Non-Catholics and Catholics alike are drilling into the decision of Pope Francis to change Catechism of the Catholic Church 2267, which now says that capital punishment is “inadmissible”. He does not say that it is intrinsically evil, which would be crystal clear. “Inadmissible” is, however, clear enough. It seems and more than seems to contradict what the Church has always taught about capital punishment.
Frankly, my problem lies not so much with Francis’s call that capital punishment shouldn’t be, can’t be, used. My problem lies in the two fold problem of lack of crystal clarity in a reference source for the Faith that, by its nature, ought to resolve questions and, more importantly, if that teaching can be changed – with its millennial pedigree – then what else will certain circles claim must be changed? There won’t be any end to it.
Jewish commentator Dennis Prager opined about Francis’ innovation.
Pope Francis Rewrites Catholicism … and the Bible
Last week, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had changed the Catholic catechism. After 2,000 years of teaching that a moral use of capital punishment for murder is consistent with Catholic teaching, the pope announced that the catechism, the church fathers and St. Thomas Aquinas, among the other great Catholic theologians, were all wrong.
And God and the Bible? They’re wrong, too.
Pope Francis, the product of Latin American liberation theology — along with many other Catholic religious and lay leaders — is remaking Catholicism in the image of leftism, just as mainstream Protestant leaders have been rendering much of mainstream Protestantism a branch of leftism, and non-Orthodox Jewish clergy and lay leaders have been rendering most non-Orthodox synagogues and lay institutions left-wing organizations.
The notion that it is immoral to execute any murderer — no matter how heinous the murder, no matter how many innocents he has murdered, no matter how incontrovertible the proof of guilt — is an expression of emotion, not of reason or natural law or Christian theology or biblical theology.
In 2015, Pope Francis wrote, “today capital punishment is unacceptable, however serious the condemned’s crime may have been.”
Unacceptable? To whom? It is acceptable to about half of American Catholics and about half of the American people. But it is unacceptable to the elites of our time, the people who have the most contempt for Catholicism and every other Bible-based religion.
The death penalty, Francis wrote, “entails cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.” These are all subjective opinions. I suspect most people do not think the death penalty as punishment for premeditated murder is necessarily cruel, inhumane or degrading. What are all of us missing? And why isn’t life imprisonment cruel, inhumane and degrading? (Indeed, opposition to life imprisonment is already the norm in many progressive countries like Norway, where someone murdered 77 people, mostly children, and received a 21-year prison sentence.)
The Pope also writes that no matter how serious the crime that has been committed, “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”
Most of us think it is the murderer, by committing murder, who has attacked his dignity and inviolability, not the society that puts him to death. We also think it is the dignity of the murder victim that is attacked by rewarding the murderer with room and board, TV, books, exercise rooms and visits from family members and girlfriends.
Furthermore, why isn’t keeping a murderer in prison one day longer than is necessary to protect society an “attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”? For that matter, isn’t every punishment an attack on the dignity of the punished? Of course it is, which is why progressives ultimately oppose all punishment, equating it with vengeance.
That last point is worth thinking through. The argument from “dignity of the person” isn’t an iron-clad argument.. unless you are working more from emotion than from reason.
The Pope Makes a Fatal Error
He says the death penalty is ‘inadmissible,’ though not intrinsically evil. He doesn’t note it saves lives.
By Joseph M. Bessette
Aug. 7, 2018 6:58 p.m. ET
When Pope Francis last week declared the death penalty “inadmissible,” politicians pounced. “The death penalty is a stain on our conscience,” tweeted New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who proclaimed that he stood “in solidarity with Pope Francis” in “advancing legislation to remove the death penalty from NY law once and for all.”
But the pope’s declaration, which contradicts two millennia of Catholic teaching, allies the church with a public policy that would undermine justice and cost innocent lives.
Consider this example that the philosopher Edward Feser and I recount in our book, “By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment”: At a professional conference, a criminologist reported that two burglars had broken into his mother’s apartment and tied her up as they searched for valuables. As they were about to leave, one said: “She has seen us and can identify us. Should we kill her?” “No,” answered the other, “we don’t want to risk the death penalty.” They let her live. One can hardly imagine a clearer example of deterrence.
Another example comes from Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California. In the 1960s she served on the California Women’s Parole Board. At one hearing, Mrs. Feinstein asked an armed robber seeking release from prison why she never used a loaded gun. “So I would not panic, kill somebody, and get the death penalty,” she answered. That convinced Mrs. Feinstein that (in her words) “the death penalty in place in California in the ’60s was in fact a deterrent.”
A third example is recounted by law professor Robert Blecker, who had spent years interviewing prisoners. A veteran criminal told Mr. Blecker that the reason he spared the life of a drug dealer in Virginia whom he had tied up and robbed was because the state had the electric chair. In a similar situation in the District of Columbia, which had abolished the death penalty, the criminal had killed his victim. “I just couldn’t tolerate what they had waiting for me in Virginia,” he said.
These examples are powerful illustrations that the death penalty can and does deter some would-be murderers. Like the rest of us, criminals want to live, and, as the these examples show, they will often adjust their behavior accordingly. Without the death penalty, what incentive would a “lifer” have not to kill while in prison or, if he escaped, while on the run?
There is also a deeper kind of deterrence, largely overlooked in discussions of the death penalty, which doesn’t require rational calculation. When society imposes the ultimate punishment for the most heinous murders, it powerfully teaches that murder is a great wrong. Children growing up in such a society internalize this message, with the result that most people wouldn’t even consider killing another human being.
Here the principle of justice, which demands that malefactors receive a punishment proportionate to their offense, and deterrence of this deeper sort meet. If we abolish the death penalty for even the most heinous and coldblooded murderers, we fatally undermine the idea of justice as the cornerstone of our criminal-justice system. Over time justice will be replaced by a therapeutic or technocratic model that treats human beings as cases to be managed and socially engineered rather than as morally responsible persons.
Apparently, Pope Francis has decided that the death penalty doesn’t save lives. He gives no reasons for reaching this conclusion. We would hardly expect Catholic priests, whatever their rank, to be experts in criminal justice. Unless the death penalty is intrinsically evil—and the pope has made no such claim—then its advisability is a matter for citizens and legitimate public authority. This is what the church has always taught. By falsely claiming that the principles of Catholicism call for rejecting the death penalty in all circumstances, the pope undermines the authority of the Magisterium, pre-empts the proper authority of public officials, and jeopardizes public safety and the common good.
Mr. Bessette is a professor of government and ethics at Claremont McKenna College. He served as acting director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics in the Reagan administration.
Appeared in the August 8, 2018, print edition.