Is Capital Punishment The Purview Only of Caesar?

David Warren, Canadian columnist and blogger at “Essays in Idleness,” has written an unfortunate article for “The Catholic Thing” website, commenting on the recent revision of paragraph 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) on the question of capital punishment.

Mr. Warren takes Pope Francis to task for supposedly changing Church teaching, and for doing so, he accuses, in the effort “to accommodate the realities of industrial, social, and political revolutions through the last two centuries.” The pope ought not be changing Church teaching to accommodate “the times,” Mr. Warren warns.

Mr. Warren should rest at ease. Pope Francis has not changed Church teaching on capital punishment. Rather, he is applying Church teaching to current conditions, which is precisely his responsibility as a pastor. In doing so, he is following the path of his predecessors, Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

The traditional justification for capital punishment in Church teaching is the duty of the civil authorities to protect the community. In extreme cases, this justified the execution of dangerous criminals who posed an on-going threat to everyone’s safety. Beginning with St. John Paul and then with Pope Benedict and now Pope Francis, the conclusion is that modern prisons are able to secure the safety of the community so that capital punishment is no longer required to achieve this goal. That being the case, the moral justification for capital punishment no longer exists, making the continued use of the death penalty an offense against human life and dignity which, being given by God, do not abandon even the most heinous criminals. There is also the concern that executing criminals cuts off prematurely, and now for no justifiable reason, the opportunity for redemption.

But, Mr. Warren takes his case even further, for he claims that the pope has no business meddling in politics, or risking what he calls “the politicization of our doctrine.” Mr. Warren takes Christ’s admonition to “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” as establishing a hands-off policy for the Church on those things that rightly belong to civil authority. “The statement was not some passing tactical feint,” Mr. Warren insists. Rather, “It embodies the whole Catholic attitude to the worldly.”

I am sure that every politician wishes that all popes, bishops, priests and, perhaps, even lay Catholics adopted Mr. Warren’s attitude regarding the propriety of the Church to speak on political matters. Even if Mr. Warren’s attitude is proper, and I don’t think it is and the Church has never interpreted Christ’s teaching as such (in spite of what Mr. Warren implies), it is pure cynicism to suggest that the matter of capital punishment, any more than abortion or euthanasia, is a purely political concern. In point of fact, capital punishment does not belong merely to Caesar, for it is a matter than touches us all, and every part of us, not just the civic. And, in point of fact, in a representative democracy, we are all Caesar. Catholics, then, including the pope, have as much right as any other player to have their say on such matters. The Church is not merely the arbiter of the spiritual, as Mr. Warren would have her be, but the ordinary instrument by which the grace of Christ is brought to all in this temporal realm. Christ, by His healing the sick and feeding the hungry, did not limit His Church’s venue to the spiritual. He told us to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, nurse the infirm, and visit the imprisoned, and that when we did so we were doing so to Him. Is Mr. Warren’s concern that what he calls “questions of ‘social justice'” will be “prioritized” so extreme that he would reject the Church’s responsibility to address matters of social justice at all?

But, Mr. Warren is at his most cynical when he critiques the popes’ (for, again, the change to the CCC reflects the thinking of more than just Francis) condemnation of capital punishment as an offense against human dignity. Mr. Warren writes, “Christ’s own representative human dignity was compatible with being stripped and tortured, publicly humiliated, marched to His execution, mocked upon the Cross.” To be sure, Christ’s human dignity was not diminished by His executioners. But, this is not to say that those who tortured, mocked, and murdered Him did so at the service of His human dignity. Their intent was to diminish His humanity. Their failure to do so in no way mitigates their offense. Mr. Warren is certainly correct when he says that, “human dignity is conferred by God in the Creation, not by the State.” But surely that being the case does not mean that it is impossible for the State to offend against human dignity. It is because human dignity is conferred by God and not by the State that the State must not offend against it.

Consider an analogy to the legitimate defense of an innocent person. If an attacker who has already murdered someone approaches another intending mortal harm, no one would deny you the right, even the duty, to defend the innocent other, even if doing so required killing the attacker. But if prior to reaching his intended victim, the attacker is subdued by others and the threat to the innocent one averted, no one would grant you the right to kill the attacker. The threat is gone. There is no longer any justification in killing the murderer to protect the innocent.

Pope Francis is simply saying that the threat to the innocent other is gone. We now have the capacity to incarcerate dangerous criminals so that they pose no further threat to society. As such, the justification for capital punishment no longer applies. This is not a change in Church teaching. It is the application of Church teaching to current conditions. The application of Church teaching to current conditions is the responsibility of any good pastor.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.


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