As with so many other issues of justice, Pope Francis doesn’t mince words when it comes to the death penalty. Noting that Church teaching allows using force to stop an aggressor, and that such force might sometimes be lethal, he nonetheless stresses that this argument cannot be invoked to defend the death penalty. The reason is simple: with the death penalty, people are being killed not for current acts of aggression, but for something that happened in the past and has already been neutralized.
For this reason, Francis argues that:
“Today capital punishment is unacceptable, however serious the condemned’s crime may have been”. Why? Because “it is an offense to the inviolability of life and to the dignity of the human person which contradicts God’s plan for man and for society and his merciful justice, and it fails to conform to any just purpose of punishment. It does not render justice to the victims, but rather foments revenge”.
The pope goes on to argue the death penalty “loses all legitimacy due to the defective selectivity of the criminal justice system and in the face of the possibility of judicial error”. This rings especially true in the United States, with its horrendous record of racial injustice. Moreover, the evil is compounded by the fact that the suspended period between sentence and execution is tantamount to a form of torture. Again, this rings true with the death row experience in the United States.
In all of this, Pope Francis is walking a path cleared by Saint John Paul II, although he is certainly doing some further clearing himself. He is strengthening the moral case laid down the John Paul, who concluded that cases where the death penalty is licit in the modern world are “very rare, if not practically non-existent”.
Thankfully, we can see some evidence of a turning tide in the United States on the death penalty, at last among Catholics. This issue is finally starting to transcend the partisan divide – as evidenced by a joint op-ed by the editors of four leading Catholic publications, from both the right and left.
But there are still some noisy Catholic death penalty dead-enders out there. Fr. C. John McCloskey is certainly among the worst of them.
McCloskey crowns his pro-death penalty argument with the following stunning statement:
“Indeed, for any son or daughter of God, it is a great grace to know the time of one’s death, as it gives us the opportunity to get right with the Lord who will judge us at our death. Perhaps many people have been saved in this way by the death penalty. Who knows what would have happened if they had been allowed to linger in this life, one day possibly killing other people?”
This is shocking in its depravity. Taken to its logical conclusion, this argument could be deployed to justify all kinds of barbarous behavior. It’s not that different from Arnaud Amalric’s reputed call to “kill them all for the Lord knows his own” during the Albigensian crusade. Why not just wipe out people in crime-ridden neighborhoods, or in countries with a beef against the United States - after giving them enough warning to prepare for a good death, of course? Even better, why not promote euthanasia after a good confession as a virtuous practice to be encouraged? Or just kill people before they have a chance to commit sins in the first place – making abortion a virtuous practice too?
Yes, these examples are horrific caricatures, but I submit that McCloskey’s position is not far from them. The best response comes, once again, from Pope Francis:
“Life, human life above all, belongs to God alone. Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this. As St. Ambrose taught, God did not want to punish Cain with homicide, for He wants the sinner to repent more than to die”.
To repent and live, not to repent and die.