Pope Francis Has Exceeded His Authority on the Death Penalty

By John Zmirak Published on August 2, 2018

Today, in trying to reverse more than 6,000 years of Jewish-Christian teaching on capital punishment, Pope Francis exceeded his authority. All he is entitled to do is pass along and explain the Divine Revelation that ended with the death of St. John the Apostle, and clarify points of natural law. He’s like the FedEx guy. He didn’t pack the Deposit of Faith and he’s not allowed to tamper with it.

Or as I said this morning on Twitter, on reading the news:

Way Beyond His Authority

No pope has the authority to decide that penalties demanded by God in the Old Testament, and not condemned in the New, are now intrinsically evil. Pope Francis hasn’t quite said that, but he now claims that the death penalty is “inadmissible.” And his claim that the death penalty violates the Christian commitment to human dignity comes close to claiming, contrary to all previous Church teaching, that it is intrinsically evil.

But he does not have the authority to reverse the Church’s constant teaching accepting capital punishment, which culminated in the popes’ employing it for centuries, and the death penalty remaining on the books of Canon Law through 1968. The pope is the Vicar of Christ, not ANOTHER Christ. So he can’t say things like “Previous popes and Moses told you X, but I say unto you Y.” 

Apologize to the Nazis

If capital punishment violates human dignity, then it is not only wrong going forward. It was always wrong. It was wrong when the Allies executed the Nazi war criminals at Nuremburg. (With Pius XII’s encouragement.) Perhaps we owe those dead mass-murderers an apology for violating their human dignity.

And we’re supposed to believe that we’re just now finding out this eternal truth, as if via some oracle in Rome? What else will find out that the Church has been wrong about for 2,000 (and Jews for 2,000 more) years? Maybe we’ll learn that when cardinals sleep with teenage boys, that’s not a sin either.

Pay No Attention to Uncle Ted Behind the Curtain

Make no mistake, the Vatican launched this smoke bomb this week for a reason. (It was actually decided months ago.) To get the world’s liberal activists’ attention. This sends the memo: “Don’t talk about all those molested boys. Talk about this instead!” As even Salon has noticed, it’s a bright shiny handkerchief in the magician’s hand, distracting us from all the sickening sin and corruption. From the fact that the priesthood itself is danger of seeming like a homosexual cult. (Also from the law permitting abortion about to pass in Francis’ native Argentina, about which he has been comparatively silent.)

Make no mistake, when the next tranche of stomach-churning gay sex scandals emerges, we can expect a swift response from the Vatican. Namely, another ham-handed revision of the Catechism, probably on immigration. We will learn then that every Christian nation in history was violating human dignity when it policed its borders.

As someone who has known and benefited from many good and holy priests over five decades, that outrages me. The McCarricks of this world and their enablers? They are to the priesthood what Lt. Calley was to the U.S. Army when he massacred civilians at My Lai. A stain on the flag.

Make no mistake, when the next tranche of stomach-churning gay sex scandals emerges, we can expect a swift response from the Vatican. Namely, another ham-handed revision of the Catechism, probably on immigration. We will learn then that every Christian nation in history was violating human dignity when it policed its borders. Especially wealthy countries whose fragile political and economic systems inspire envy and hatred — of the kind shown by “vice-pope” (and sex abuse coverup mast) Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga.

Not Infallible. Not Even Plausible.

Let us be clear. Pope Francis did not invoke his ultimate, infallible authority in issuing this statement. It contradicts previous statements by popes and councils, not to mention Sacred Scripture. That means that from a Catholic perspective its value is probably null. It’s like the teaching of Pope John XXII that at death our souls just go to sleep, awaiting the final judgment. That heresy got condemned by the very next pope.

At the very most? Pope Francis has removed the death penalty from the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church, which functions by consensus over the centuries. (See my explanation here.) He has left us free to argue about it on the merits, instead of accepting as final the universal (but never formally infallible) teaching that the death penalty is just.

So let’s talk about the merits.

Do We Execute Animals?

Does the death penalty violate human dignity, as Pope Francis argues? No, it reaffirms it. Here’s how. Do we ever speak of “executing” animals? Of bringing lions to justice, even for eating people? Sane people don’t. Nor have Christian countries approved of executing children, or the insane. Abuses occurred, of course, but this principle has deep roots in Christian common law.

We aim at least to execute only competent, culpable adults for grave offenses against justice. Primarily for taking innocent life — because we regard such life as profoundly sacred. Also for treason, and murder of law enforcement personnel, because those attack the life of the State, and the common good of citizens. We execute primarily to render justice, to render on earth some portion of God’s justice, and properly direct our common outrage.

Pope John Paul II Erred, Too

The argument that we only execute people as a last resort to protect society against them goes back no further than Pope John Paul II. It was wrong when he said it and it’s still wrong now. I explained why in 2015. Let me quote that at length here:

A justice system based on the modern liberal moral code does not imprison people to punish them for crimes; it identifies primates whose behavior is causing social problems by diminishing the happy moments quota. So a thief or a killer is not a “criminal” meriting punishment so much as a buzzkill who’s hogging the bong and ruining the party. Have the bouncer remove him, but put him someplace comfortable. Give him a cell with satellite TV porn and lots of Prozac. Maybe the dude will calm down, and we can let him back in later. …

To reduce the role of the state, as some Christian critics of capital punishment do, to the lone, lame goal of “protecting people,” is to march 70 yards closer to the secular liberal “happy moments” theory of life. We would not execute or imprison people as punishment — that’d be judgmental and vindictive. No, we’d put people away for our protection, and for their own, so they could get the help and rehabilitation that they needed. In fact, some [including Pope Francis] say, we should not even imprison people without parole, because then they would live without “hope” — which they redefine not as a Christian virtue focused on salvation in the next life, but rather as the “hope” of grabbing a few more happy moments in this one.

Some critics of capital punishment allow for executions in theory as a last resort — in a society where prisons are insecure, for instance. They seem not to realize the ominous principle they’re admitting here. They believe that no one really deserves to die at the hands of the state, in the name of justice. But they will allow the state to execute someone if he is a persistent danger to society. His guilt is irrelevant to whether he lives or dies. That depends on the thickness of prison walls, and whether the guards can be bribed.

Consider the logic of this position for a moment. Stephen Spielberg played it out in his anti-utopian film Minority Report, where criminals were captured and punished before they’d even had the chance to complete their crimes, for the better protection of the innocent. If we can execute people not because they are guilty — remember that that is a sin — but only out of expediency, then why can’t we imprison them for the very same reason? Why wait for them even to commit a crime? Much better to put them in therapeutic confinement the moment they are diagnosed with strong anti-social tendencies.

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Before you scoff at that as science fiction, remember that states across the country have tried to enact “preventative detention” laws, holding sexual abusers captive after they’d served their sentences, to stop them from striking again. As genetics advances, and we learn more about “predator genes,” do you really put it past the mad scientists who make up our country’s bioethics as they go along — who have filled IVF center’s freezers with hundreds of thousands of embryos — to get behind preventative detention? Why not eugenic screening?  The last thing Christians need to do is to encourage such madness, by abandoning the clear, stark standard of justice as the only criterion for punishment.

If we will not execute terrorists whose guilt is plain as day, but instead leave them to sit in comfortable cells composing their memoirs and manifestos, we dishonor the lives they ended and degrade our very own. We embrace, whether we know it or not, the secular liberal consensus that life is cheap, so it needs to be fun, because nothing really matters.

That’s what Pope Francis just told us. There’s plenty of reason to disagree, whether you’re Catholic or not.

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