Pope Francis this week delivered anti-death penalty sentiments that are not only in direct opposition to the traditional teaching of the Church, that would be the teaching until 1995, but also opposed to the current teaching of the Church. From another pontiff this would be headline news, but from this Pope it is not even surprising. Steve Skojec at One Peter Five explains just how out of tune with the teaching of the Church these statements of the Pope are:
The ongoing debates about the authentic Catholic position on the death penalty have grown particularly exasperating. Perhaps the worst thing of all is that we’re wasting time arguing over teaching that is incredibly well-established throughout the majority of Church history. The Church’s stance on capital punishment has always been more than merely permissive; the idea that “rendering harmless” those criminals deserving of capital punishment is sufficient to eradicate the need for such a sentence is simply not consistent with the teachings of Holy Scripture, the understanding of popes, doctors of the Church, and various apostolic pronouncements.
Adding fuel to the fire, today we have a report from the Vatican’s own news service indicating that Pope Francis has attempted to proclaim that there is no circumstance whatsoever in which the death penalty is warranted:
Capital punishment is cruel, inhuman and an offense to the dignity of human life. There is no crime in the world that deserves the death penalty. That was Pope Francis’ unequivocal message to members of the International Commission against the death penalty who met with him on Friday morning in the Vatican.
In a lengthy letter written in Spanish and addressed to the president of the International Commission against the death penalty, Pope Francis thanks those who work tirelessly for a universal moratorium, with the goal of abolishing the use of capital punishment in countries right across the globe.
Pope Francis makes clear that justice can never be done by killing another human being and he stresses there can be no humane way of carrying out a death sentence. For Christians, he says, all life is sacred because every one of us is created by God, who does not want to punish one murder with another, but rather wishes to see the murderer repent. Even murderers, he went on, do not lose their human dignity and God himself is the guarantor.
Capital punishment, Pope Francis says, is the opposite of divine mercy, which should be the model for our man-made legal systems. Death sentences, he insists, imply cruel and degrading treatment, as well as the torturous anguish of a lengthy waiting period before the execution, which often leads to sickness or insanity.
This is why I use the word “attempted” in describing the pope’s desire to eradicate capital punishment: because he lacks the authority to make such a change. Shocking, I know, but I said it before and I’ll repeat it again: the teaching on this matter is settled. In order to advance this position, Pope Francis would have to declare several of his predecessors as well as St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Thomas More (who prosecuted heretics in an England where that was a capital offense), a papal decree, an apostolic constitution, and also St. Paul’s own divinely-inspired writing in the New Testament to be in error.
Don’t believe me? Read for yourself. We’ll start with the New Testament:
- “If then I am a wrongdoer, and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death.” (Acts 25:11)
- “Let every soul be subject to higher powers. For there is no power but from God: and those that are ordained of God. Therefore, he that resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of God. And they that resist purchase to themselves damnation. For princes are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good: and thou shalt have praise from the same. 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” (Romans 13:1-4).
