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Death Penalty

Sad to say, but as surely as night follows day, when Pope Francis speaks on doctrinal matters, confusion results. And so it is with the pope’s August revision to section 2267 of the Catechism. Although taught by the Church for two millennia as a legitimate punishment for grievous crimes (and employed by the Papal States under six different popes more than 500 times in the nineteenth century alone), capital punishment is now “inadmissible,” and therefore the Church “works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has strongly objected to what he takes to be a new position of the Catholic Church: “I cannot agree with Pope Francis that the death penalty is, in all circumstances, a violation of the command not to murder.” What Moore interprets as a fundamental doctrinal shift—and one contrary to a proper reading of the Bible and Christian tradition—Steven A. Long, in “Magisterial Irresponsibility” (October), interprets as essentially a prudential judgment “susceptible to falsification,” and therefore one with which faithful Catholics may respectfully disagree.

With great care, Long shows that the new language of the Catechism and the accompanying letter sent to the world’s bishops by Cardinal Ladaria Ferrer, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, compel a prudential reading of “inadmissible.” To put it simply, Francis is saying that the death penalty is unallowable because it is unnecessary to “protect public order and the safety of persons”—goals of punishment affirmed in the Catechism’s unchanged paragraph preceding the new language.

For reasons never explained, the last three popes and many of the world’s bishops have decided that the death penalty does not deter murder. This crucial empirical matter is simply ignored. Yet, as Edward Feser and I show at some length in By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed, the case for deterrence is strong: both because many criminals modify their behavior in light of criminal sanctions and, perhaps more important, because the death penalty powerfully teaches that murder is a great wrong, leading most people not even to consider killing another human being.

The Catechism has been changed, according to Ladaria, “to give energy” to the abolition movement. In other words, the Catechism has been enlisted to preempt the lawful authority of public officials in a way that jeopardizes the lives of the innocent. This is not, you might say, your grandfather’s Catholic Church.

Joseph M. Bessette
claremont mckenna college
claremont, california

I would like to believe with Steven Long that the Catechism revision gives no more than a strengthened prudential judgment, but sound principles of interpretation imply otherwise. 

Suppose I say, “A, B, C; consequently, D.” I’ve left it open to interpretation whether all three premises are necessary for the conclusion or whether one or two suffice. Consider: “6 is an even number. 6 is divisible by three. 6 is a factor of 12. Consequently, 6 is divisible by 2.” My conclusion followed from all three premises because it followed from the first alone. Suppose, then, what I actually had written had the form: “A, B, C; consequently, D, on account of A.” That would resolve the ambiguity. And the interpretation would be even more strongly confirmed if the author of that sentence, in many other contexts, had insisted that A alone would imply D.

Yet this is exactly what we find in the Catechism revision. Long is right to point out that three distinct claims precede the teaching, introduced by “consequently.” All three would need to be prudential for the teaching to be assuredly prudential. However, as he admits, one of those claims is precisely not prudential, the claim about the dignity of the human person. Moreover, that claim is affirmed as the reason for the teaching: “Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.’”

I suppose we can distinguish three intentions. First, there is the “intention of the Church,” which we speak of, for instance, when we say that even an atheist can baptize, so long as he wishes to do in his action what the Church intends in baptism. By “the intention of the Church,” in this sense, presumably all revisions to the Catechism must mean something consistent with what the Church has always taught. Second, there is the “intention of the CDF,” which might well have been to satisfy those who feel that the death penalty is intrinsically wrong, while producing a text which, when interpreted with precision, turns out to be only a more emphatic formulation of earlier teaching. Third, there is the “intention” or “meaning,” expressed in the words chosen, when those words are interpreted according to standard canons of interpretation. In this last sense, for better or worse, I think one finds in those words something other than an emphatic prudential judgment.

Michael Pakaluk
the catholic university of america
washington, d.c.

Steven Long, while criticizing Pope Francis’s death penalty amendment to the Catechism, evidently holds that even non-infallible magisterial interventions are orthodox by definition. For he claims it is “an absolute norm of Catholic doctrinal interpretation” that with any given magisterial document, “the entirety of the Church’s prior teaching and tradition enters into its proper understanding,” in which case the amendment to section 2267 of the Catechismcannot be a doctrinal ‘break’ or ‘rupture’” (­emphasis added).

But the bishops of the Third Council of Constantinople (680) seemed unaware of any such “absolute norm.” They did not feel obliged a priori to interpret in continuity with Pope Honorius I’s letters that materially endorsed monothelitism. Rather, they condemned him posthumously as a heretic.

