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May 31-June 2, 2002
volume 13, no. 101

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The Humanism of
John Paul II
    Part Eight:
    On Death and Life (I)

The true Catholic stance on the Death Penalty has been locked up these days as we hear post-conciliarists preaching against it without realizing what the Church really says. In incarcerating the truths they greatly cloud the Pro-Life issue and dilute the force of stopping abortion. Why don't they realize authentic Roman Catholic teaching has always backed up the necessity of protecting others through just punishment of those who have no regard for the moral law and would mortally harm others? Could it be because it is not politically correct today?

    "Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and former presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan both affirmed that the death penalty is in harmony with Catholic teaching, and that Pope John Paul II was simply wrong in his condemnation of capital punishment. Quickly they were denounced as "dissidents" and "disloyal to the Pope" and "not real Catholics" by none other than one of the more promising of U.S. Bishops - Denver's Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap. because they were opposing the Pope's novelty! It is unbelievable! We've come so far in this post-conciliar mess that those who believe exactly as everyone did until 1958 are now labeled dissidents! Amazing! The Pope is the one who departs from perennial Catholic teaching, and those who uphold it are denounced as dissenters! This is simply staggering! Welcome to Catholicism 2002!"

   One of the positive characteristics of our present Supreme Pontiff is his firm stand against abortion. He has, thank God, completely retained the perennial Catholic teaching that killing the unborn intentionally is always mortally sinful. In fact, automatic excommunication (latae sententiae) applies to anyone who takes part in an abortion. In the post-conciliar era, excommunication for people other than traditionalists is something virtually absent, and so this firm stand of Pope John Paul II against abortion and in favor of automatic excommunication for anyone participating in it is entirely laudable and something we must thank God for.

   Unfortunately, however, John Paul II's preservation of Catholic teaching on abortion comes with a price: he also insists that as abortion is morally wrong, by the same token, so is capital punishment.

   It seems it is too much to ask a post-conciliar Pope to be entirely in line with previous Church teaching at least in one area. While John Paul rightly opposes abortion with his whole being, so he also abhors the death penalty. The problem is this: unlike abortion, the death penalty as such had never been condemned by the Church until the pontificate of Pope John Paul II.

   The difference in pre-conciliar teaching on the death sentence with what is now being set before us is so striking that even so-called "conservative" Catholics (e.g. Mother Angelica, Karl Keating, Scott Hahn, and the Wanderer crowd), which we now refer to as "Neo-Catholics," admit the teaching has changed. However, they claim that the teaching has merely "developed."

   Not too long ago, a more public discussion ensued about the death penalty and Catholicism as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and former presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan both affirmed that the death penalty is in harmony with Catholic teaching, and that Pope John Paul II was simply wrong in his condemnation of capital punishment. Quickly they were denounced as "dissidents" and "disloyal to the Pope" and "not real Catholics" by none other than one of the more promising of U.S. Bishops - Denver's Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap. because they were opposing the Pope's novelty! It is unbelievable! We've come so far in this post-conciliar mess that those who believe exactly as everyone did until 1958 are now labeled dissidents! Amazing! The Pope is the one who departs from perennial Catholic teaching, and those who uphold it are denounced as dissenters! This is simply staggering! Welcome to Catholicism 2002!

   But now, take a deep breath.

   In what follows, I will demonstrate the following:

  • that the Church has perennially endorsed capital punishment as legitimate under certain circumstances
  • that capital punishment has nothing to do with "a lack of forgiveness or mercy" or with revenge
  • how the Newchurch is slowly trying to change the Church's position on capital punishment, now even attempting to make it a "Pro-Life" issue
  • how the new stance on the death penalty of Pope John Paul II and the Newchurch is based on a distorted and exaggerated view of human dignity ("humanism")
  • that the Neocatholic claims that a "development of doctrine" has occurred are false, most easily demonstrated using the New Catechism, which changed its teaching within a mere 5 years from its first to its second edition!

   So then, let us set out on our course and begin with the first point, namely, that the Church has always considered capital punishment a moral option for particularly heinous crimes.

I. Perennial Church Teaching on the Death Penalty

   The Catholic acceptance of the death penalty as a legitimate means of punishment for very severe crimes is perennial. The legitimacy of capital punishment is rooted in the Old Testament, of course, which hardly needs mention, for anyone who's read even a little bit of the Old Testament knows that death was a sentence justly inflicted for certain crimes, commanded by God Himself (Genesis 9:6; Exodus 22:18; Psalm 100:8; etc.).

