Recently, Where Peter Is ran a series on the death penalty…

…or, more specifically, on the Church’s move to demand the abolition of the death penalty. Here’s a taste of the first piece, but do read the whole thing:

The truths of Scripture and tradition are certainly essential, but who has the authority to determine the context, meaning, and ongoing applicability of Scripture? It is the Magisterium of the Church not a group of scholars and clerics. The Council of Trent teaches that it belongs to Holy Mother the Church “to judge the true meaning and interpretation of Scripture—and that no one may dare to interpret the Scripture in a way contrary to the unanimous consensus of the Fathers, even if such interpretations are not intended for publication … .” (Denz.-H 1507). The signers of the appeal no doubt will claim that the unanimous consensus of the Fathers is that the death penalty is legitimate. This position, though, has been rejected by Pope Francis in his October 3, 2020 encyclicalFratelli Tutti, no. 265, when he correctly notes: “From the earliest centuries of the Church, some were clearly opposed to capital punishment,” and he cites Lactantius (240–320), Pope Nicholas I (c. 820–867), and Augustine (354–430) as examples. The Orthodox Patristic scholar, David Bentley Hart, has likewise challenged Feser and Bessette’s interpretation of the Church Fathers on the death penalty.

With regard to Scripture, the signers of the appeal cite Genesis 9:6, but it’s worth noting that Feser and Bessette do not cite a single papal invocation of this Scripture in support of capital punishment. Moreover, this Scripture—“whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed”—can actually be used against the death penalty since the death penalty involves killing. In fact, Benedict XVI, in his 2012 Post-Synodal Exhortation, Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, n. 26 cites Genesis 9:6 as evidence that God forbids the killing of even those who commit murder: “God wants life, not death. He forbids all killing, even of those who kill (cf. Gen 4:15-16; 9:5-6; Ex 20:13).”[2] In Fratelli Tutti, 270, Pope Francis cites Gen 9:6 in his section against the death penalty for this Scripture stands as a warning to “those tempted to yield to violence in any form.”

The signers to the appeal claim that “the Church holds that Scripture cannot teach moral error.” They forget, though, that the Church recognizes that the books of the Old Testament contain some things that “are incomplete and temporary” (Vatican II, Dei Verbum, 15). St. Thomas Aquinas also distinguished the precepts of the Old Law as moral, ceremonial, and judicial (ST I-II, q. 99, a. 5). Although the moral law (e.g. the Decalogue) is permanent, the ceremonial laws no longer apply, and the judicial laws, as time-bound ordinances for the ancient Israelites, do not bind forever (ST I-II, q. 104, a. 3). The Old Testament allows for slaves purchased from aliens to be owned as property or chattel (Lev 25:45). In 2 Sam 12:8, God tells David: “I gave you your lord’s house and your lord’s wives as your own.” The Council of Trent, in canon 2 of its Doctrine on Marriage, however, anathematizes those who say it is lawful “for Christians to have several wives at the same time” (Denz.-H, 1802). Yes, the Old Testament does call for executions, but Jewish scholars and rabbis were later reluctant to sanction the death penalty. Rabbi Elizar ben Ashariah (c. 100 A.D.) said a council “is to be called murderous if it carries out an execution once in seventy years.”[3] According to L.I. Rabinowitz, “the whole tendency of the rabbis was toward the complete abolition of the death penalty.”[4]

In the New Testament, there does not seem to be any explicit support for capital punishment as a practice that must always be allowed. Yes, Jesus, in the parable of the Tenants, speaks about the owner of the vineyard putting to death those who kill his son (Mt 21:33–41, Lk 20: 9–14, Mk 12:1–12), but Jesus is providing a parable that conforms to the cultural norms of the day. When Jesus directly confronts the case of an adulterous woman—who should be executed according to the Mosaic Law—He says: “Let the one among you who is without sin, be the first to cast a stone at her” (Jn 8:7). This recognition of sin provides an argument against executions. Jesus also teaches that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (cf. Mt 5:44). In light of this passage, Pope Francis teaches that the death penalty “directly concerns the denial of the love for enemies preached by the Gospel.”[5] Do we love our enemies by intentionally killing them?

