The spirit of Saint Louis

Papal visits can be a bit like a Rorschach test. Everyone sees what they want to see. John Paul II’s January visit to Mexico and to Saint Louis initially seemed routine, only scaled back from his previous trips to accommodate his failing health and halting steps. In contrast, his mind and heart seemed in topnotch condition.

In Saint Louis, amid many messages, perhaps too many, the pope made a gesture that caught everyone’s attention. He pleaded for mercy for a condemned killer scheduled to be executed on February 10. Governor Mel Carnahan said he was moved by the pope’s appeal and shortly after the papal plane departed, he commuted the sentence of a death row prisoner, Darrell Mease, to life imprisonment. Thank goodness Mr. Carnahan is a Baptist, and not a Catholic.

Pollsters and pundits quickly pointed out that just as many of America’s Catholics don’t agree with the pope on abortion, they don’t agree with his opposition to the death penalty either. Even so, it looked to be a teaching moment. Those Catholics, on the one hand, who are against abortion and those, on the other, who are against the death penalty had occasion once again to see the logic of the consistent ethic of life, first enunciated by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and implicitly given a papal benediction in word and gesture in Saint Louis. In any case, for Catholic and non-Catholic alike, there was amazement at the audacity and...

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