   As far as the New Testament is concerned, there, too, we find an endorsement of capital punishment:

    "Let every soul be subject to higher powers. For there is no power but from God: and those that are ordained of God. Therefore, he that resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of God. And they that resist purchase to themselves damnation. For princes are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good: and thou shalt have praise from the same. For he is God's minister to thee, for good. But if thou do that which is evil, fear: for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is God's minister: an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil" -Romans 13:1-4
   That is pretty straightforward. In addition, we do well to recall that "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23), and that somebody who kills another human being unjustly deserves to die himself. Remember that the words of Holy Scripture are divinely inspired. If St. Paul had thought capital punishment to be incompatible with the Gospel, he would hardly have written these lines. Other Scripture passages from the New Testament that can be used to show the legitimacy of capital punishment are John 19:11 and 1 Peter 2:13.

   St. Augustine wrote in the fifth century A.D. in his monumental City of God:

    The same divine law which forbids the killing of a human being allows certain exceptions, as when God authorizes killing by a general law or when He gives an explicit commission to an individual for a limited time. Since the agent of authority is but a sword in the hand, and is not responsible for the killing, it is in no way contrary to the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill" to wage war at God's bidding, or for the representatives of the State's authority to put criminals to death, according to law or the rule of rational justice. (qtd. in Cardinal Avery Dulles, "Catholicism and Capital Punishment," First Things, April 2001)

   In 1210, Pope Innocent III maintained against the Waldensians: "Concerning secular power we declare that without mortal sin it is possible to exercise a judgment of blood as long as one proceeds to bring punishment not in hatred but in judgment, not incautiously but advisedly" (Denzinger 425).

   Of course, the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, also wrote about the death penalty in his phenomenal Summa Theologica, Part II-II, Q. 64, art. 2. On the question of whether it is lawful to kill a sinner, he responded as follows, first giving three objections to the Catholic view, then giving and explaining the Catholic view, and then refuting the specific objections given at the beginning:

    Objection 1. It would seem unlawful to kill men who have sinned. For our Lord in the parable (Mt. 13) forbade the uprooting of the cockle which denotes wicked men according to a gloss. Now whatever is forbidden by God is a sin. Therefore it is a sin to kill a sinner.

    Objection 2. Further, human justice is conformed to Divine justice. Now according to Divine justice sinners are kept back for repentance, according to Ezech. 33:11, "I desire not the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live." Therefore it seems altogether unjust to kill sinners.

    Objection 3. Further, it is not lawful, for any good end whatever, to do that which is evil in itself, according to Augustine (Contra Mendac. vii) and the Philosopher (Ethic. ii, 6). Now to kill a man is evil in itself, since we are bound to have charity towards all men, and "we wish our friends to live and to exist," according to Ethic. ix, 4. Therefore it is nowise lawful to kill a man who has sinned.

    On the contrary, It is written (Ex. 22:18): "Wizards thou shalt not suffer to live"; and (Ps. 100:8): "In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land."

    I answer that, As stated above . . ., it is lawful to kill dumb animals, in so far as they are naturally directed to man's use, as the imperfect is directed to the perfect. Now every part is directed to the whole, as imperfect to perfect, wherefore every part is naturally for the sake of the whole. For this reason we observe that if the health of the whole body demands the excision of a member, through its being decayed or infectious to the other members, it will be both praiseworthy and advantageous to have it cut away. Now every individual person is compared to the whole community, as part to whole. Therefore if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since "a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump" (1 Cor. 5:6).

    Reply to Objection 1. Our Lord commanded them to forbear from uprooting the cockle in order to spare the wheat, i.e. the good. This occurs when the wicked cannot be slain without the good being killed with them, either because the wicked lie hidden among the good, or because they have many followers, so that they cannot be killed without danger to the good, as Augustine says (Contra Parmen. iii, 2). Wherefore our Lord teaches that we should rather allow the wicked to live, and that vengeance is to be delayed until the last judgment, rather than that the good be put to death together with the wicked. When, however, the good incur no danger, but rather are protected and saved by the slaying of the wicked, then the latter may be lawfully put to death.

    Reply to Objection 2. According to the order of His wisdom, God sometimes slays sinners forthwith in order to deliver the good, whereas sometimes He allows them time to repent, according as He knows what is expedient for His elect. This also does human justice imitate according to its powers; for it puts to death those who are dangerous to others, while it allows time for repentance to those who sin without grievously harming others.

    Reply to Objection 3. By sinning man departs from the order of reason, and consequently falls away from the dignity of his manhood, in so far as he is naturally free, and exists for himself, and he falls into the slavish state of the beasts, by being disposed of according as he is useful to others. This is expressed in Ps. 48:21: "Man, when he was in honor, did not understand; he hath been compared to senseless beasts, and made like to them," and Prov. 11:29: "The fool shall serve the wise." Hence, although it be evil in itself to kill a man so long as he preserve his dignity, yet it may be good to kill a man who has sinned, even as it is to kill a beast. For a bad man is worse than a beast, and is more harmful, as the Philosopher states (Polit. i, 1 and Ethic. vii, 6).

