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How I Deal With the Pope's Teaching on the Death Penalty

Last week, Pope Francis approved a change to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Longtime readers might recall that my views on the death penalty are a bit nuanced. But I didn’t always have the courage to express it.

In 2014, I wrote:

I don’t buy the idea that the death penalty is no deterrent. I don’t buy the notion that the death penalty should be banned. I think the availability of such a punishment serves its purpose. William F. Buckley said something to the effect, “I can understand society’s occasional need to execute someone, but never to hurt his feelings.” And I don’t like government putting limits on things in general.

I do worry, though, about the ease with which some people sentence others to death in America. I wonder if they protect themselves from disconfirming thoughts about capital punishment, just as I did for almost 40 years. I feel terrible for everyone who’s ever been on a jury and voted for death. I think, “What if, one day, those jurors are confronted with a challenge like I was? How will they live with themselves?”

[You can read the entire post here.]

My conclusion in 2014 was that society should keep available the option of the death penalty and that juries and judges should demand a very high standard before using it. Also, I mentioned that I can’t imagine myself voting for the death penalty as a juror.

You might think, then, that I applaud the change to the Catholic church’s teaching on the subject. Again, though, my thoughts are nuanced.

Instead of writing a bunch of stuff that might or might not be accurate, I encourage you to read Jimmy Akin’s excellent article: Understanding the Catechism Revision on the Death Penalty. Come back here when you’re done to read the rest of this post, please.


Welcome back, friend.

How many times while reading Jimmy’s article did you say “yeah, but … ?”

  * Yeah, but what about the inviolable dignity of the victims?
  * Yeah, but what about the redemption of the victims?
  * Yeah, but what about places that don't have the means to keep society safe? (Like Chicago.)

Those are all great questions. Maybe we can answer them indirectly.

First, remember the three Ps when getting upset:

  1. Personal. Was this done personally to me?
  2. Pervasive. Does this effect everything, every aspect of life, or just a particular part of life?
  3. Permanent. Is this how things will always be, or could they change?

Let’s takek these in reverse order, starting with Permanent.

Jimmy Akin pointed out that the new teaching is subject to change and to interpretation. Many Vatican watchers expect the Congregation for the Doctrine for the Faith to further define the teaching in the near future. And, just as Pope Francis modified Pope St. John Paul’s teaching (which modified Pope Paul VI’s earlier teaching), this pope or a future pope could revise Francis’s teaching. So it’s not permanent.

But is the ruling pervasive? Only to the degree that heinous crime is pervasive. Frankly, I don’t think about hideous crime most of the time. Only when I’m watching a TV show about hideous crime. Or when someone tells me they’re going to Chicago. Maybe you think the death penalty affects every aspect of our existence, but it doesn’t affect my life much at all. Not unless I’m called to a jury on death-penalty case.

Finally, is it personal? To some it is. If you lost a loved one to a horrible murderer, you might consider this a personal slap in the face from the pope. If you’re awaiting trial for a capital offense, you might consider this a personal blessing. But the teaching itself is not personal. Pope Francis wasn’t thinking of the victim’s family. He was thinking more about the jurors. Like St. John Paul II, Francis wanted to relieve jurors of the unimaginable burden of having to sentence a fellow human being to death. And, no matter where you stand on the death penalty, you have to admit that’s a terrible burden.

Second, there’s the question of what to do about the new teaching. This question has a three-part answer:

  1. How to think about the teaching.
  2. What to say about the teaching.
  3. How to behave in light of the teaching

Thinking About the Teaching

Think whatever you like, but think prayerfully. It’s okay to think, “Francis has lost his mind.” But pray on it. Ask the Holy Spirit for the gift of wisdom, understanding, and counsel. Read Jimmy Akin’s article (three times if you have to.) And let not your heart be bothered. Think, but don’t feel. Don’t let your emotions swallow you up. Even if you’re the victim of a capital offense or awaiting trial on a capital charge.

Talking About the Teaching

Be careful. As Jimmy Akin points out, Catholics are required to respect and honor the Magisterium of the Church. Jesus told St. Peter that  “He who hears you, hears me; he who rejects you rejects me, he who rejects me, rejects Him who sent me” (Luke 10. 16). Pope Francis is the heir of Peter’s authority. And Jesus always keeps his promises. Therefore, to publicly attack the teaching is to effectively question Christ’s voracity. And no one wants to do that.

In other words, I will keep my disagreements with the church’s official teachings to myself and in prayers.

Behaving in Light of the Teaching

This one is simple for me. I can’t see myself voting for someone’s execution. When it comes to voting for candidates who support the death penalty, I find no prohibition against it. Unlike abortion, the church has not declared the death penalty intrinsically evil, and I pray it never does.  Until the Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith says otherwise, it looks to me like Catholics can vote for candidates who support the availability of the death penalty.

No matter how you feel about the death penalty and the new Catholic catechism, I hope you will not let your heart be troubled. We know how the story ends, with Our Lady’s foot smashing the head of the serpent. Besides, happiness love company.

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