I know supporters of capital punishment love to cite Rom 13:4, which says that the civil authority “does not bear the sword without purpose.” This passage, though, only supports the penal power of the State. It does not directly endorse executions. In his Feb. 5, 1955 “Address to the Italian Association of Catholic Jurists,” Pius XII cites Rom 13:4, but he does not see it as directly endorsing capital punishment. Instead, he says that this text and other sources “do not refer to the concrete contents of individual juridical prescriptions or rules of actions, but to the essential foundation itself of penal power and its immanent finality’ (non si riferiscono al contenuto concreto di singole prescrizioni giuridiche o regole di azione ma al fondamento stesso essenziale della potestà penale e della sua immanente finalità) [AAS 47 (1955), 81].

The signers of the appeal to the Cardinals are worried that the change to the Catechism could give the impression “that the Church considers, contrary to the Word of God, that capital punishment is intrinsically evil.” The Old Testament, though, allowed for the ownership of slaves, but the Church now recognizes slavery as intrinsically evil (cf. Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, 27 and John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 80). The Old Testament not only tolerated polygamy, but it shows God enabling it in 2 Sam 12:8. The signers do not seem to realize that the Magisterium of the Church can forbid something that is not intrinsically evil.[6] If polygamy was allowed in the Old Testament, can it be said to be intrinsically evil? St. Thomas Aquinas taught that a man having several wives was not against the natural law with regard to the good of offspring, but it was against the goods of fidelity and sacrament (ST Suppl, q. 65, a. 1). The Council of Trent, as we have seen, anathematized those who said it was lawful for Christians to have several wives at the same time (Denz.-H, 1802). Trent teaches that polygamy is prohibited by divine law even though it was tolerated in the Old Testament. Just as there is a development of doctrine in Catholic theology so there is development and maturation in the revelation of God’s law in Scripture. In the CDF’s 2018 letter to the bishops explaining the revision of CCC, 2267, this important point is made in footnote 12:

In reference to the death penalty, treating the stipulations of the precepts of the Decalogue, the Pontifical Biblical Commission spoke of the “refinement” of the moral positions of the Church: “In the course of history and of the development of civilization, the Church too, meditating on the Scriptures, has refined her moral stance on the death penalty and on war, which is now becoming more and more absolute. Underlying this stance, which may seem radical, is the same anthropological basis, the fundamental dignity of the human person, created in the image of God.” (The Bible and Morality: Biblical Roots of Christian Conduct, 2008, n. 98).

The signers of the appeal to the Cardinals accuse Pope Francis of contradicting Sacred Scripture. This accusation, though, is based on an inadequate understanding of how the Church develops and refines her moral positions in light of a deeper understanding of the Bible. The signers also fail to understand that they are placing their interpretation of the Word of God above that of the Roman Pontiff and the Magisterium. Vatican II, in Dei Verbum, 12, teaches that the interpretation of Scripture “is subject finally to the judgment of the Church, which carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God.” In CCC, 2267, we now read: “Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel (Ecclesia, sub Evangelii luce, docet), that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.” The Church teaches that the death penalty is inadmissible “in light of the Gospel.” Do the signers of the appeal believe the Church has the authority to interpret the light of the Gospel or do they not? If they believe that their authority to interpret the Bible is superior to that of the Church, they are contradicting the teachings of the Council of Trent (Denz.-H, 1507) and Vatican II (Dei Verbum, 12).

What this goes back to is the Reactionary attempt to foment civil war in the Church (redolent of the conservative attempt to foment civil war in the United States) that has been fighting Vatican II for 50+ years and is now in nearly open rebellion against this Pope. Wrong about everything, this reactionary movement continually manages to batten on the worst things in the world and make them their hill to die on, including the bizarre lust to make sure as many death row prisoners die as possible, even when it means killing wrongly convicted prisoners as human sacrifices in order to kill people who do not need to be killed. For this consummately stupid goal, Reactionaries have chosen to go to war with Francis.

Of which more tomorrow.


2 Responses

  1. As a non American I can’t wrap my head around the rabid desire for the death penalty. Even my most conservative family members who lean towards US conservatives on most issues, find the love of the death penalty to be off.

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