Indeed, the selfsame papal allocution of October 11, 2017, now cited in section 2267 as the sole magisterial source for the amendment, provides clear evidence against the claim that no magisterial statement can ever be unambiguously heterodox, that is, simply incapable of being interpreted in accord with Tradition. Long rightly points out (a) that “nothing in the Catechism is elevated in authority merely by being included in the Catechism”; and (b) that since “the Church has taught for two millennia that the death penalty is essentially valid,” a denial of this would be “incompatible with Catholic faith.”

Now, it follows from (a) that the other magisterial assertions in Francis’s October 2017 allocution have the same authority as the one cited in the Catechism. But one of those assertions expresses the denial referred to in (b). Francis asserted, shockingly, that the death penalty is “in itself contrary to the Gospel—in sé stessa contraria al Vangelo” (emphasis added). Since that denies unambiguously that “the death penalty is essentially valid,” I think Long should retract his view that all magisterial statements can and should be given an orthodox interpretation. And although the space available in a letter does not permit me to develop this point, I think that retraction will seriously weaken his case that the statement cited in the amended section 2267 is intended to be a mere prudential judgment for modern times, especially since it is preceded by the words, “the Church teaches . . . .” For church “teaching” means church doctrine. But in this case, lamentably, it is false doctrine—a monumental papal error to which Catholics should not assent.

Fr. Brian W. Harrison, O.S.
st. louis, missouri

Steven A. Long replies:

I concur with Joseph M. Bessette that the contemporary ecclesial insistence upon total abolition of the death penalty neglects not only theological and philosophical, but also criminological considerations. The evidence suggests that innocent lives are at stake.

Michael Pakaluk proposes an intriguing reading of the catechetical insert’s logical construction. Because the conclusion adverts to the first antecedent condition mentioned, he argues that the other two cited conditions may not strictly be necessary. The mathematical example he provides is interesting, but there is no parity in the cases. For example, the state of technologies of detention is not a strict inference from the nature of human dignity as is the case in the strict derivation of mathematical inferences from the first mathematical judgment in his illustration. Even so, one might argue that the other premises only “add weight” and that the first antecedent by itself could be sufficient. But the catechetical insert does not assert this; the ordinary way of reading conditions followed by such a conclusion is as a single conjoint premise, and to read it differently asserts a formal specification the document lacks. The other conditions are listed as significant, with the conclusion following as consequent. The view that the first antecedent is by itself sufficient would also imply that Cardinal Ladaria Ferrer wrongly characterizes the insert as a development of the teaching of John Paul II, a teaching that was prudential in nature.

Fr. Harrison argues that I should “retract” my view “that all magisterial statements can and should be given an orthodox interpretation.” Yet if something is not Catholic teaching, to call it “magisterial” is equivocal, like calling a tumor “bodily.” The tumor does not normatively belong to the body (it is a deprivation, not a perfection, of the body), and a statement that breaks with the universal ordinary magisterium cannot normatively belong to the magisterium. It is a contradiction to say (a) this is a rupture with the universal ordinary magisterium while also saying (b) this is Catholic teaching. It cannot be both. Those proposing the ­catechetical insert as Catholic and as rupture contradict themselves. I think there are problems with the insert, but I also believe it can be reconciled with Tradition.

On this point I read the insert differently than Fr. Harrison does, but I hold no brief for Honorius. Rather, I argue that the insert, despite certain defects, is not a doctrinal rupture with the Tradition. Nonetheless I argue that its first premise is historically and doctrinally false, and that its prudential admonition is overstated. Pope Francis’s October 2017 allocution poses different and arguably greater problems, but its most fraught formulations were not added to the Catechism.

Unfortunately, much ecclesial reflection today is caught between ­Scylla and Charybdis. On one side is the Scylla of inadequate ­dignitarian formulations that fail to acknowledge the transcendence of the ­common good as specifying human dignity. On the other is the ­Charybdis of ­prudential judgments asserted as though they were deontological ­universals. The Tradition is richer and more level-headed on these points than is most of our contemporary thought.

Prudential Liberalism

Jozef Andrew Kosc’s passionate and compassionate plea for the balm of liberalism for persecuted Christians in regimes from Africa to the Pacific (“Where Liberalism Helps,” October) provides an important perspective in the ongoing conversation about liberalism and Christianity. There can be no doubt that, for Christian minorities, American-style liberal ­democracy is preferable to Kim Jong-un’s North Korea or Erdogan’s ­Turkey.

Indeed, I hardly imagine anyone invested in postliberalism or even antiliberalism would disagree with this hierarchy, or with the insight that we must tailor our political discourse to the political situations of particular Christian communities.

However, as I read Kosc’s essay, especially his confident prescriptions for American diplomatic intervention in illiberal regimes, an old but true aphorism kept coming to mind: You can’t give what you don’t have. In this case, we don’t have a healthy and sustainable model of liberalism that respects or even understands the fullness of Christian practice to ­offer to the suffering Church and her ­tormentors.

