Imagine the scene in the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives as the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee calls the meeting to order with three decisive blows of the gavel:
A hush falls over the unusually large throng of observers as the presiding legislator greets the star witness and asks him to identify himself, stating his cause, that it may be noted in the official record.
As a barrage of flashbulbs and the rapid fire sound of clicking shutters emanates from the pool of photographers huddled in the media gallery, a voice rings out from the witness table, “I am Charles J. Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia, and I am here to plead for the life of Kermit Gosnell.”
A spectacle such as this, depending upon who you ask, would either be a beautiful witness to Catholic teaching, or a regrettable distortion of the same.
Thanks to a plea deal, however, Kermit Gosnell, who was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder, one count of infanticide, and one count of involuntary manslaughter (among other things) was able to avoid a sentence of death, thereby averting any possibility that the scene just described might actually take place.
That doesn’t mean that people aren’t talking about it, however. On the contrary, the heinous nature of Gosnell’s crimes has brought debate over the fittingness of capital punishment back into spotlight where it belongs.
Catholics are divided on the topic, generally falling into any number of “camps” which includes:
• Those who embrace the John Paul II opinion that short of protecting society from imminent danger the death penalty it is always an affront to human dignity
• Those who reject the death penalty with the belief that it is incompatible with the Christian duty to extend mercy and forgiveness
• Those who believe that life imprisonment, as opposed to a death sentence, is the best, or only, way to allow for the perpetrator’s repentance and conversion
• Those who support the death penalty out of anger and vengeance, sometimes expressed in judgmental fits of rage
And then there is the smallest camp of all:
• Those who have a good working knowledge and appreciation for the well-established Catholic doctrine concerning the State’s right to administer the penalty of death
With this in mind, let’s take a necessarily abbreviated look at the traditional doctrine of the Church on capital punishment, a teaching which remains entirely valid today.
The first thing one should know is that this teaching is founded upon the authority of Sacred Scripture and the witness of sacred Tradition as articulated throughout the centuries.
The Catechism of Trent offers the following concise presentation:
The power of life and death is permitted to certain civil magistrates because theirs is the responsibility under law to punish the guilty and protect the innocent. Far from being guilty of breaking this commandment [Thy shall not kill], such an execution of justice is precisely an act of obedience to it. For the purpose of the law is to protect and foster human life. This purpose is fulfilled when the legitimate authority of the State is exercised by taking the guilty lives of those who have taken innocent lives.
In the Psalms we find a vindication of this right: “Morning by morning I will destroy all the wicked in the land, cutting off all evildoers from the city of the Lord” (Ps. 101:8).
(Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent, 1566, Part III, 5, n. 4)
While the post-conciliar bishops tend to focus almost exclusively on the duty to protect human life (albeit extrapolated to include even the life of the guilty), the traditional approach charges the State also with “fostering” human life; that which cannot be confined to the purely physical alone, but also includes the spiritual life of man.
In overlooking this truth, one can easily lose sight of the reality that proportionate punishment justly rendered can have a purifying effect on the soul, thereby fostering the spiritual life of the guilty.
Also missing from the modern approach is the traditional awareness that the death penalty need not be considered an act of vengeance as so often alleged by its detractors.
The secular power can without mortal sin carry out a sentence of death, provided it proceeds in imposing the penalty not from hatred but with judgment, not carelessly, but with due solicitude. (Pope Innocent III, DS 795/425)
Even in the case of the death penalty the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. Rather public authority limits itself to depriving the offender of the good of life in expiation for his guilt, after he, through his crime, deprived himself of his own right to life. (Pope Pius XII, Address given September 14, 1952)
In a (highly recommended) 2001 article for First Things, Catholicism & Capital Punishment, Cardinal Avery Dulles offered an in-depth treatment of the topic in which the eminent theologian stated:
Summarizing the verdict of Scripture and tradition, we can glean some settled points of doctrine. It is agreed that crime deserves punishment in this life and not only in the next. In addition, it is agreed that the State has authority to administer appropriate punishment to those judged guilty of crimes and that this punishment may, in serious cases, include the sentence of death … The Catholic magisterium does not, and never has, advocated unqualified abolition of the death penalty.
Contrast this with the condescending comments offered by Tommaso Di Ruzza, a “desk officer” at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, who said in a recent Catholic News Service interview, “It is not a message that is immediately understood - that there is no room for supporting the death penalty in today's world.”