   This is the perennial Catholic teaching, expressed and explained by the wisdom of St. Thomas. Unfortunately, we no longer hear this from the conciliar Novus Ordo establishment. The last paragraph, "Reply to Objection 3," is very important, as we will see later when addressing Pope John Paul II's false and exaggerated view of human dignity.

   Next in our brief historical survey of Catholic teaching on the death penalty, we come upon the Catechism of the Council of Trent, from the late 1500's. Commenting on the Fifth Commandment ("Thou Shalt Not Kill"), the Roman Catechism says:

    Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder. The end of the Commandment- is the preservation and security of human life. Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing outrage and violence. Hence these words of David: In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land, that I might cut off all the workers of iniquity from the city of the Lord.

   Clearly, capital punishment is lawful to be inflicted on grave sinners, in order to preserve and secure the sanctity of human life. Some may find this ironic that human life should be secured and preserved by killing another human life, but it is not. Rather, capital punishment makes it clear that if innocent human life is violated, the life guilty of the crime will be terminated so that justice is done and the natural order is restored. Capital punishment therefore demonstrates how seriously it takes the dignity of innocent human life - so seriously that the taking of it is answered by the taking of the guilty human life.

   This distinction between innocent human life and guilty human life is all but ignored nowadays. The life of the victim and of the criminal are put on the same level, as if the criminal had not forfeited his right to life by his heinous act. But let me keep further commentary for later. Right now, we're only concerned with demonstrating how perennial the Church's endorsement of the death penalty is.

   The next stop in our historical survey is the great work The Catechism Explained by Fr. Francis Spirago, from 1899. This book is now back in print from TAN Books. Fr. Francis teaches the following about capital punishment:

    "The officers of justice, in as far as they stand in the place of God, have the right to sentence evil-doers to capital punishment. . . . The authority of the magistrate is God's authority; when he condemns a criminal, it is not he who condemns him, but God. . . . Yet the judge must not act arbitrarily; he must only sentence the criminal to death when the welfare of society demands it. Human society is a body of which each individual is a member; and as a diseased limb has to be amputated in order to save the body, so criminals must be executed to save society. As a matter of course the culprit's guilt must be proved; better let the guilty go free than condemn the innocent. It is an error to suppose that the Church advocates capital punishment on the principle of retaliation; an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. This is a principle of Judaism, not of Christianity. The Church does not like to see blood shed, she desires that every sinner should have time to amend. She permits, but does not approve capital punishment."
    (Francis Spirago, The Catechism Explained, ed. by Richard Clarke [Rockford, IL: TAN Books, 1993], 388-89; italics added for emphasis.)

   Fr. Francis is clear: the Catholic teaching allows for capital punishment if the well-being of society requires it. Justice permits it. It has nothing to do with the "dignity" of the criminal, nor is it used to "get back" at the offender in the sense of personal vengeance.

   Next, let us consider what The Catechism of St. Pius X has to say on the topic of capital punishment:

    3 Q. Are there cases in which it is lawful to kill?

    A. It is lawful to kill when fighting in a just war; when carrying out by order of the Supreme Authority a sentence of death in punishment of a crime; and, finally, in cases of necessary and lawful defense of one's own life against an unjust aggressor.

Again, the perennial teaching allowing for the death sentence is confirmed.

   Finally, as recently as the 1952, Pope Pius XII reiterated the constant Catholic doctrine:

    "Even when it is a question of the execution of a man condemned to death, the state does not dispose of the individual's right to live. Rather, it is reserved to the public authority to deprive the criminal of the benefit of life, when already, by his crime, he has deprived himself of the right to live." (A.A.S., 1952, pp. 779ff.)

   Further confirmation on the perennial endorsement of capital punishment by the Church may be found in St. Thomas Aquinas' Catechetical Instructions, Fr. Heribert Jone's book Moral Theology, and the Catholic Encyclopedia (1913).

   This concludes our brief historical survey of what the Church has always taught with regards to the morality of capital punishment. In next week's installment, I'll discuss the Church's theology of punishment and how this relates to the death penalty. So stay tuned.

Mario Derksen

    Editor's Note: So many of the post-conciliar bishops today refer to those clinging to the true Roman Catholic traditions that were in vogue for 2000 years prior to the reforms of Vatican II as 'fossils,' 'dinosaurs,' 'old folks who will die off soon.' We beg to differ and offer as proof the youthful wisdom and enthusiasm of the younger generation in the Traditional Insights of Mario Derksen who exemplifies the thinking of many more young men and women today who realize the new thinking of the post-conciliar church does not add up to true Catholic teaching. Thus they long for those traditions so tried and true. His insight shows great promise, optimism and hope for the future of Holy Mother Church.


      Note: [bold, brackets and italicized words used for emphasis]

For past columns by Mario Derksen, see Archives for www.DailyCatholic.org/2002mdi.htm



May 31-June 2, 2002
volume 13, no. 101
Mario Derksen's young and refreshing TRADITIONAL INSIGHTS
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