Pope Francis announced [Aug. 3] that the Catholic Church will henceforth teach that the death penalty is always wrong, and will “work with determination towards its abolition worldwide.” The announcement made news — it was reported on the front page of The New York Times and The Washington Post — but it hardly came as a surprise.
Just last fall the pope had declared capital punishment to be “contrary to the Gospel” and “inhumane . . . regardless of how it is carried out.” A year and a half before that, he had called on Catholic politicians to make the “courageous and exemplary gesture” of opposing all executions.
Yet if the pontiff’s views on the death penalty were well known, last week’s proclamation nonetheless marked a dramatic change in church doctrine, which for nearly two millennia had always upheld the legitimacy of the death penalty in appropriate cases. The death penalty is supported in the Bible — both Old and New Testaments. It has been firmly defended by many of the most eminent figures in church history, from St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas in ancient times to popes, cardinals, and scholars in the modern era.
“The infliction of capital punishment is not contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church,” the Catholic Encyclopedia, published in 1911, stated categorically . The Catechism of the Catholic Church, originally promulgated by the Council of Trent in 1566, emphasized that the execution of murderers is lawful precisely because it upholds the Biblical commandment — “Thou shalt not murder” — that prohibits unlawful homicide. In the words of the catechism:
“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. 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. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to the Commandment which prohibits murder. The end of the Commandment is the preservation and security of human life.”
To be sure, popes in recent decades have been much more wary about the death penalty. Pope John Paul II expressed his skepticism in a passage of his 1995 encyclical “Evangelium Vitae” (The Gospel of Life). All the same, when the catechism was revised on his watch, it continued to make clear that the execution of murderers was not, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, always wrong. In the section on the Commandment against murder, it upheld the lawfulness of the death penalty in certain cases:2267. Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the 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.
Even as many Catholic leaders moved firmly into the anti-capital punishment camp, that position was never binding on the faithful — unlike the church’s stand on other sanctity-of-life issues. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who before becoming Pope Benedict XVI headed the Vatican department in charge of clarifying and teaching Catholic doctrine, made that point explicitly in 2004:
“Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. . . . There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty.”
Now that Francis has ordered the church to make its opposition to capital punishment absolute, will that tolerance for “legitimate diversity of opinion” on the subject vanish?
I doubt it. If the College of Cardinals backs him up, the pope may be able to unilaterally change a formerly authoritative — indeed a formerly uncontroversial — doctrine of Catholic belief. But it is unlikely that he will change what Catholics actually believe. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center , most American Catholics, 53%, favor the death penalty as an option in murder cases. That tracks closely with US public opinion generally: 54% of Americans favor capital punishment, while 39% are opposed. Though the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has been lobbying against the death penalty for years, it has never managed to persuade a majority of its flock to follow suit.
Nor is the pope’s pronouncement likely to make any measurable difference in the behavior of public officials who are Catholic.
In its story reporting Francis’s decision last Thursday, The New York Times speculated that “the pope’s move could put Catholic politicians in a new and difficult position, especially Catholic governors like Greg Abbott of Texas and Pete Ricketts of Nebraska, who have presided over executions.”
There was no comment from Abbott, but Ricketts wasted no time dumping cold water on the notion that a shift in Catholic doctrine will keep him from upholding his duty to his state.
“While I respect the pope’s perspective, capital punishment remains the will of the people and the law of the state of Nebraska,” the governor said in a statement following the announcement from the Vatican. “It is an important tool to protect our corrections officers and public safety. The state continues to carry out the sentences ordered by the court.” Catechism or no catechism, the execution of Carey Dean Moore, who murdered two Omaha cabbies in 1979, will take place as scheduled next week.
Meanwhile, another Catholic governor was quick to embrace the pope’s announcement. “In solidarity with Pope Francis,” declared New York’s Andrew Cuomo, he plans to introduce “legislation to remove the death penalty — and its ugly stain in our history — from state law once and for all.” Cuomo hailed the pope for “ushering in a more righteous world” and for teaching that the execution of murderers has no place in the 21st century.”
Obviously this was mere posturing, not least because the death penalty was abolished in New York 11 years ago. Cuomo’s opposition to capital punishment is no more determined by Catholic doctrine than his support for gay marriage and abortion rights. Cuomo is “in solidarity” with the pope only when the pope endorses Cuomo’s preexisting view. When the governor and the church are on opposite sides of an issue, solidarity disappears.
As it should.
When it comes to the death penalty — when it comes to any contentious issue — neither New York’s liberal Catholic governor nor Nebraska’s conservative Catholic governor should be taking direction from the pope or any other clerical leader. In the workings of American law and politics, religious leaders are respected, sometimes very deeply respected. They do not give orders, however. American culture is deeply informed by Judeo-Christian values, but when politicians hammer out public policy, the only “scripture” they are bound to uphold are the constitutions of the nation and their state.
As a candidate for president in 1960, John F. Kennedy faced considerable opposition from Protestants who feared that if he were elected, he would take orders from the Vatican. In a landmark speech before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, he addressed those fears head on:
“I believe in an America,” said JFK, “that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches, or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.
And should the time ever come, he added, that religious conviction forced him to choose between violating his conscience or violating the national interest, “then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same.”
To my mind, the pope’s blanket opposition to the death penalty is morally indefensible. The death penalty is grim and unpleasant, but it is a tool of justice that no decent society should unequivocally renounce. When murderers know that they face no greater risk than prison, more innocent victims die.
Conversely, the pope’s blanket opposition to assisted suicide is, in my opinion, quite correct. It is the opposite of true compassion to encourage people to end their lives, or to make it easier for them to do so. Life does not cease to be precious when it fills with pain or depression, and the law should not authorize doctors to snuff it out.
Americans have long debated such issues, and those debates will go on, regardless of any papal proclamations. Politicians may play up the pope’s views when it matches their own, but that’s just for show. Religious leaders don’t make the rules in this country. We the People do, thank God.
As an ex-Catholic, I find it hypocritical at least for Catholics to be pro-abortion rights and anti-death penalty, the standard Democratic position outside of Bill Clinton, or to be anti-abortion and pro-death penalty, the standard Republican position. Of course, neither God nor Jesus Christ belongs to an American political party. Catholics can say their church is wrong, but they need to remember that the Catholic Church is their church, not any one Catholic’s church. The Catholic Church is not now, nor has it ever been, nor will it ever be, a democracy, regardless of how the church makes its decisions. Those who don’t like that fact should leave. (See the first four words of this paragraph.)