This particular viewpoint, while a substantial departure from the authentic doctrine of the Church, also happens to be shared by many, including even the majority of bishops.
Archbishop Chaput, for example, wrote in a recent column:
Even when a defendant is well defended, properly tried and justly found guilty, experience shows that capital punishment simply doesn’t work as a deterrent. Nor does it heal or redress any wounds, because only forgiveness can do that. It does succeed though in answering violence with violence — a violence wrapped in the piety of state approval, which implicates all of us as citizens in the taking of more lives.
Though well in keeping with the mindset of recent popes, the archbishop’s remarks are at odds with the traditional teaching on a number of important points, including the fact that capital punishment is not best considered as an attempt by the State to deter the commission of similar crimes in the future.
Secondly, as a matter of proportionate punishment, the death penalty is properly understood in Catholic teaching as an attempt to redress and to heal spiritual wounds.
Thirdly, when the civil authority lawfully carries out the death penalty, it not a de facto act of violence, much less is it “wrapped in the piety of State approval” inasmuch as the authority to carry out such acts comes not from the State itself, nor from its people, but from God.
Lastly, “forgiveness” and capital punishment are not mutually exclusive as the archbishop implies. Forgiving those who trespass against us is indeed an occasion of healing for the forgiver, but not necessarily so for the forgiven, whereas just punishment, duly accepted by those who deserve it, is.
For instance, St. Thomas Aquinas affirmed that the death penalty, inasmuch as it is proportionate retribution justly rendered, can have a purgatorial effect on the guilty that carries with it a powerful impetus for conversion.
All of this said, one wonders what caused our churchmen to move so far away, so quickly, from well-established Catholic teaching on the matter.
The most common answer, it seems, lies in the assertion that modern man (understood as referring to those living in the age of post-conciliar enlightenment) has a deeper understanding of human dignity than did previous generations.
Cardinal Dulles, however, didn’t believe it.
Arguments from the progress of ethical consciousness have been used to promote a number of alleged human rights that the Catholic Church consistently rejects in the name of Scripture and tradition. The magisterium appeals to these authorities as grounds for repudiating divorce, abortion, homosexual relations, and the ordination of women to the priesthood. If the Church feels herself bound by Scripture and tradition in these other areas, it seems inconsistent for Catholics to proclaim a “moral revolution” on the issue of capital punishment.
So, if not the product of a moral awakening, what then accounts for this rapid journey away from the traditional Catholic position on capital punishment?
In my estimation, the answer is twofold, relatively simple, and radically disturbing.
Throughout the post-conciliar period, the hierarchy’s preaching has reflected a hyper-inflated sense of human dignity that has obscured a number of important truths that weigh heavily in the Church’s traditional understanding of capital punishment as a matter of justice. Among them, the fact that human dignity can be diminished and even lost, and the very closely related understanding that human dignity is not possessed in equal measure by all. (A principle treated in greater detail in this column.)
As such, clergy and laity alike have largely fallen into the error of believing that when the State takes the life of a murderer, it is essentially repeating his crime, and this brings us to the second factor; namely, the distorted post-conciliar view of the State.
From the time of Vatican Council II and the promulgation of Dignitatis Humanae, the Church has refrained from preaching the immutable truth that the State derives its authority neither from constitutions nor the will of the people, but from Almighty God to whom the State is beholden, regardless of the particular form of government in which it operates.
Lost in the murkiness is the Catholic understanding of the civil authority as a representative of God, and whose authority is reflective of the hierarchical order that the Lord established within creation.
As such, it is no longer clear in the minds of moderns that the death penalty can indeed be visited upon the guilty, by the State, not simply as a means of protecting others, but as a means of visiting retributive justice upon the guilty in the name of God, thereby rendering a genuine and valuable service to the common good.
Needless to say, opinions will continue to vary as to whether or not the likes of Kermit Gosnell justly deserve the death penalty. I can accept that.
What I will not accept without protest, however, are opinions that are based upon a distorted representation of Catholic doctrine, especially when such are put forth by our bishops.
Author and speaker Louie Verrecchio was a columnist for Catholic News Agency from April 2009 to 2013. His work, which includes Year of Faith resources like the Harvesting the Fruit of Vatican II Faith Formation Series, has been endorsed by Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia; Bishop Emeritus Patrick O’Donoghue of Lancaster, England; Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City, IA, USA and others. For more information please visit: www.harvestingthefruit.com