a faithful Catholic, so of course I strive to adhere to Apostolic Tradition, as should everyone).

But leading off with childish insults is an unacceptable response.

"Second, you will have (failed to) notice that Pope Francis did not speak out against self-defense or just war, but only the death penalty."

Thanks, but you no doubt knew that I'm aware of what he said and didn't say. I'm also aware that the principle he invoked logically rules out just war and taking life in self-defense.

"Societies change. Pope John Paul II recognized that when he pointed out that there were virtually no circumstances under which a modern government could morally wield the death penalty."

St. John Paul's prudential appraisal of today's circumstances may or may not be correct -- but they don't amount to an assertion that capital punishment has always been intrinsically evil and can never be used for any reason in any time or place in God's creation. He explicitly acknowledged the State's divine right to use the death penalty while advising that he thinks it's rarely if ever needed today. Pope Francis has at times said the same thing, at other times said things that go much, much further than the Catholic verity allows.

"Every government is wealthy enough to identify, incarcerate and safely house even the worst inmates, if they put their minds to it."

That's a very debatable opinion, but in any case life imprisonment for grave crimes is much less just and respectful of the dignity of the human person than is capital punishment. Aquinas indicates as much too.

"Third, your refusal to refer to Pope Francis *AS* Pope Francis highlights your drift away from the Church."

"Refusal"? Read more carefully -- I've referred to Pope Francis as what he is.

The Church doesn't agrees that the use of the age-old Catholic style of addressing Sovereign Roman Pontiffs by their gens cognomen indicates a loss of membership in the Body of Christ. Catholics have been saying things like, "Pope Wojtyla," "Papa Montini," "Papa Bergoglio," etc., for centuries. We're not going to stop just because you don't like the doctrinal and theological positions of somebody who also occasionally uses that style.

"We all pray for you to one day return."

As do we for you. (Sauce for the goose . . . .)

Joe said...


Do you plan on addressing/reviewing a recently-released book, “By Man Shall his Blood be Shed” by Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette? Looks like an in-depth treatment of the Magisterial teaching on the death penalty.