What Better Way to Celebrate the Defeat of Death Than by Celebrating the Defeat of the Death Penalty?

Published April 12, 2021

On March 24, the eve of the Annunciation, when God entered the world to begin the work of destroying death, the veil that covers all the nations, the State of Virginia joined the civilized world by outlawing the death penalty, to the delight of the Holy Spirit and the intense consternation of the Greatest Catholics of All Time, who lead the charge against Holy Church in the struggle to unnecessarily kill as many people as possible while bragging about being “prolife”. This is an even bigger deal because Virginia was the second biggest killer of prisoners in the United States.

There are two ways for Catholics to look at it. The first way–the sane way–is to rejoice that a stupid, barbaric practice has been abolished. It is a barbaric practice which

  • offers four completely innocent human beings out of a hundred as human sacrifices to …
  • the bloodlust of vengeful MAGA conservatives consumed with lust for the blood of people who do not need to be killed …
  • (all while turning those MAGA conservatives into sworn enemies of the Church in obedience to a false Magisterium of social media mini-popes…
  • and turning executioners into murderers of the innocent and unnecessarily brutal butchers of the guilty.

The second way is to babble “Something something St. Thomas! Let’s keep killing because somethingsomething tradition!”

Here’s the deal. The Magisterium, not some jackanapes in a paper mitre on Twitter, interprets the Tradition. The Church’s Magisterium has definitively called for the abolition of the death penalty and your favorite Folk Hero preferring bloodlust and murder to mercy has absolutely no authority in the matter, even if he has a nice website and published his plea for death with Ignatius Press. It’s over. Roma locuta, causa finita est. More than this, St. Thomas would absolutely have your guts for garters if you ever pitted him against the developed teaching of the Church. St. Thomas also (like a typical Dominican of his day) rejected the Immaculate Conception (as did Third Order Dominican St Catherine of Siena).

Guess what? They were wrong, proving nothing more than the fact that even Michael Jordan misses layups sometimes. Invoking Thomas to attack the Magisterium over the death penalty is typical MAGA cafeteria Catholicism. It is not “prudential judgement” for the simple reason that it absolutely lacks Prudence. Prudential judgment is about how best, not whether, to obey the Church’s teaching. The Church says to abolish the death penalty. Our task is not to ask, “Really though?” It is to ask what part we need to play to accomplish that mission.

The real approach of the Church to killing is simple: Don’t kill people if you don’t have to–and we don’t have to. That is, despite the ignorance of the kill-crazies, ancient Catholic tradition. It’s why the early Church prescribed penances, not death, for murderers.

Three kinds of penance are to be distinguished: canonical, prescribed by councils or bishops in the form of “canons” for graver offenses. This might be either private, i.e., performed secretly, or public, i.e., performed in the presence of bishop, clergy, and people. When accompanied by certain rites as prescribed in the Canons, it was solemn penance. The public penance was not necessarily canonical; it might be undertaken by the penitent of his own accord. Solemn penance, the most severe of all, was inflicted for the worst offenses only, notably for adultery, murder, and idolatry, the “capital sins”. The name of penitent was applied especially to those who performed public canonical penance. “There is a harder and more grievous penance, the doers of which are properly called in the Church penitents; they are excluded from participation in the sacraments of the altar, lest by unworthily receiving they eat and drink judgment unto themselves” (St. Augustine, “De utilitate agendae poenit.”, ser. cccxxxii, c. iii).

As Christians increasingly assumed responsibility for the state instead of fleeing its attempts to kill them, they adopted the mores of the culture. Death became permissible, but never something the Church dogmatically declared to be absolutely necessary. It was to be expected in a violent era. But the Tradition still was ambiguous and resisted it. And in the 20th century, the horrors of state systems which deployed it against the human person to the tune of millions of slaughters–and the irrevocable development of the Church’s teaching on the dignity of the human person at Vatican II–set the Church on a course that has now permanently ratcheted her teaching to the point where the death penalty can no longer be squared with it.

Therefore, “Don’t kill people if you don’t have to–and you don’t have to,” is the Church’s basic position. Those who cry out for death with pleas like “But they have it coming!” seem to be absolutely deaf to the entire meaning of Easter and the conception of grace. Use each man according to his desserts and who shall scape whipping? The Son of God, undergoing unjust capital punishment, forgave his murderers. Who among us, guilty of his innocent blood, has standing to shout “Crucify him!” at another? Standing there blubbering that the undeserving are given grace and mercy and pining for punishment unto death for all who “have it coming” is barbarous. A Catholic who longs to make war on the gospel in order to put himself on a list with Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and the Communist Chinese needs to rethink his life.

Well done, Virginia! May the rest of America follow you soon and end this barbarism once and for all!

31 Responses

  1. Evangelicals have been using Francis’ change in teaching on the DP to undermine infallibility. I think the pope should have the catechism as is

    1. I remember a time when Catholics understood that when Church teaching developed, the response to ignorant Evangelical prattle was to rebut it, not cringe before it. But since conservative Catholics abandoned the teaching of the Magisterium in favor of FOX news talking points and Right Wing Lie Machine babble, they now accuse the Pope instead of learning from him. Repent and learn the Faith.

      1. Mark. I don’t see the point of your reply. I don’t have a tv and don’t watch fox. Even Avery Dulles (who opposed the dp) agreed that an extreme position would undermine church infallibility. If I recall correctly even Catholic Answers has said it was probably a mistake for Francis to do what he did. You can’t dispute Jimmy Akins orthodoxy

      2. Believe it or not, the Magisterium is the Magisterium and not CA or your favorite apologist. It is not “extreme” to say “Don’t kill people if you don’t have to.” It *is* extreme to offer four human sacrifices to Moloch in order to kill 96 other people who need not be killed.

      3. @Rudy

        Today, I had a brief discussion with another Catholic pro death penalty kinda guy.

        He wrote: “ Just think if the guy had followed the LAW and not had expired tags, and if he didn’t try to run and disobey orders from the cops, none of this would have happened. I was raised to follow the law, I was raised if a cop pulls you over-you do it and obey what they tell you. We all know for a fact a lot of these people are raised to run from the cops.”

        I responded:

        “ We all know for a fact a lot of these people are raised to run from the cops.”

        WE don’t know anything of the sort. But given the number of unarmed black people murdered by police officer for the crime of breathing while black, it might possibly be a reflection of their reality.

        WE know that YOU PEOPLE are trying to blame the victim, the same as apologists for Derek Chauvin want to blame George Floyd for his own murder.

        This wasn’t a tragic error by a cop. WE KNOW that there is a world of difference between a taser and a service gun.

  2. This is your first somewhat-political post in something like two weeks. I gather that the near-disappearance of Donald Trump from the public arena has freed you to write about things you really care about, rather than writing to put out fires in the Church.

      1. Holy week without politics was sublime. I really appreciated the poetry you shared. Thank you. We all need more poetry and less death penalty. Anyway hooray for Virginia! Yes Virginia, there is a God.

        When we got back from Seattle I tried to explain you to my daughter-in-law. She is a literary agent who books speaking engagements for (what I would call) left leaning authors. She’s adorable, from the east coast, and has this awesome, kind of snobby literary speaking voice.

        I said, “never underestimate someone who is like a Shakespeare in their heart, but doesn’t have the guile to put on airs.”

  3. As long as the worlds greatest Catholics, aka right-to-life Christians, continue to make a distinction between innocent life and not innocent life— Romans 2 comes to mind, as well as “there is no ome righteous. No, not one.”—they will continue to support the death penalty, or at least be indifferent to it, while proclaiming how right to life that they are.

    Congratulations on producing a political column, mark.

