The Horns of the Death Penalty Dilemma

This article is not going to be another attempt to prove that the Catholic Church has always (and indeed infallibly) taught the permissibility of the death penalty under certain circumstances. That project has already been done many times,[1] and I have written about it at length elsewhere.[2] Rather, I would like to focus on the dilemma into which those who attempt to defend Pope Francis’s novel teaching on the death penalty—reflected in an official change to the Catechism—necessarily fall. The pro-Francis apologists can’t possibly “win” in this scenario.

For either:

(A) Pope Francis is attempting to change the constant teaching of the Church—or, more precisely, of Scripture and Tradition—that the death penalty is not intrinsically immoral, and indeed is justifiable and justified under certain circumstances; or (B) He is “merely” stating that there is no longer any possible prudential situation in the entire world in which the death penalty may be justified in order to defend the common good of society from malefactors.[3]

It’s pretty obvious that if (A) is the case, then the pope is at least materially heretical.

However, if (B) is the correct interpretation, he is equally in error, because not even the most extreme ultramontanist imaginable ever maintained that the papacy is endowed with a political prudence superior to and inclusive of the political prudence of all princes, presidents, prime ministers, parliaments, legislatures, and courts of the entire world, such that he is capable of knowing, in detail, what is right and just in every possible social circumstance. (Heck, during the era of the Papal States no one ever said that the pope was guaranteed to know what is politically expedient for the Papal States, let alone for the rest of the globe!) Moral actions are, after all, always about the particular: one can act only in the hic et nunc, with all of its circumstances. It would be nonsense to say “generally speaking, the death penalty is never admissible in any case, but there might be exceptions.”

In short, if someone believes the death penalty to be prudentially inadvisable in given circumstances, then he can never hold it to be “inadmissible” simply speaking; while if he believes the death penalty is intrinsically immoral, he is no longer a Catholic. Thus, either Pope Francis is unjustly absorbing and arrogating to himself all secular power, with all the practical knowledge and political prudence on which it rests; or he is abrogating Divine Law and Natural Law.

Gravely wrong, and harmfully wrong, either way.

The Church has taught, from the New Testament and Pope Gelasius through Pope Leo XIII and the Second Vatican Council, that God has instituted two powers: the sacred and the temporal, or, in shorthand, the Church and the State. They have separate spheres of authority, albeit with overlapping terrain (e.g., marriage is rightly a concern of both Church and State). Now, when the Church teaches authoritatively about moral universals (e.g., that abortion and euthanasia are intrinsically evil), the State is obliged to accept her determinations—if perchance the light of reason in its rulers is not strong enough to arrive at them independently. The fact that most States ignore or contradict the Church’s moral teaching will redound to their harm and eventual dissolution.[4]

However, this moral teaching must be about things that can be universalized, i.e., it is ALWAYS right or wrong to do such-and-such. Once one enters into matters where prudential determinations on the political common good must be made on the basis of local circumstances (e.g., how good prisons are, how reliable the police are, how well the penal process works, etc.), the State has the primary and direct responsibility, and it would be contrary to the nature of the Church and her authority—and this, according to the magisterium itself!—for a pope or bishop to arrogate to himself this prudential domain. It would be pure theocracy at that point, which has never been the Church’s teaching.[5]

The only rare exception would be when a particular political entity happens to be run by the pope (as were the Papal States and as is the current Vatican City) or by a bishop (as in the archepiscopal principalities formerly found in Europe, e.g., in Salzburg, whose Prince-Archbishop once had Mozart thrown down the stairs). There and there alone, the Church and State authorities are fused; yet this is a de facto fusion, not one that is demanded by the nature of things. Obviously in 99% of cases, the Church and State authorities are separate—and this, moreover, by the wisdom of Divine Providence, as so clearly laid out in Catholic teaching from Pope Gelasius I’s Duo Sunt to Pope Leo XIII’s Immortale Dei.

So, once again, if Francis means to teach universally about the evil of the death penalty, we are dealing either with a claim about its intrinsic evil—which cannot be sustained against 2,000 years of Catholic teaching on the subject, not to mention the witness of Divine Revelation—or with a claim about its always-and-everywhere imprudence of application, which is simply not the pope’s judgment to make without seizing all actual civil authority and political prudence into his own hands, in a theocratic monism that would make even Innocent III or Boniface VIII blush.

The question may be raised: “Does Church teaching say anything about the circumstances under which the death penalty is justifiable? Or are those circumstances left entirely to the reasoning of the lawgiver?” The answer is yes. One can find indications in magisterial texts of how capital punishment should be regulated and administered, and of course one can find indications that its use should be minimized (that was John Paul II’s and Benedict XVI’s line). But it still belongs to the nature of ethical reasoning that these indications would be about general circumstances, taking the form of “In such and such cases (e.g., where excellent prison systems and a reliable penal process are available), the death penalty should be avoided.” Actual ethical choices are always about particulars and must be assessed according to particulars, by those divinely empowered to assess them.[6]

This is why Cardinal Ratzinger, acting as head of the Holy Office, confirmed in 2004 (in the context of the US presidential election) that a Catholic can disagree with the pope (then John Paul II) about the death penalty and just war, but not about abortion and euthanasia.

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