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Saturday, August 04, 2018

The Death Penalty Teaching Hasn't Changed

So, some people are upset because Pope Francis explained the teaching on the death penalty. Non-Catholics, such as the men and women of the Chicago Tribune, claim Pope Francis has changed Catholic teaching. Some who claim to be "conservative Catholics" have sided with the Chicago Tribune and promoted this erroneous understanding.

Now, Catholics know it is impossible to change Catholic teaching. So what is going on?

To begin, let us recall the first principle of Christian understanding. Just as you cannot use one Scripture to attack another Scripture, so you cannot use one papal statement to attack another papal statement. We cannot start with the supposition that this Pope is contradicting previous teaching. That is not how Catholic teaching works. So, what is he doing?

The pope is pointing out a change in circumstance which is forcing a change in the discipline. He is not announcing a change in doctrine. What does this mean? It means the APPLICATION of the doctrine has to be changed. The practice has to change. That's a disciplinary change.

To take an example, every human being has a right to eat meat, a right given by God Himself in Genesis 9. So, if this is a right given by God, why do Catholics refrain from eating meat on Fridays? Well, in order to keep fresh the remembrance that God took on flesh so that He could suffer and die for our salvation, and that He chose to do this on a Friday, the Church requires every Catholic to abstain from eating the flesh of land animals on Fridays.

So, when we deliberately eat meat on Friday, the sin does not lie in the eating of meat per se, rather, the sin lies in our refusal to commemorate God's sacrifice for us. It is a sin of disobedience against a discipline. We have the right to eat meat, given in Genesis after Noah lands the ark. But it is the specific circumstances of when we do it that creates the sin.

In the same way, every country has the right to apply the death penalty. That is settled doctrine, and that doctrine cannot change. In ages past due to the general subsistence level poverty most human cultures lived, this was a necessary right. Societies could not afford to permanently house a large, non-working population of inmates. They couldn't guarantee dangerous people could be jailed for life. The death penalty was often the only way to protect the general population from great misery.

What the Pope tells us today is that things are no longer what they were. The world's social institutions have become so wealthy and powerful, they no longer have the excuses of poverty and weakness to invoke. With great power comes great responsibility.

The sin involved in the death penalty derives NOT because the state doesn't have the right to the action. Of course the state has the right to the action. But the circumstances in which the action can be undertaken have essentially disappeared.

While previous epochs in human history may have suffered from such a basic poverty that there was no other recourse, this kind of poverty no longer exists. The Pope merely points out (and the statistics clearly support him) that no such region of the world remains. If any society is too insecure or poor, that is no longer due to an inherent poverty built into the current fabric of human existence, but due to the corruption of its governing officials, who refuse to allocate resources in a just way.  As Hans Rosling pointed out several years ago, the Pope is absolutely correct:



As Rosling points out in his video, for most of the Church's history, all of mankind has lived in a very small box of short-lived poverty. Within the last 200 years, every country on earth has moved out of that box. This change in circumstance requires a change in how doctrines are applied.

It has been pointed out that the death penalty is linked to the right to self-defense, even self-defense that involves taking the life of the aggressor, and the right to wage a just war. Both individuals and states have the rights to defend themselves from unjust aggressors. That hasn't changed. But when I defend myself by taking another human being's life, I only have the right to do so because I have a poverty of choices: I am unable to stop the aggressor with anything less than lethal force.

My right to kill the aggressor in that situation is still intrinsically a violation of the light of the Gospel, and this is reflected in the teaching on self-defense. After all, it has always been standard Catholic teaching that, if I am able to stop the aggressor with less than lethal force, I cannot kill the aggressor. Killing the aggressor in that situation would absolutely be a sin. What is true for individuals is also true for society at large.

Today, governments have no excuse. Any society which is poor suffers from poverty because the murderers and thieves are in the government, not in the street. The unjust aggressor isn't the man on trial, it is the government that tries the man. In the modern world, we are now treated to the spectacle of one extremely powerful murderer and thief (the corrupt government) putting a petty murderer and thief to death in order to cover up and distract from its own sins.

And, to be fair, the death penalty has always had a basic problem. It assumes infallibility on the part of the police and the courts, that they have found and convicted the correct man. Since only the Pope is infallible, and even then only on points of morality and doctrine, that basic presupposition has always been suspect. Honest men and women have always acknowledged this basic flaw.

But today's level of social wealth has laid this flaw bare for all to see. The death penalty is now a sin used by a corrupt government to cover up and distract from its own sins. The United States is one of a rather small list of countries that still use the death penalty. Is there anyone here who would truly try to support the idea that the US government is free from corruption? One sign of our corruption is precisely our insistence on the death penalty.

The Pope exhorts us to recognize what science already tells us: the circumstances in which the state can use the death penalty have disappeared. That is all. The doctrine hasn't changed. The circumstances have changed. The Church is taking official notice of that fact.