  4. Perhaps someone can explain how this is not a reversal of doctrine. I cannot. I am familiar with St. Vincent of Lérins and his “Commonitory” and with St. John Henry Newman and his “Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine” and have read both works. I am even familiar with bishop Bossuet who lived in centuries between them and seemed to think that, contrary to St. Vincent and St. John Henry Newman, Catholic doctrine does not develop at all. I suppose Bossuet can be forgiven as he lived when Protestant doctrines were still almost ALL inchoate and changing faster than a quickly-turned kaleidoscope so that Catholic doctrine seemed like an insect preserved in amber. Yet I fail to see how in the minds of St. Vincent and St. John Henry Newman, how this is a legitimate development of Catholic doctrine and especially in the mind of Bossuet, how Pope Francis’s declaration is legitimate with respect to prior Catholic teaching.

    1. Since it has never been required that all people guilty of capital crimes be executed, all the Church has done is say, “What we have formerly done sometimes, let us now do always. Don’t kill people if you don’t have to.” No reversal is necessary. Why are you so eager to kill people who do not need to be killed–and to kill innocents in order to kill people who do not need to be killed. And why are you so eager to deny the indefectibility of the Church so you can kill innocents in order to kill those guilty who do not need to be killed.

      1. Mark, I could be wrong, but it sounded to me like Walter Craig’s question was a legitimate request for an answer. I got no impression from reading it that he was “so eager to kill people who do not need to be killed” or “so eager to deny the indefectibility of the Church”. You may know more about this correspondent than I do and can read between the lines on his questions, so to speak. But I saw nothing in his questions except a desire to better understand the issue. I think you may owe him an apology.

      2. Hi Mark. But is the Church so sure that some people will not engineer capital crimes against outsiders from behind bars, kill their jail mates or jail keepers that the Church declares the death penalty “inadmissible?” I don’t think the death penalty should be applied often and am much more willing to accept its rare application. But a declaration that says it is “inadmissible” (as I believe how Pope Francis has been translated) is puzzling given, for example, Pope St. Pius V’s call for it in some cases:

        _________________
        “That horrible crime, on account of which corrupt and obscene cities were destroyed by fire through divine condemnation, causes us most bitter sorrow and shocks our mind, impelling us to repress such a crime with the greatest possible zeal.

        Quite opportunely the Fifth Lateran Council [1512-1517] issued this decree: “Let any member of the clergy caught in that vice against nature, given that the wrath of God falls over the sons of perfidy, be removed from the clerical order or forced to do penance in a monastery” (chap. 4, X, V, 31).

        So that the contagion of such a grave offense may not advance with greater audacity by taking advantage of impunity, which is the greatest incitement to sin, and so as to more severely punish the clerics who are guilty of this nefarious crime and who are not frightened by the death of their souls, we determine that they should be handed over to the severity of the secular authority, which enforces civil law.

        Therefore, wishing to pursue with greater rigor than we have exerted since the beginning of our pontificate, we establish that any priest or member of the clergy, either secular or regular, who commits such an execrable crime, by force of the present law be deprived of every clerical privilege, of every post, dignity and ecclesiastical benefit, and having been degraded by an ecclesiastical judge, let him be immediately delivered to the secular authority to be put to death, as mandated by law as the fitting punishment for laymen who have sunk into this abyss.” (Constitution Horrendum illud scelus, August 30, 1568, in Bullarium Romanum, Rome: Typographia Reverendae Camerae Apostolicae, Mainardi, 1738, chap. 3, p. 33.)
        __________________

        Perhaps I should read Edward Feser’s book on this.

      3. @ walter again

        Funny you should mention that infamous crime against nature not to be mentioned among Christians. I was going to include it in my previous comment, but you did me the favor of presenting it for me.

        It’s the perfect example of where we have grown up more. The infamous crime against nature is only infamous because of religion. It is only a crime because of religion. I think it’s only against nature because the people who proclaimed the supremacy of natural law not are going to be interested in what’s natural.