We cannot offer a Christ-infused liberalism because we have lost our own—and because the oppressive cultures Kosc identifies lack a substrate of widespread Christian belief and practice on which such a liberalism could form and mature. The best we can offer is the liberalism of false neutrality, but it is a lie, both about the nature of political authority and the nature of the Church. And it is a lie that has proved corrosive both to Christian witness and to the entire political community.

In the short term, this would still be a material improvement for many millions of Christians. I would pray, however, that those faithful see liberalism only as a strategic necessity and do not permit it to become a creed, as it has throughout the West, that hollows out Christian authenticity and replaces it with spiritual apathy and indifferentism. What we have to offer is not permanent ­liberation, but at best a temporary respite that soon gives way to its own ­mortal perils.

Brandon McGinley
pittsburgh, pennsylvania

Jozef Andrew Kosc is right to be alarmed at the violent persecution of Christians. But his insights end there. My heart also burns for the martyrs slain by Wahhabists, but where Kosc sees liberalism as a possible cure, I see liberalism as an historical cancer. He underestimates his words when he writes that “Christianity is considered to be foreign American propaganda.” Why, Kosc fails to ask, do they think this?

Who profitteers on white phosphorus melting the bones of Yemeni children? Who bombed the drug factories in Afghanistan? Who overthrew democratically elected ­Mossadegh in Iran? Indeed, as recently as the 1940s, Nagasaki was known as the Rome of the East. Kosc sees tyranny abroad, but fails to see it at home.

Imperial powers were chopping up the Middle East long before Christian persecution became rampant. Indeed, Kosc’s history of the Middle East forces one to question whether he has ever heard of Sykes-Picot or ­Operation Cyclone. He should consider that his writing, given the historical precedent, could be read beyond our borders as subversive propaganda or a bold-faced threat. Historically, when the West makes demands of non-liberal nations, they are followed by sanctions, boots, and bombs. Our much-praised liberal ingenuity has added drones to the list.

“In much of the world,” continues Kosc, “we cannot afford to suspect liberalism.” Indeed, afford is precisely the right word. To suspect liberalism would be to jeopardize the billions we siphon from our vassal states. The only argument for liberalism must appeal to the logic and language of Capital, not of Christ. Our Lord joins and praises the martyrs, but the West will praise any nation that tolerates all religions, even while secularism trades community for apostasy and capitalism trades persons for profit.

We fear the fight dogs, so we make friends with the ring masters. And what’s even worse is that some cowards are making money betting on the game.

Lukas Cikovic
lancaster, pennsylvania

Jozef Andrew Kosc replies:

Since the publication of “Where Liberalism Helps,” President Trump’s excellent handling of the imprisonment of Pastor Andrew Brunson has led to the latter’s peaceful release and return to his family in America. After sharp warnings from Vice President Mike Pence, Trump imposed economic sanctions on Turkey in August. When Turkish authorities still failed to budge, Trump threatened additional sanctions until the innocent pastor was finally released. This testifies to the kind of diplomatic intervention in defense of religious liberty, the freedom of speech, and the rule of law that I call for in my analysis.

I do not disagree with Brandon McGinley’s assertion that the “liberalism of false neutrality” is an imperfect cure for the tyranny of illiberal persecution. But prudence dictates that we must address the messy world of imperfections instead of remaining at the sidelines in the comforts of ­ivory towers. At the 2015 Synod on the Family, Cardinal Robert Sarah identified two distinct threats—one in the West, and one in the East—as coming from “opposite poles” of ­ideology. In the West, Christians grow weary of secular liberalism. In the East, the Church faces deadly persecution at the hands of illiberal states and ­various subnational political movements. We need a two-pronged strategy. In the end, Our Lord does not demand of us ideational purity, but good deeds.

Lukas Cikovic offers a fervent critique of neoconservative military intervention and historical imperialism in the Middle East. As I am writing my dissertation on the Iraq War and its disastrous effects, I welcome his words. Nowhere in my ­analysis do I call for the kind of “boots and bombs” that he rightly mentions as an all-too-often misguided ­trajectory of American (and, more broadly, Western) foreign policy in defense of liberal ideals and liberal markets. Far short of harebrained military campaigns and far beyond mere apathy and inaction, a wealth of possible and plausible interventions, from forceful diplomacy to economic sanctions and targeted aid, can push for better conditions for the suffering Church.

We are fortunate now to have an American president who seems to understand these nuances. But still more must be done. As I write this response in mid-October, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development have failed to act on promises to provide aid to Iraq’s Christian and Yazidi genocide survivors.