A crucial question for the Greatest Catholics of All Time

Robert Fastiggi ends his look at the development of doctrine on the death penalty with a question that directly targets the central claim of the Greatest Catholics of All Time: that they and they alone are the true paladins of Authentic Catholic doctrine, defending the Church from an apostate pope.

It is a breathtakingly hubristic claim, but one which Reacionaries have been making both implicitly and explicitly for years and which has only gained more currency with increasingly crazy conservatives as they fall prey to the paranoid, reactionary, conspiracy theory culture of MAGA fascism here in the US and via its propaganda organs in conservative media.

Fastiggi is, of course, clear about the absurdity of the Reactionary claim and bracing in his plain Catholic faith:

Obedience to the Roman Pontiff is much more important to the Catholic faith than upholding the right to punish criminals by intentionally killing them. In academic discussions about the death penalty, we sometimes forget that we’re talking about executions, which qualify as direct and intentional killings forbidden by the fifth commandment according to the CCC 2268. I understand on an emotional level how some people might wish for the deaths of those who commit murder or who kill their loved ones. God, however, condemns revenge (Rom 12:19), and retribution is often indistinguishable from revenge on a popular level.

Punishing people by killing them is something ugly and gruesome. This is why canon 18 of Lateran IV (1215) ruled that “no cleric may pronounce a sentence of death, or execute such a sentence, or be present at its execution.”  The 1917 Code of Canon Law likewise regarded a judge who handed down a death sentence as irregular for Holy Orders (canon 984.6).

I hope and pray that Catholics who continue to oppose what the Church now teaches on the death penalty will consider how their opposition—especially if it’s public—injures the Body of Christ. I ask those who have taken the Profession of Faith to ask themselves how their opposition to an authoritative magisterial teaching can be harmonized with their promise to “adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act.” Even if they have difficulties with the present teaching of the Church on the death penalty, they are still required to manifest “religiosum … intellectus et voluntatis obsequium” to the teaching according to canon 752 of the CIC. A religious submission of intellect and will is required because of the God-given authority of the Roman Pontiff and the college of bishops. The teaching authority of the Successor of Peter and the apostles comes from Christ, who told them: “Whoever listens to you, listens to me” (Lk 10:16). If we wish to listen to Christ, let us listen to the Pope and the bishops who teach in his name. Obedience to the Magisterium is much more important to the Catholic faith than the execution of criminals.

Pope St. Nicholas I, pray for us.

I would simply add a quick note to this that Fastiggi, understanding the Pauline principle of being all things to all, is writing an argument tailored to the needs of conservative Catholics, not to everybody’s needs. If you don’t happen to think that fidelity to Catholic tradition is the litmus taste of sanity, you are not going to care if the Church’s magisterium is right about abolishing the death penalty, nor about fidelity to the Magisterium as a measure of your views. But you might care about other criteria as your measuring rod.

So when making similar appeals to wider audiences outside the Catholic fold, I tend to phrase the argument slightly differently (though I think Fastiggi does a fine and very sound job here, given his target audience). I ask, “Is it more important to you to kill the innocent than to spare the guilty?”

Because in ours, the largest prison system in the history of planet earth, the Innocence Project has shown that about 4% of the incarcerated are completely innocent and wrongly convicted. That includes on death row. So “prolife” conservatives who bizarrely cherish the death penalty as somehow a crucial facet of our “traditional Christian heritage” are effectively saying, “We eagerly lust to murder four innocent people in cold blood as human sacrifices to our mindless demand to kill 96 other people who do not need to be killed.”

Even at a level of ordinary pagan practicality, this is stupid. But if the person making this idiot demand claims to be “prolife” it is utterly incoherent and if they layer on top of that the claim to be disciples of Him who said, “Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do” and “Be merciful, even as your Father in heaven is merciful” the incoherence rises to the level of blasphemy. Such people should not wonder when Normals flee them and their “gospel”.

Don’t kill people if you don’t have to. You don’t have to be Catholic to see the sense of that.


4 Responses

  1. You don’t have to like Trump or the Republicans to be cautious and circumspect about this revision to the Catechism. You only have to be suspicious about the relative weight of this nonbinding but worthy of respect teaching of Pope Francis, a man prone to making off the cuff sweeping remarks about many subjects, compared to the non binding but worthy of respect teaching of the Church Fathers. Given the intensity of the political controversy over these subjects in our times, I tend to see merit in resting with what our Fathers thought and waiting for certainty from a successor pontificate.

    The ironic thing about you calling the people who disagree with the revision “The Greatest Catholics of All Time” is that many of those people, including myself, are trying to avoid anything of that sort by looking to our Fathers from the past. I am personally disgusted by war and capital punishment, but I am also dubious about theological novelty that implies we are morally superior to our ancestors. It would be satisfying to me to believe that capital punishment was an intrinsic evil, but I have not read a good rebuttal of Feser’s arguments from the Church Fathers.

    1. It has absolutely nothing to do with the DP being “intrinsically evil”. It has to do with not killing the innocent (ie. wrongly convicted) and not killing the guilty if you don’t have to. And given that the Church Fathers presided over Church’s that assigned penance, not death, to capital criminals, the Church is returning to patristic practice with this move. As to the notion that Francis somehow altered the Catechism on a whim, don’t be silly. He is joined by both JPII and Benedict in frowning on the death penalty. This is a logical development of doctrine. It has nothing to do with being morally superior to our ancestors. It has to do with a perfectly rational development of the Christian commitment to the sanctity of human life.

    2. It might be that suspicion is not the best way to approach the statements of the Pope – just my opinion.

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