        As a gay man, my only question is: what about the crime against our nature? That never concerns the people who hide hate, fear, bigotry, stupidity, ignorance, OR THEIR VERY OWN NATURES, behind religious belief. Prisons, murders, executions, beatings, destroyed lives, families and careers were the result of all of that Christian love and Christian understanding.

        It pretty much the entirety of the west, except for a few hell holes in our American Paradise, The law has pretty much lost interest in this “crime against nature“. Only Two things changed: the information that counters the lies that have been told about us for centuries.

        And us- at least the civilized people among us. WE have changed. We stopped listening to the lies, and realized that gay people have always been a part of society, and there is nothing to be gained by continuing the persecution.

    2. @ walter

      I’m having a difficult time determining what the current teaching of the Catholic Church has to do with the death penalty at all. And yes, I realize this is a Catholic blog. Perhaps we need an atheist perspective here.

      I am against the death penalty. Until 1978, I didn’t have too much of an opinion on it one way or the other. By the 1978, and opportunistic politician by the name of John Briggs decided that a pro death penalty and anti-gay initiatives were precisely the ticket to bring him to the governors mansion in California. Fortunately for California, it didn’t work. Unfortunately for California we ended up with the worst death penalty law.

      What is my atheist perspective? We only get one life to live. That’s it. That’s the whole show. We should be very concerned about depriving anyone of their life. I think killing people is wrong, always wrong. I don’t want to kill anybody, I don’t want anybody to kill me, and I don’t want the state killing anyone in my name.

      Who gets to decide who lives and who dies? Who gets to decide who is worthy of death and who is not. We don’t need to kill anybody to show people who kill people that killing people is wrong. Plus, as we know, as the innocence project has shown, not everybody convicted of an offense, let alone a capital offense, is actually guilty.

      Here is the thing about the death penalty. As Mark points out, we don’t need to kill anybody anymore. We have the means of incarcerating them for life, and if it is necessary to protect other incarcerated people, we have the means of keeping them from killing anybody but themselves. Christian morality change to enable killing people? Did morality in general change? Did the Bible change? Did the pope change his mind?

      What about the countries that proclaim themselves super Duper Christian, yet still have a death penalty? What about the states in our country that proclaim themselves super Duper Christian, yet seem to exult and having the state murder people? (Florida and Texas I’m looking at you).

      Here’s a parallel question. Is slavery wrong? Was it always wrong, not always wrong, or in this country, only wrong since the Civil War, when the pro slavery side lost? did the Bible passages that the proslavery people used to justify slavery actually do so? Did those change?

      No, they didn’t change. The morality, the biblical passages, the word of God didn’t change at all. WE CHANGED. We became better people.

      I look at the death penalty in exactly the same way. Not one of the justifications for it has changed. What changed was us. There is absolutely no reason to have a death penalty anymore, not when we have life in prison without the possibility of parole.

      1. Gandalf: “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.”

  5. Ben,

    1. Natural Law is usually said to have originated with the ancient Greeks. Perhaps you can blame its origin on Pagans, but it did not originate with Christians, though Catholics are almost certainly today’s greatest advocates of it.

    2. Catholics, and perhaps other Christians, recognize not merely ONE nature but at least TWO: one integral and one fallen.

    I’m sorry that you feel persecuted. I accept the Natural Law and think it is quite helpful to think of the duofold purposes of human sex according to Natural Law: that sex is intended to be (1) unitive and (2) procreative.

  6. @ walter

    1) Natural law as meant by the greeks is not natural law as meant by the church. The greeks were attempting to understand their world. The church is attempting to control it.

    2) I’m not a member of the club. Been there, didn’t do that. I recognize one human nature— the one that defines us as human— good, bad, indifferent.

    3) I’m sorry that I feel persecuted as well. Well, I actually don’t feel persecuted, except when someone tries to use their feligion as a weapon. I’m even more sorry that that other people, especially young people, are persecuted.

    “I’m sorry that you feel persecuted“ is not actually an apology. “I’m sorry that I…“ Is an apology. “I’m sorry that you…“ Is not an apology. Usually it’s an excuse.

