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The Pretend Capital Punishment "Reversal"

The Role of John Paul II

by Christopher A. Ferrara
October 17, 2017

My last two columns have discussed the seeming intention of Pope Francis to purport to alter Church teaching to declare, contrary to her teaching for the past 2,000 years, that capital punishment is immoral “in itself” and “inadmissible… no matter how serious the crime committed…”  Any attempt to impose this novelty as “Church teaching” would be a blatant abuse of papal authority that could not possibly pertain to the authentic Magisterium. The moral principles expounded by the Magisterium down through the centuries, including its constant defense of the morality of capital punishment as a matter of revealed truth (cf. Rom. 3:14), cannot be “repealed” as if they were mere civil legislation.

But here the preparatory role of John Paul II cannot be overlooked.  While the Latin definitive edition of his Catechism, published in 1997 (English translation here), affirms (§ 2267) that “the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty,” it immediately strays into the realm of contingent factual assessments clearly beyond the competence of the Magisterium as such.  To quote the pertinent passage in full:

“[T]he 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 with 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.’” [quoting Evangelium Vitae, 56]

Note the proliferation of vague and ambiguous phrases providing no clear moral guidance but only intimations that capital punishment is to be avoided. According to what criteria can civil authorities be sure that capital punishment is “the only possible way of effectively defending humanlivesor that “non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety”? None are provided. What meaning does “concrete conditions of the common good” convey?  None that I can see.

And if capital punishment is consistent with, and moreover warranted by the defense of human dignity, as the Church has always taught, what does it mean to say that a lesser punishment is “more” in conformity with human dignity? How much more? Is there a morally imperative difference in this undefined quantum of greater conformity to human dignity?  As for the question of human dignity, as I noted in Crisis magazine, this involves the supernatural dignity of man and life eternal, not merely his biological existence on this earth, and “who can say that convicted killers languishing in prisons which are sinkholes of immorality are more likely than a condemned man to receive the grace of final penitence?”

Most objectionable is the claim that “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… the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically non-existent”?  What possibilities?  Essentially there is only one besides capital punishment: life imprisonment, which has always been available to the state.  But Pope Francis, throwing off all Magisterial restraint, has even railed against life sentences as a “hidden death penalty.” Apparently, even mass murderers would eventually have to be released according to this strange opinion.

At any rate, as a purely factual matter, prisons quite often fail, and fail miserably, to render a prisoner “incapable of doing harm,” as we see with the frequent killings of one prisoner by another or of guards by prisoners, or of innocent members of the general population by escaped convicts.  The claim is demonstrably false.

What is one to make of the phrase “very rare, if not practically non-existent”?  No Pope can claim the right to survey the justice systems of the entire world and declare that the cases in which capital punishment is warranted are — always and everywhere — “very rare.” And how rare is “very” rare?  As for “practically non-existent,” how does practical nonexistence differ from nonexistence simpliciter?  Here we see how the authentic Magisterium, whose teaching is clear and universally applicable, does not comport with adjectival hedging of a moral principle. As if the Church could somehow impose upon the faithful the nonsensical belief that an act she has always defended as morally legitimate according to the Gospel is nonetheless never, or almost never, allowed!

To be frank, the phrase “very rare, if not practically non-existent” is essentially meaningless.  It cannot serve as a universally applicable moral principle. But it does serve as a linguistic gloss employed to suggest a kind of virtual immorality of capital punishment while not daring to declare it outright, as Pope Francis now does.

Another, even deeper, problem: The quoted passage from the 1997 Catechism suggests, without explicitly saying so, that the only moral ground for capital punishment is the protection of others from future aggression by the convicted killer. Yet, the previous section of the same Catechism states: “Legitimate public authority has the right and the duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation.”  Indeed, the Good Thief’s resignation to the just penalty for his crimes — death — was a manifestation of his justification in the grace of the Savior in whom he believed.

A punishment that fits the crime, redress of wrongs, and expiation for one’s offense are no less grounds for the capital punishment of murder than they are for the lesser penalties imposed for lesser crimes.  It has always been so, yet the drafters of the Catechism attempt to carve out an exception for capital punishment based on nothing more than the plainly mistaken notion that modern prisons render murderers harmless. There is no real moral distinction here, but only an emotional rather than a rational rejection of the death penalty based on the prevailing liberal sentiments of our day.  Francis derides adherence to the Church’s traditional teaching on capital punishment as “penal populism,” but it is precisely penal populism that demands leniency for convicted murderers but death for the innocent unborn.

In his Catechism, John Paul II affirmed the unchangeable moral principle that capital punishment is morally licit, but he undercut the principle with demonstrably dubious factual contentions that cannot belong to Catholic doctrine. Exploiting that opening, however, Francis now proposes to contradict the moral principle itself by declaring to be immoral what the Church has always defended as consistent with the Gospel and indeed with the defense of human dignity against violent criminals who deprive innocent people of their lives and thereby (to recall the teaching of Pius XII reflecting all of Tradition) justly forfeit their own.

Here, too, however, John Paul II paved the way. In a sermon he gave at Saint Louis on September 27, 1999, he too seemed to attack the moral principle itself:

“The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life in every situation. 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 (cf. Evangelium Vitae, 27). I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.”

At least John Paul II attempted to hedge his opinion with the factual contention — clearly false — that “modern society has the means of protecting itself” against murderers by confining them in prisons, which is hardly an option peculiar to “modern society.”  As for the statement that today there is an “increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil,” it is impossible to take that claim seriously in a society that condones, legally protects and even subsidizes the mass murder of innocent children in the womb while bleeding heart liberals demand the “right to life” for even the most hardened killers. And how could John Paul II denounce as “cruel and unnecessary” — thus immoral — a form of punishment the Church had never failed to defend as morally legitimate, even in his own confusingly hedged Catechism?

The “diabolical disorientation” of which Sister Lucia spoke in light of the Third Secret has manifested itself in many ways over the half-century that has elapsed since Pope John suppressed the Secret in 1960.  One of the ways is the encroachment into normally lapidary conciliar and papal documents, during and after Vatican II, of obiter dicta involving sociological observations, open-ended ambiguities, dubious factual claims and even plainly personal opinions which, on close examination, are seen to have no doctrinal weight at all.  With this linguistic corruption, there has also been a truly absurd elongation of papal documents to the length of books — books that almost nobody reads.

One of the happy results of the Consecration of Russia, once it is finally done, will be the return of the simple expression and crystal clarity that radiate impressively in the entire body of papal teaching before the current confusion began.  May the good God hasten the coming of that blessed restoration.