The bishops and capital punishment

The bishops and capital punishment
A group of five prelates comprising Cardinal Raymond Burke, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, Cardinal Janis Pujats, Archbishop Tomash Peta, and Archbishop Jan Pawel Lenga this week issued a “Declaration of the truths relating to some of the most common errors in the life of the Church of our time.”  Among the many perennial Catholic doctrines that are now commonly challenged but are reaffirmed in the document is the following:

In accordance with Holy Scripture and the constant tradition of the ordinary and universal Magisterium, the Church did not err in teaching that the civil power may lawfully exercise capital punishment on malefactors where this is truly necessary to preserve the existence or just order of societies (see Gen 9:6; John 19:11; Rom 13:1-7; Innocent III, Professio fidei Waldensibus praescripta; Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent, p. III, 5, n. 4; Pius XII, Address to Catholic jurists on December 5, 1954).

No doubt the prelates judged this passage necessary because of the controversy generated by Pope Francis’s revision last year to the Catechism’s treatment of capital punishment – the wording of which is at best ambiguous, and at worst insinuates that capital punishment is always and intrinsically evil.  (I have discussed the problems with the revision in articles at First Things and Catholic Herald.  Last year a group of concerned Catholic scholars and clergy appealed to the cardinals of the Church to ask the pope to retract the revision.)

Crux reports that, in a very different move, a committee headed by Bishop Robert Barron is considering altering the language of the U.S. bishops’ catechism for adults so as to bring it into conformity with Pope Francis’s revision.  Now, Crux also noted that:

Barron said June 11 that the draft emphasizes the dignity of all people and the misapplication of capital punishment.  Discussion of the proposed revision is not meant to be a debate on the death penalty overall, he added…

Barron reiterated that the bishops are not debating the change to the universal catechism itself or even the overall issue of capital punishment, but simply deciding if the added revision to the adult catechism adequately reflects recent catechism revisions.

End quote.  These remarks from Bishop Barron indicate that the U.S. bishops are not going to address the controversy over how to interpret Pope Francis’s revision, or even the “overall” issue of capital punishment as opposed to merely its “misapplication.”  The Cruxarticle also adds that the alteration being considered by the U.S. bishops “emphasizes the continuity of Catholic teaching on this topic by citing St. John Paul II’s encyclical, ‘The Gospel of Life,’ and previous statements of U.S. bishops.”

Evidently, then, the bishops are not going to be adding language that explicitly asserts that capital punishment is intrinsically wrong.  That is good to know.  However, it is not clear that the language they will be adding will explicitly deny that capital punishment is intrinsically wrong.  But such an explicit denial is necessary if the bishops want to “emphasize the continuity of Catholic teaching on this topic.”  Merely citing Pope John Paul II or previous U.S. bishops’ statements will in no way establish continuity unlessthe quotes in question include explicit affirmations from the late pope or the bishops to the effect that capital punishment can sometimes be legitimate at least in principle. 

Nor is citing statements from recent years a very impressive way of establishing “continuity” in the first place.  After all, the reason the bishops see a need to emphasize continuity is surely that many people worry that current teaching involves a rupture with scripture and two millennia of previous magisterial teaching.  So, what is needed is a statement clearly explaining how current teaching is in continuity not only with Pope St. John Paul II and earlier U.S. bishops, but also with the teaching of scripture, the Fathers of the Church, popes like St. Innocent I, Innocent III, St. Pius V, St. Pius X, and Pius XII, and Doctors of the Church like St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Robert Bellarmine, and St. Alphonsus Liguori – all of whom taught that capital punishment can be legitimate in principle, even if they did not all favor resorting to it in practice.

Now, some other bishops have in recent years reaffirmed the Church’s traditional teaching.  The most famous example is the 2004 statement from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (then the Church’s chief doctrinal officer, who would go on to become Pope Benedict XVI) to the effect that:

If a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment… he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion.  While the Church exhorts civil authorities… to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible… to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about… the death penalty.

End quote.  This passage was repeated almost verbatim in a 2004 USCCB document on Catholics in public life written by Archbishop William Levada.  The following year, Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz affirmed that capital punishment is not intrinsically evil, and that “one can disagree with the bishops’ teaching about the death penalty and still present himself for holy Communion… and our Holy Father, as Cardinal Ratzinger, made that clear.”  Archbishop Charles Chaput, despite his personal opposition to capital punishment, also stated in 2005 that:

The death penalty is not intrinsically evil.  Both Scripture and long Christian tradition acknowledge the legitimacy of capital punishment under certain circumstances.  The Church cannot repudiate that without repudiating her own identity

Now, will the revision currently being considered by the U.S. bishops “emphasize continuity” with these statements of just fifteen or so years ago?  Do the bishops still teach that the death penalty is not intrinsically wrong?  Do they teach that the question of whether to apply capital punishment is, accordingly, a prudential matter about which Catholics can legitimately disagree (as Ratzinger, Levada, and Bruskewitz all affirmed)?  Do the U.S. bishops agree with the statement on capital punishment put forward by cardinals Burke and Pujats and bishops Schneider, Peta, and Lenga?  And if they would answer any of these questions in the negative, how can their current teaching be in “continuity” with past Catholic teaching?  What kind of “continuity” is it that would countenance a reversal of what was taught only fifteen years ago, let alone for over two millennia?

Crux says that the U.S. bishops are concerned to address “what the U.S. Church teaches its adult members about the death penalty.”  What the U.S. Church teaches will not be clear unless questions like these are answered straightforwardly.

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