The Church’s doctrine on Capital Punishment has been a hot topic this past week thanks to a joint statement issued by National Catholic Reporter, America Magazine, Our Sunday Visitor, and National Catholic Register calling on the Supreme Court of the United States to outlaw the practice.
Though I am unaware of anyone else putting forth a similar argument, it occurs to me that just beneath the surface of the wholesale rejection of Capital Punishment lurks a heresy so profound that it threatens to corrupt our understanding of even the most basic tenets of the Catholic faith.
Before we get to that, let’s begin with an abbreviated look at the Church’s traditional doctrine on Capital Punishment, a teaching that remains entirely valid today.
The Catechism of Trent offers the following concise presentation:
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)
While the post-conciliar bishops tend to focus on the duty of the State to protect human life without any distinction whatsoever between the guilty and the innocent, this represents an innovation that is founded upon doctrinal confusion (about which I will offer some details momentarily).
One notes that the traditional teaching charges the State with the duty of protecting the innocent, and likewise the duty of punishing the guilty; it does not charge the State with protecting the life of the guilty.
It also charges the State with “fostering human life;” that which includes the spiritual life of man as well as the physical.
Lost in the conversation today is the reality that proportionate punishment justly rendered (in the present case, a sentence of death for those who kill) can have a purifying effect on the soul of the perpetrator as expiation is made, thereby fostering the spiritual life of both the guilty individual and society as a whole.
St. Thomas Aquinas affirmed that the death penalty not only carries the potential for having a purgatorial effect on the guilty should they accept their punishment with contrition; the specter of such punishment can also serve as a powerful impetus for the criminal’s conversion.
As such, Capital Punishment can hardly be dismissed as devoid of mercy, much less justice.
In traditional thought, there simply is no basis for rejecting the death penalty out of hand as a de facto act of vengeance as it so often is in our day.
The secular power can without mortal sin carry out a sentence of death, provided it proceeds in imposing the penalty not from hatred but with judgment, not carelessly, but with due solicitude. (Pope Innocent III, DS 795/425)
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 given September 14, 1952)
In defense of the novel approach to Capital Punishment put forth by John Paul II, Archbishop Charles Chaput, writing in his diocesan newspaper, suggested by contrast that the death penalty is simply a matter of “answering violence with violence.”
NB: This proposition is reflective of the broader post-conciliar tendency among our sacred hierarchs wherein teaching grounded in doctrine and right reason has given way to platitudes that appeal almost exclusively to human emotion.
In a (highly recommended) 2001 article for First Things, Catholicism & Capital Punishment, Cardinal Avery Dulles offered an in-depth treatment of the topic in which he effectively dispatched with the idea that the death penalty is mere vengeance:
Summarizing the verdict of Scripture and tradition, we can glean some settled points of doctrine. It is agreed that crime deserves punishment in this life and not only in the next. In addition, it is agreed that the State has authority to administer appropriate punishment to those judged guilty of crimes and that this punishment may, in serious cases, include the sentence of death … The Catholic magisterium does not, and never has, advocated unqualified abolition of the death penalty.
At this, let’s consider how our churchmen attempt to justify moving so far away, so quickly, from well-established Catholic teaching on the matter.
The most common justification seems to lie in the assertion that modern man (understood as those living in the age of post-conciliar enlightenment) has a deeper understanding of human dignity than previous generations did.
Cardinal Dulles, for his part, wasn’t buying it:
Arguments from the progress of ethical consciousness have been used to promote a number of alleged human rights that the Catholic Church consistently rejects in the name of Scripture and tradition. The magisterium appeals to these authorities as grounds for repudiating divorce, abortion, homosexual relations, and the ordination of women to the priesthood. If the Church feels herself bound by Scripture and tradition in these other areas, it seems inconsistent for Catholics to proclaim a “moral revolution” on the issue of capital punishment.
So, if not the product of a moral awakening, what then accounts for this rapid journey away from the traditional Catholic teaching on Capital Punishment?
As already suggested, throughout the post-conciliar period, the hierarchy has consistently preached a hyper-inflated sense of human dignity.
This distortion has obscured some very important truths that weigh heavily on the present discussion; first, the reality that human dignity can be diminished and even lost, and secondly, the very closely related understanding that human dignity is not possessed in equal measure by all.
As such, clergy and laity alike have largely fallen into the error of believing that when the State takes the life of a killer of innocent people, it is essentially guilty of repeating his crime.
In order to consistently maintain this argument, one is forced to imagine that the human dignity possessed by Charles Manson is indistinguishable from that possessed by Charles Borromeo (or the Blessed Virgin Mary!)
Clearly, this isn’t the case.
This brings us to yet another major factor in our churchmen’s rejection of the traditional teaching on Capital Punishment; namely, the distorted post-conciliar view of the State.
From the time of Vatican Council II and the promulgation of Dignitatis Humanae, the Church has refrained from preaching the immutable truth that the civil authorities in the various States derive their authority neither from constitutions nor the will of the people, but from Almighty God (more properly, Christ the King) to Whom they are beholden.
Lost in the murkiness is the traditional Catholic understanding of the civil authority as a representative of God.
As such, it is no longer clear in the minds of moderns that the State has the right to visit the death penalty upon the guilty; not simply as a means of protecting its citizens, but as a means of applying retributive justice in the name of God, thereby rendering a genuine and valuable service to the common good.
Getting to the heart of the matter, Archbishop Chaput, whose arguments are representative of those who support of the novel approach to Captial Punishment put forth by Pope John Paul II, wrote:
Nor does [the death penalty] heal or redress any wounds, because only forgiveness can do that.
At this let us consider at last the multiple heresies that lurk just beneath the surface of the modern movement to abolish Capital Punishment.
- If indeed the death penalty does not “heal or redress any wounds,” what then shall we say of the Creator’s decree, spoken to Adam as an expression of Perfect Justice, “But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat. For in what day soever thou shalt eat of it, thou shalt die the death” (Genesis 2:17).
- If indeed the death penalty does not “heal or redress any wounds,” what then shall we say of the death of Our Blessed Lord on the Cross?
- If indeed the death penalty does not “heal or redress any wounds,” what then shall we say of the grace poured out upon the Church, “drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus?” (Apocalypse 17:6)
You see, if one carries the arguments put forth in favor of the Wojtyłian approach to Capital Punishment to their logical conclusion, effectively undermined along the way are such fundamental doctrines as the Church’s understanding that the wages of sin is death; her teaching concerning Our Lord’s work of Redemption, and the Catholic conviction that our individual sufferings and death can be redemptive for ourselves and for others.
But the devastation doesn’t stop there:
Also at stake is immutable doctrine concerning the identity of the Holy Catholic Church as the Mystical Body of Christ wherein the work of Redemption continues; the nature of Holy Mass wherein the Sacred Victim is offered in atonement for our sins, and likewise our understanding of Holy Orders and the role of the priesthood.
Indeed, even the doctrine of the faith concerning Baptism as that through which we die with Christ – a death entirely necessary in order to rise with Him to new life – is placed in jeopardy.
Is the connection between the wholesale rejection of Capital Punishment and the manifold heresies it invites as outlined here rather subtle?
You bet it is, and in this one does well to discern the hand of the Evil One who desires nothing more than to make weak and sinful men believe that death is but an end unto to itself.
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