All Catholics are required to recognize that the reality on the ground is different. We no longer live in the tenth century. This is a reason for celebration. So, rejoice! We can finally implement the fullness of mercy that God calls us toward.
"A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary." (Homily at the Papal Mass, St. Louis, Missouri, January 27, 1999).

P.S.
The American Conservative understands how this works.


P.P.S.
Pope Saint JP II and Pope Benedict both agree with Francis
"A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary." (Homily at the Papal Mass, St. Louis, Missouri, January 27, 1999).


P.P.P.S A note from Miriam Westen
"The 1917 Code of Canon Law barred from sacred ordination: 1) judges who imposed the death penalty. 2) Also, those who assisted as executioners could never be ordained to the priesthood.

From the 1957 Woywod & Smith Commentary on Canon Law:
"The sixth irregularity from defect (which permanently prevents a man from being ordained priest) is that incurred by a judge of a criminal court who has issued a death sentence against a criminal.

"The spirit of the sacred ministry is a spirit of mercy and forgiveness, wherefore the Church declares it improper to raise to the sacred ministry a person who has concurred in procuring the execution of a man, no matter how legitimate and guiltless such action may have been.

"From the earliest times of the Church men who have shed human blood, even apart from any guilt, were refused admission to the sacred ministry" (p. 598 "Practical Commentary on the Code)."

10 comments:

Not That Guy said...

Francis is on record regarding the death penalty as follows:

"It must be clearly stated that the death penalty is an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity. It is per se contrary to the Gospel, because it entails the willful suppression of a human life that never ceases to be sacred in the eyes of its Creator and of which – ultimately – only God is the true judge and guarantor."

"Per se" = intrinsically. He has just claimed that the Church taught all along something which is intrinsically contrary to the Gospel.

Further, his reasoning in the new text for the Catechism points to a flawed understanding that has been corrected by an increasing awareness. He is not saying it was once practically acceptable; he is saying people once thought it was, but they were wrong.

Finally, given this new awareness, the death penalty, now inadmissible, means that it was never and could never again be admissible. Why? Because he appeals to the dignity of the human person, which is unchanging and cannot be lost, he says so himself, even after the committing a serious crime.

So, he is utilizing a constant - human dignity - to set an absolute moral norm.

J said...

You have totally demolished Kellmeyer's argument. Good job.

Confitebor said...

"Not That Guy" correctly understands Pope Francis' new doctrine on capital punishment and its implications. The pope has gone much further than John Paul II and Benedict XVI did in this matter. He isn't just saying the death penalty is no longer admissible, but that it has never been admissible at any time in human history -- which means God erred grievously in declaring "Whosoever shall shed man's blood, his blood shall be shed: for man was made to the image of God" and when He directed Moses to institute the use of the death penalty. It also would mean that the Holy Spirit erred when he inspired St. Paul to write "For he is God's minister to thee, for good. But if thou do that which is evil, fear: for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is God's minister: an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil." This is a grave problem along the lines of John XXII or Honorius -- apparently even more serious than that, as they did not formally teach their errors as Pope Francis seems to have done

It's true that the Church has always seen how incongruous it is to bestow Holy Orders on men who have shed blood, and rightly she has forbidden it. That, of course, tells us nothing about whether or not the death penalty is or has always been inadmissible, so it has no bearing on this particular question.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Slavery is also contrary to the Gospel, but even many of the popes kept slaves and the Church long tolerated slavery.

To say that the Church tolerated or permitted something contrary to the Gospel (as Aquinas and Augustine both advocated tolerating prostitution), is not to say that the thing being tolerated is either admirable or good.

For centuries, the Church tolerated the death penalty.
With the pronouncements of the last three popes, She has withdrawn this toleration.

The problem is, you understand neither Scripture nor the power of God.

Not That Guy said...

The Church did not *tolerate* the death penalty. Rather, the Church affirmed that the death penalty is a legitimate act of retribution and, more, an act of obedience to the Fifth Commandment:

"Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder. The end of the Commandment­ is the preservation and security of human life. Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing outrage and violence. Hence these words of David: “In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land, that I might cut off all the workers of iniquity from the city of the Lord” (Ps 100:8).
(Catechism of the Council of Trent, Part III, Fifth Commandment)."

deleted said...

Yeah, it is hard to locate the language of mere toleration (as opposed to positive endorsement) of the DP anywhere in the Church's historical Magisterium, JPII's misrepresentations to the contrary notwithstanding.

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

1) No, slavery is not per se contrary to the Gospel, though certain forms and abuses of it are. Welcome to Catholic teaching.

As Pope Pius XII taught, “Even when it is a question of someone condemned to death, the state does not dispose of an individual’s right to life. It is then the task of public authority to deprive the condemned man of the good of life, in expiation of his fault, after he has already deprived himself of the right to life by his crime.” (AAS, 1952, pp. 779 et. seq).

Likewise, as St. Thomas Aquinas taught:

"...if the health of the whole body demands the excision of a member, through its being decayed or infectious to the other members, it will be both praiseworthy and advantageous to have it cut away. Now every individual person is compared to the whole community, as part to whole. Therefore if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since 'a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump' (1 Corinthians 5:6). ...

"When ... the good incur no danger, but rather are protected and saved by the slaying of the wicked, then the latter may be lawfully put to death. ...

"By sinning man departs from the order of reason, and consequently falls away from the dignity of his manhood, in so far as he is naturally free, and exists for himself, and he falls into the slavish state of the beasts, by being disposed of according as he is useful to others. ... Hence, although it be evil in itself [per se!] to kill a man so long as he preserve his dignity, yet it may be good to kill a man who has sinned, even as it is to kill a beast. For a bad man is worse than a beast, and is more harmful, as the Philosopher states (Polit. i, 1 and Ethic. vii, 6)."

The persistent and common error committed by anti-magisterial critics of the legitimacy of the death penalty is to imply that keeping the public safe from murderous evildoers amounts merely to keeping them in a prison so they don't kill again. Blessed, as it were, are modern murderers, for they shall inherit free food and housing, a host of liberal defense attorneys, and the freedom to live out their lives without ever satisfying (this side of Heaven) the injustice wrought by their actions. In fact, however, the moral taint of their actions going unredressed by justice is the fundamental poison they instill in the common good, whether they live unpunished in or outside of a prison cell.

On top of this, the idea that keeping unpunished murderers alive in prison so they can't further 'harm' unincarcerated society implies that the inmates who share time and space with said murderers are not harmed by their murderous intimidation and bad example.

2) Meanwhile, your argument about the need for "infallibility" in the courts is the hottest garbage I've seen in a while.

"Abusus non tollit usum."

"Ab abusu ad usum consequentia non valet."

2a) Because it's such hot fetid garbage, any number of odorous entailments can be drawn your fallacious argumentation, to wit:

"Criminal prosecution has always had a basic problem. It assumes infallibility on the part of the police and the courts, that they have found and convicted the correct man. Since only the Pope is infallible, and even then only on points of morality and doctrine, that basic presupposition has always been suspect. Honest men and women have always acknowledged this basic flaw."

"Telling children not to talk to strangers has always had a basic problem. It assumes infallibility on the part of parents and trusted loved ones, etc."

"Avoiding dangerous areas and roads has always had a basic problem. It assumes infallibility on the part of etc."

Steve Kellmeyer said...

ROTFL!

Well, I tell you what, gentlemen.
Whoever among you is without sin can support the death penalty.

Then you have nothing to fear about what is pressed down in the cup, waiting to be meted back to you as you meted it out.

But, if you have ever sinned, I suggest you shut up and listen to your father.
Because - if you will remember - opposing your father arguably makes you worthy of the death penalty. (Exodus 21:15-17, Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

“If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father (the Pope) or the voice of his mother (the Church), and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear.

Confitebor said...

"Whoever among you is without sin can support the death penalty."

AND whoever among us is WITH sin can, and is obliged to, support the death penalty.

"opposing your father arguably makes you worthy of the death penalty. (Exodus 21:15-17, Deuteronomy 21:18-21)"

You prooftext like a "non-denominational" Protestant. The commandment of the Torah doesn't have anything to do with poor sinners questioning erroneous or incoherent utterances of their fathers. It refers to young men who are stubborn and rebellious gluttons and drunkards -- publicly shameful, wicked reprobates. You accuse people with honest objections to a novel papal teaching of being gluttons and drunkards.

Really, though, if you and Pope Francis are right about the death penalty, and your interpretation of Scripture and Tradition is correct, how come nobody knew until just a few days ago that only the sinless are permitted to approve of the use of the death penalty? Did the Church go grievously astray in her history and defect from the Faith, such that she is in need of a Reformation to restore the true doctrines? Is that your contention?

Confitebor said...

"The problem is, you understand neither Scripture nor the power of God."

And apparently, according to you, virtually nobody else has understood it either, until just a few days ago.

How does your idea of Catholicism fit with the doctrines of infallibility and indefectibility? How can the Church go from formally (not informally or fallibly, formally) teaching something for centuries and centuries, and then one day start teaching the exact opposite? The Catholic position on the death penalty isn't just theological opinion or merely common teaching -- it's found in both Old and New Testaments, in the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, in conciliar and papal teaching, and even in official catechisms. (One cannot say the same thing about slavery -- compare the traditional treatment of slavery vs. that of capital punishment in the old Catholic Encyclopedia.)

Maybe try and answer the objections and arguments, rather than just toss insults and mockery at your interlocutors.