Reactionary Dissent on the Death Penalty

Robert Fastiggi continues his look at the development of the Church’s teaching on the death penalty (and the bizarre phenomenon of Reactionary dissenters who devote their energies to fighting the Church on this point (usually while swanning around as the most supremely “prolife” people in the Church)):

There are finally some Catholics, like Fr. Gerald Murray, JCD, who simply reject Pope Francis’s teaching on the death penalty because they think it’s wrong. During the October 8, 2020 episode of The World Over program on EWTN, the “papal posse” of Fr. Murray, Robert Royal, and Raymond Arroyo discuss Pope Francis’s encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. Between the 15:30 and 18:40 minute mark of the segment, Fr. Murray discusses what Pope Francis teaches about the death penalty, and he makes some assertions that are simply incorrect. For example, he says that if someone takes the life of another, he loses his own right to life. This, though, directly contradicts what John Paul II teaches in Evangelium Vitae 9. Fr. Murray also claims that the teaching of the Church has been unanimous in its approval of the death penalty, stating explicitly, “the death penalty is legitimate.” As we have seen, this is not the case in light of Pope Nicholas I’s 866 Letter to the Bulgarians as well as various Patristic statements. Fr. Murray repeats the false claim that the term “inadmissible” has no theological meaning, and he states that John Paul II—although he was against the death penalty—never called it immoral. Fr. Murray apparently is unaware that St. John Paul II referred to the death penalty as “cruel and unnecessary” in his homily of January 27, 1999 in St. Louis. Is not something cruel also immoral?

The most disturbing aspect of Fr. Murray’s discussion of Fratelli Tutti’s teaching on the death penalty is his utter lack of any respect toward the teaching authority of Pope Francis. Fr. Murray assumes a posture of knowledge and authority on the subject, and he actually states that Pope Francis has no authority to change the “perennial teaching” of the Church on the death penalty. For a Catholic priest to manifest such public opposition to the teachings of a papal encyclical is most disturbing if not scandalous. At the very least, Fr. Murray should make an effort to understand and appreciate what the Holy Father is saying. Instead, he manifests complete disdain for the teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, and publicly contradicts a papal teaching. Fr. Murray completely fails to give religious submission of will and intellect to a teaching of the ordinary Magisterium, which is required by Lumen Gentium 25, and canon 752 of the 1983 CIC. If a priest or theologian can reject any magisterial teaching with which he disagrees, then the Magisterium loses its authority altogether.

The CDF, in its 1990 instructionDonum Veritatis, notes that “it is one of the theologian’s tasks to give a correct interpretation to the texts of the Magisterium and to this end he employs various hermeneutical rules. Among these is the principle which affirms that Magisterial teaching, by virtue of divine assistance, has a validity beyond its argumentation, which may derive at times from a particular theology” (no. 34). Some of the Catholic critics of the revised teaching on the death penalty believe they must be convinced of the truth of the teaching before they can give assent to it. Donum Veritatis 28 states that a disagreement with a magisterial teaching “could not be justified if it were based solely upon the fact that the validity of the given teaching is not evident or upon the opinion that the opposite position would be the more probable.” If assent to magisterial teachings requires being convinced by the arguments, then the Magisterium is reduced to no more than a partner in debate rather than the Church’s teaching authority.

Two things strike me about the subculture at work here, both of which I discuss in my book THE CHURCH’S BEST-KEPT SECRET.

The first is the extremely consistent habit Reactionary dissenters have of telling us we have to “focus on abortion” while in fact focusing their energies, not on abortion, but on making war on the Church’s teaching in almost every other area of Catholic teaching that defends human lives they think less important. The second is the radically defective understanding of “prudential judgment” routinely deployed by Reactionary dissenters in order to fight the Church on every piece of moral guidance she gives the faithful not to the taste of right wing blood lust:

The argument works, or seems to work, this way: Why should we spend time and energy on things like capital pun­ishment or deportation or the fact that the United States is now a gigantic prison state when 1.5 million babies are dying each year? The same objection is typically advanced for nearly everything listed above. All these things are (goes the objection) “prudential judgments” and not gravely and intrinsically immoral as abortion is; therefore we can pass over them and, as the saying goes, “focus on abortion, which is non-negotiable.”

But the problem with this approach… is that the Church’s teach­ings about these issues are not really passed over in favor of defending the unborn by those who use such language. On the contrary, the Church’s teachings are actively opposed by those who claim to, but do not, “focus on abortion.”

Here’s the deal: There is plenty of room in the Church’s tradition for specialization and focusing on specific issues, needs, and ills. Dominicans specialize in preaching. The Sisters of Providence specialize in healing and building hospitals. Jesuits found schools, and so forth. As Paul says, different members of the body do different things (see 1 Corinthians 12). So somebody who truly wants to focus on abortion and the protection of human life from conception to birth is perfectly free to do so.

But healthy members of the Body of Christ do not declare that other members “dilute the brand” by focusing on other issues or by caring about multiple issues at once. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Corinthians 12:21).

Somebody who says “We need to address the sadistic cruelty being meted out to refugee chil­dren, snatched from their parents at the border and disap­peared into a concentration camp system that cannot even figure out how to unite them with those parents again” is not “diluting the brand” of the Church’s teaching, nor “dis­tracting” from abortion. They are simply being consistent about the Dignity of the Human Person from conception to natural death.

Likewise, the person who is fighting to uphold the Church’s teaching about the necessity of a living wage—a teaching as old as James 5 and the basis of the Church’s tradition that depriving the worker of his wages is a sin that cries to Heaven for vengeance, exactly like murder—is not somehow “distracting” from abortion. Indeed, one crucial point of the Church’s insistence on economic justice is that families cannot happen if people cannot afford to marry and have kids. Poverty, in fact, is the #1 abortifacient. A living wage is crucial to our dignity and to the foundation of families.

Another related issue is capital punishment. Recently, Pope Francis—echoing a call for the abolition of the death penalty also sounded by Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI—formally changed the Catechism to read:

Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, 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. (CCC 2267)

This development definitively places the good of the human person over mere judicial retribution and says, in effect, that if we do not have to kill somebody we should not do it, even if they have it coming—especially since about 4% of our prison population (the largest on Earth) are wrongly convicted. Fighting this development in the Church’s teaching not only means killing people unneces­sarily, but killing innocents in order to do it and (no small thing as well), turning ourselves into people who are willing to kill innocents in order to kill the guilty unnecessarily.

“But these are all prudential judgments,” returns the Focus-on-Abortion interlocutor. “Aren’t we free to disagree with the Church on prudential matters?”

Actually, no. We are not free to ignore, or worse, oppose the Church’s guidance without very grave cause. It is vital to remember that “prudential judgment” concerns not whether, but how best to implement the Church’s whole teaching. If your focus is on abortion, fine. Focus on it. But do not pretend to focus on it while actually spending your time and energy fighting against the Magisterium and in favor of capital punishment, fighting against Laudato Si’ and in favor of policies that harm the environment, fighting against a living wage and in favor of laissez faire capitalism (condemned since Rerum Novarum was written in the 1890s), fighting against a century’s worth of mag­isterial calls for universal health care and denouncing the Church as “socialist” to shout down that call. None of that is “focusing on abortion” and none of it is prudential judg­ment. It is weaponizing the unborn in order to fight the rest of the Church’s teaching by making the unborn the opposite of and competitor to all the human lives harmed and even killed by sins in these other areas.


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