By this command, God Himself institutes the death penalty as a responsibility of our human nature. He does so in the context of reminding all who know and trust in His Word, that the murderer's action assails human dignity because it willfully disregards its source, which is in our special relationship with God. When one sheds the blood of someone who has attacked the human dignity at its very root, that obedience to God's will preserves that dignity, it does not disrespect or injure it. (Who Are We to Sit in Judgment of God's Executive Order?)
In August, the report of Pope Francis' intention to alter the Church's teaching on the death penalty led me to pose the question that became the title of the article quoted above. The question implicitly alluded to the famous episode in which Pope Francis said, "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"
With those words, Francis struck a pose of humility even as he sidestepped the issue of God's Old Testament condemnation of male homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13), also reflected in the New Testament's litanies of unlawful acts (1 Corinthians 6:9–10, 1 Timothy 1:10).
There was already a hint of self-assertive pride in Francis' reluctance to echo God's condemnation of male homosexual activity. Having thus tacitly cast doubt on the Scriptures respecting sexual sin, Pope Francis more openly rejected the Church's longstanding view of the legitimacy of capital punishment as a matter of necessity in public administration.
At first, he seemed merely to echo Pope St. John Paul II's prudential doubt that, in our day, capital punishment was ever necessary for public safety. But when he formally approved language for a change in contemporary catechesis on the subject, many thought his words recast capital punishment as intrinsically evil. However, others still contrived to suggest that they still asserted more emphatically the Supreme Pontiff's circumstantial, prudential judgment.
However, in addressing a delegation from the Internation Commission against the Death Penalty on Dec. 17, the Pope made observations and assertions that led Edward Feser, a well-versed and respected Catholic philosopher, to comment that
the Pope both appears to condemn capital punishment as intrinsically wrong and claims that his remarks are consistent with past teaching. He tries to justify the claim that there is no inconsistency by saying that the Church has always affirmed the dignity of life. But this is analogous to denying the doctrine that there are three divine Persons and then claiming that this is consistent with past teaching, on the grounds that the Church has always affirmed that there is only one God.
Feser also notes that the Pope "implicitly criticizes previous popes for uphold and applying capital punishment."
In his statement, Pope Francis describes the death penalty as an "inhuman form of punishment," reflecting "a mentality, more legalistic than Christian, which sacralized the value of laws lacking in humanity and mercy." This seems to reject the benighted understanding of past Christians, not graced by God with the special insights reserved to the self-enlightened and evolved humans of our time. Our sight, more accurate than God's, clearly perceives the merciful humanity of discarding the embryonic mass of cells growing in the womb after human conception as life unworthy of life.
Instead of "legalistically" respecting such vulnerable weakness, our self-enlightenment respect the deep humanity of extending the days of murderers, lawfully convicted and conscientiously condemned for their unrighteous acts. After all, their greater proof of physical and mental toughness deserves the expectation that they will put their lives to better use than innocent infants, growing in fulfillment of God's conception of their lives, possible in His being before time began.
Pope Francis humbly demurred from applying the judgment of God to mortal sin. Yet now he leads the Church in action to decry, as unmerciful, the judgment of God against the fault that thus condemned us to mortality. It was God's order of creation that attached the penalty of death to Eve's transgression. It was, therefore, God's delimitation of our humanity that enforced upon humanity a life sentence of death. And it is the self-inflicted defect of our goodwill that postpones His offer to commute that sentence, thanks to our unwillingness to repent, and by repentance return to His good graces, in and through Jesus Christ.
Christ reminded us of the ancient word: "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." Bread feeds the flesh. But the word of God comes by way of the Spirit, to sustain the life of man according to God's primordial intention, that in keeping with His substance we should eat the fruit of the tree of life and sustain His image and likeness in ourselves, forever.
In this communion, enlivened by His Spirit, we know true life, as we are meant to live it, in God. No sting of death can touch us then. Isn't this why Christ commands us, "[D]o not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell"?
Pope Francis chooses to see bodily death as somehow inhuman. Yet, in God's word, the death of the body, for God's sake, earns the white robe of martyrdom in Heaven. For our true humanity consists in the spiritual union with God that brings our soul to life. The real "inhumanity" is not in the penalty of physical death, righteously suffered. Rather, it consists in rejecting God's spirit, thereby refusing the true dignity that attends our heart's conformity to His will.
Why does Pope Francis seek to predicate the Church's teaching on the "inhumanity" of the penalty that Christ commands us not to fear? Shouldn't Christ's Holy Church focus instead on the perfect humanity of Christ's life: faithfully preaching His Gospel in words and good deeds, while rejoicing in our life's true worth — which comes of our communion with Christ and the faith that in Him we ourselves shall know and abide with God, beyond the shadow of death, forever?