    I could write at length – and I have — about what the church has done and continues to do to gay and trans people. But that wasn’t my point and I have no intention of hijacking the thread for it.

    1. Ben,

      I am glad you won’t hijack the thread. But I will respond to your post.

      No, I am not apologizing in the modern sense of the word. But let me clarify. I’m sorry you disbelieve in the teaching that I accept because I believe it is true. Catholic teaching on human sexuality says a great many things that not only people with same-sex attraction but also those with opposite-sex attraction find unappealing or worse. I can even be broader and say that Catholic teaching in general says a great many things that most people find unappealing: “You mean I am supposed to forgive someone who committed a heinous crime against me?”

      As far as “what the [C]hurch has done and continues to do to gay and trans people,” I feel zero guilt. There were tens of millions of people, many heterosexual but also disproportionately many homosexual, who, had they listened to Catholic teaching, would be alive today instead of having succumbed to the ravages of AIDS. And so-called “trans people” would be immensely better to fight their disabling confusion and reject any “treatments” with an onslaught of opposite-sex hormones and the destruction of their healthy anatomy and physiology.

      1. Ah, screw it. I think I will. Sorry, Mark, but I am quite P.O.’d today. Maybe you guessed.

        From a story from the catholic Register a.

        Catholic bishops actively fought against legislation to create a three-digit number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline because it included support for LGBTQ people.

        Passed last year, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline Designation Act established the number 988 as a quicker way to access lifeline counselors. The nationwide dialing code will be introduced in July 2022, with the current ten-digit number, 1-800-273-TALK (8255), continuing to operate in the meantime.

        The legislation also required LGBTQ cultural competency training for counselors, a voice response option which would allow LGBTQ youth to access specialized care, and LGBTQ resources on the Lifeline website.

        The passage of the National Suicide Prevention Hotline Designation Act also marked the first time that legislation containing pro-LGBTQ provisions has passed both houses of Congress by a unanimous vote.

        But behind the scenes, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops lobbied against the legislation, specifically because it “contained special funding for LGBTQ support,” according to the National Catholic Reporter.

        THERE YOU HAVE TO SINCERITY OF THE PRO-LIFE CHURCH ON PRO-LIFE MATTERS IN A NUTcaseSHELL.

        Better dead kids in general than live gay kids,. And better dead gay and trans kids than anything else.

  7. Ah, skrew it. Sorry, mark. But I am P.O.’d today.

    From the Catholic Register a few weeks ago.

    Catholic bishops actively fought against legislation to create a three-digit number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline because it included support for LGBTQ people.

    Passed last year, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline Designation Act established the number 988 as a quicker way to access lifeline counselors. The nationwide dialing code will be introduced in July 2022, with the current ten-digit number, 1-800-273-TALK (8255), continuing to operate in the meantime.

    The legislation also required LGBTQ cultural competency training for counselors, a voice response option which would allow LGBTQ youth to access specialized care, and LGBTQ resources on the Lifeline website.

    The passage of the National Suicide Prevention Hotline Designation Act also marked the first time that legislation containing pro-LGBTQ provisions has passed both houses of Congress by a unanimous vote. But behind the scenes, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops lobbied against the legislation, specifically because it “contained special funding for LGBTQ support,” according to the National Catholic Reporter.

    THAT PRETTY MUCH SUMS UP THE ABSOLUTE HYPOCRISY OF THE CHURCH ON ANY “MORAL MATTERS”, LET ALONE PRO-LIFE ISSUES.

    Better dead kids than alive and happy gay and trans kids. and better dead gay and trans kids than anything else. The last people on earth I will ever let lecture me on morals is people who claim to speak for god.

  8. No, Mark. I am, however, asking again “is the Church so sure that some people will not engineer capital crimes against outsiders from behind bars, kill their jail mates or jail keepers that the Church declares the death penalty ‘“inadmissible?'”

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