“Unity is not achieved by standing still” – Catholic World Report


Washington DC, July 20, 2018 / 12:00 p.m. (CNA).- The Church has always taught that the State has the power to apply the death penalty. But, in recent years, popes and bishops have become more vocal in calling for an end to its use. Many Catholics instinctively prefer life to death, even after the worst crimes, and some wonder if the spirit of the Church is changing.

Two recent cases have highlighted an apparent tension between traditional teaching and modern circumstances.

On July 13, the bishops of Tennessee wrote to Governor Bill Haslam asking him to stop a list of scheduled executions. In their letter, Bishops Mark Spalding of Nashville, Richard Stika of Knoxville and Martin Holley of Memphis emphasized the value and dignity of every human life, even those who have committed the worst possible crimes.

A day earlier, July 12, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, Archbishop of Colombo, thexpressed his “support” for the Sri Lankan government’s decision to introduce the death penalty for drug traffickers and organized crime bosses.

“We will support [Sri Lankan] President Maithripala Sirisena’s decision to subject those who organize the crime while in prison to [the] death sentence,” he told local media. The Cardinal went on to add that more needs to be done to prevent drug traffickers and crime bosses from operating with impunity in prison.

The authority of the state to execute criminals is explicitly sanctioned in the Bible, including by St. Paul. Historically, the Church has recognized the use of the death penalty in a practical way: executions took place in the Papal States until the 19th century, with the last official executioner retiring in 1865.

For much of the 20th century, the attempted assassination of the pope was a capital crime in Vatican City; Pope Paul VI only removed the death penalty from law in 1969.

Today, the Church still officially teaches that the death penalty is a legitimate option that states can employ.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “Assuming that the identity and responsibility of the culprit have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude the use of the death penalty, if is the only possible way to effectively defend human lives. against the unjust aggressor.

This formulation contains a heavy qualification. When exactly is the death penalty the only effective way to defend human life? It’s a tricky question.

Saint John Paul II was outspoken in his opposition to the use of capital punishment. In a speech in the United States in 1999, he called on Christians to be “unconditionally pro-life” and said that “the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who did great harm. He also spoke of his desire for a consensus to end the death penalty, which he called “cruel and unnecessary”.

This address, delivered in St. Louis, was credited with helping persuade Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan to commute inmate Darrell Mease’s death sentence to life in prison.

More recently, Pope Francis denounced capital punishment in even stronger terms. Speaking in October 2017, he called it “contrary to the Gospel” because “it is freely decided to take away a human life which is still sacred in the eyes of the Creator, and of which, in the final analysis, God alone is the true judge and guarantor.” He refrained, however, from revising the official teaching contained in the Catechism.

There is broad sentiment among American Catholics against the death penalty. This is an unusually strong point of consensus, even among those who normally disagree. In 2015, four Catholic publications with often divergent views published a joint editorial calling for an end to capital punishment.

But Catholic thinkers are not unanimous in saying that a total renunciation of the death penalty is appropriate, or even possible.

Cardinal Joseph Bernadin, in his famous “Consistent Ethic of Life” speech delivered at Fordham University in 1983, explicitly recognized the legitimate authority of the state to use capital punishment. Cardinal Avery Dulles, writing in 2001, observed that “the Catholic magisterium does not and never has advocated the unqualified abolition of the death penalty”.

Although there is real room for debate about when and how sparingly capital punishment should be applied, Dulles concluded that “the death penalty is not in itself a violation of the right to life”.

His conclusion was based on the constant teaching of the Church that judicial executions are lawful, even if they are regrettable and should be avoided whenever possible.

In City of God, Saint Augustine wrote that the state administers justice under divine concession. “Since the officer of authority is only a sword in hand and is not responsible for the murder, he is in no way contrary to the command ‘Thou shalt not kill’… let the representatives of the authority of the state indict the criminals death, according to the law or the rule of rational justice.

While the trend in recent papal pronouncements has been toward relegating the death penalty to, at most, a theoretical possibility, scholars have urged caution before going too far.

Dr. Chad Pecknold, associate professor of systematic theology at the Catholic University of America, told CNA it’s important to distinguish between changing circumstances and a change in what the church has. always taught.

“The Church has always maintained that the death penalty is a just option available to the state, although we do not welcome its use. Saint Augustine says the death penalty is just, but the Church should plead for mercy.

Pecknold emphasized that the relationship between mercy and justice is a living concern. In seeking mercy, he said, we must implicitly recognize the validity of justice.

“Mercy does not call something that is just ‘unjust.’ Mercy duly relieves the pain due to the guilty.As the Catechism recognizes, there may be circumstances in which the death penalty is a legitimate service to justice.This is nuanced by a preferential option for other means, provided they can serve the same purpose.

These alternative means have not always and everywhere been available. “The common and constant teaching of the Church can be applied to different circumstances. The alternatives available to us in modern Western countries simply have not been present at other times, or may not be present now in other places.

There is a crucial difference between applying consistent teaching to changing circumstances and seeming to suggest that humanity has evolved beyond previously valid doctrine, Pecknold said.

“The death penalty is not and never has been a positive end in itself. It is a means of serving justice. If we find that we can now serve the same ends and express a preferential option for life, that is doubly good.

“But we should not fall into a false understanding that what was once ‘good’ is now ‘bad’. The Church does not evolve from true teaching, and humanity does not progress beyond of natural law.

“We should appreciate our growing opportunities to serve mercy and justice together, but beware of giving yourself too much credit, we have not progressed to a new, higher level of justice.”

Cardinal Dulles accepted. He considered the argument that the Church’s sanction of capital punishment was an “outdated” concession to past eras of “violence” and “barbarism”, a concession that could yield to the “signs of the times” and “a new recognition of the dignity and inalienability of human rights”. He dismissed it as “tempting simplicity” that found “no resonance” among Catholic theologians of the past.

It should be noted that the consensus against capital punishment in modern Western countries has grown alongside increasing prosperity, political stability, and the ability of states to deploy credible and effective alternatives to execution.

In the recent case of Sri Lanka, the government acted in response to ineffective prison sentences, with drug traffickers and crime bosses seemingly continuing to operate with impunity, even behind bars. Following local complaints following his expression of support, Cardinal Ranjith issued a clarification, clarifying that his support for the government’s announcement was not a “carte blanche” plea for the death penalty, but noting that he could not “close his eyes and do nothing before”. this terrible phenomenon that our country is facing.

“[The drug trade] causes death and violence in the streets and the destruction of the cream of our young people, who become drug addicts from their teenage years, being exposed to drugs even in their schools. This is done by drug cartels operated sometimes from prisons,” he said.

For Ranjith, such a context seems to find its place in the Catechism’s criteria that capital punishment should be reserved for the final defense of innocent life when other options fail.

In the West, conditions appear to be narrowing the scope of the death penalty, and bishops are responding, which has given the impression, especially after Pope Francis’ comments last year, that the Church could declare the Absolutely unjust death penalty. However, as we have seen recently in Sri Lanka and Tennessee, things are not yet the same everywhere.

This is a good reminder of the importance of understanding the whole perspective of the Church and the importance of distinguishing between teachings which provide criteria through which Catholics must make moral judgments, and teachings which declare that certain actions are , in fact, immoral everywhere and always .

The teaching of the Church on the death penalty expresses, essentially, a criterion according to which the authorities of the State must pass judgments on the just use of the death penalty. While in the developed West the use of the death penalty may, in fact, be almost entirely unnecessary, not all parts of the world are equally developed.

The divergence of views of bishops around the world on this issue reflects the role that circumstances of time and place can play in moral reasoning. It is instructive and it recalls the complex richness and importance of Catholic moral teaching.



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