We may also examine papal and magisterial pronouncements:
- “It must be remembered that power was granted by God [to the magistrates], and to avenge crime by the sword was permitted. He who carries out this vengeance is God’s minister (Rm 13:1-4). Why should we condemn a practice that all hold to be permitted by God? We uphold, therefore, what has been observed until now, in order not to alter the discipline and so that we may not appear to act contrary to God’s authority.” (Pope Innocent 1, Epist. 6, C. 3. 8, ad Exsuperium, Episcopum Tolosanum, 20 February 405, PL 20,495)
- Condemned as an error: “That heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit.” – Pope Leo X, Exsurge Domine (1520)
- “The power of life and death is permitted to certain civil magistrates because theirs is the responsibility under law to punish the guilty and protect the innocent. Far from being guilty of breaking this commandment [Thy shall not kill], such an execution of justice is precisely an act of obedience to it. For the purpose of the law is to protect and foster human life. This purpose is fulfilled when the legitimate authority of the State is exercised by taking the guilty lives of those who have taken innocent lives. In the Psalms we find a vindication of this right: “Morning by morning I will destroy all the wicked in the land, cutting off all evildoers from the city of the Lord” (Ps. 101:8). (Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent, 1566, Part III, 5, n. 4)
- “Even in the case of the death penalty the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. Rather public authority limits itself to depriving the offender of the good of life in expiation for his guilt, after he, through his crime, deprived himself of his own right to life.” (Pope Pius XII, Address to the First International Congress of Histopathology of the Nervous System, 14 September 1952, XIV, 328)
- “The same divine authority that forbids the killing of a human being establishes certain exceptions, as when God authorizes killing by a general law or when He gives an explicit commission to an individual for a limited time. The agent who executes the killing does not commit homicide; he is an instrument as is the sword with which he cuts. Therefore, it is in no way contrary to the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ to wage war at God’s bidding, or for the representatives of public authority to put criminals to death, according to the law, that is, the will of the most just reason.” – (St. Augustine, The City of God, Book 1, chapter 21)
- It is written: “Wizards thou shalt not suffer to live” (Ex. 22:18); and: “In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land” (Ps. 100:8). …Every part is directed to the whole, as imperfect to perfect, wherefore every part exists naturally for the sake of the whole. For this reason we see that if the health of the whole human body demands the excision of a member, because it became putrid or infectious to the other members, it would be both praiseworthy and healthful to have it cut away. Now every individual person is related to the entire society as a part to the whole. Therefore if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and healthful that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since “a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:6). – (St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae, II, II, q. 64, art. 2)
In Iota Unum, Romano Amerio cites St. Thomas on the expiatory nature of accepting a death sentence:
“Even death inflicted as a punishment for crimes takes away the whole punishment for those crimes in the next life, or at least part of that punishment, according to the quantities of guilt, resignation, and contrition; but a natural death does not.” (Cf. Romano Amerio Iota Unum, 435)
In his apostolic constitution, Horrendum illud scelus, Pope St. Pius V even decreed that actively homosexual clerics were to be stripped of their office and handed over to the civil authorities, who at that time held sodomy as a capital offense. He wrote: “We determine that clerics guilty of this execrable crime are to be quite gravely punished, so that whoever does not abhor the ruination of the soul, the avenging secular sword of civil laws will certainly deter.”
These are, to borrow words from the New Testament, “hard sayings.” But as Catholics, we are obligated to wrestle with these teachings – especially the ones we don’t understand or find ourselves interiorly opposed to. Taking it upon ourselves to condemn what we disagree with is to challenge the authority and doctrinal orthodoxy of those who proclaimed them true in the first place. The burden is on us to prove, if we really believe it, why some prior teaching was wrong – and how to reconcile that with infallibility and authentic doctrinal development.
The above citations alone should be sufficient to prove that the death penalty was traditionally viewed by the Church as more than just morally permissible in certain circumstances. It seems clear that the traditional view was that, when carried out justly, the execution of criminals deserving of such penalties by the legitimate authority of the state actually served the common good and even had the power to expiate temporal punishment on the part of the guilty. This is something that more recent papal statements — like those found in Evangelium Vitae — fail to address. (More on that in a minute.)
No less contemporary an ecclesiastical authority than Cardinal Ratzinger, later to become Pope Benedict, admitted at the very least that Catholics had room to disagree on this issue. He stated, as pertains to the question of capital punishment and the worthiness of an individual who supports it to receive Holy Communion:
Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.
As a student of Church history, it’s no surprise that Ratzinger clarified this. We see why in an article published by Dr. Steven Long, professor of theology at Ave Maria University, on the website Thomistica (run by the Aquinas Center of Ave Maria). In the piece — which specifically addresses the recent joint statement in favor of abolition of the death penalty by four ostensibly Catholic journals — Long demonstrates that acceptance of the right of the state to levy this penalty was a requirement for the restoration of the heretical Waldensians to full communion: