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A group of Catholic scholars, including Catholic clerics, and distinguished professors and scholars of theology, philosophy, law and government and history recently published a letter addressed to "their Most Reverend Eminences, the Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church." In the letter, the letter's signatories observe that:
It is a truth contained in the Word of God, and taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Catholic Church, that criminals may lawfully be put to death by the civil power when this is necessary to preserve just order in civil society, and since the present Roman pontiff has now more than once publicly manifested his refusal to teach this doctrine, and has rather brought great confusion upon the Church by seeming to contradict it, and by inserting into the Catechism of the Catholic Church a paragraph which will cause and is already causing many people, both believers and non-believers, to suppose that the Church considers, contrary to the Word of God, that capital punishment is intrinsically evil.
The alterations in the Catechism reflect Pope Francis's view that "the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person." In their words and general logic, they reflect the Pope's speech on Oct. 11, 2017 to "participants in the meeting promoted by the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization:
I would like now to bring up a subject that ought to find in the Catechism of the Catholic Church a more adequate and coherent treatment in the light of these expressed aims. I am speaking of the death penalty. This issue cannot be reduced to a mere résumé of traditional teaching without taking into account not only the doctrine as it has developed in the teaching of recent popes, but also the change in the awareness of the Christian people which rejects an attitude of complacency before a punishment deeply injurious of human dignity. It must be clearly stated that the death penalty is an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity. It is per se contrary to the Gospel, because it entails the willful suppression of a human life that never ceases to be sacred in the eyes of its creator and of which — ultimately — only God is the true judge and guarantor.
It's disturbing that a thought relies so much on the emotive effect of the word "person" nonetheless entirely ignores its meaning, both in its human origins and in the passage of Scripture that introduces the death penalty into human affairs. After the fall, the degradation of human nature caused by original sin produced the first of all murders, when Cain slyly invited his brother Abel to "go out in the field" and then rose up and slew him.
The Lord God punished Cain by cutting him off from the produce of the ground, which had been his livelihood. Cain protested, saying, "My fault is too great to be forgiven me. If today you drive me from the face of the earth, and I am to be hidden from your face ... it will come to pass that everyone that finds me will kill me" (Genesis 4:13, translated from the Septuagint Greek, in keeping with the sparse, desperate utterance of the Hebrew).
Responding to Cain's despair, God reassures him: "Not so! Sevenfold judgment will be loosed against anyone who kills Cain." Thereupon God put a mark upon Cain so that anyone coming upon him would not kill him.
Up to this point, God's response to Cain seems to accord with Pope Francis's view that God sees reason to spare the first self-confessed murderer what Cain himself acknowledges to be due retribution for his crime. But does God do so out of consideration for Cain’s personal dignity and worth? At its Latin root, (persona) the word "person" was used for the mask held before an actor's face to represent his or her assigned character. This comports with the key intention of God for our humanity, conveyed by the Scripture when it tells us:
"Then God said: Let us make man, in our image, after our likeness. ... So, God created man in His own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female He created them." (Genesis 1:26, 27)
According to the Scripture, then, the original Latin import of the word "persona" aptly describes God's intention for humanity. We are to be in the image and likeness of God. On that account, the respect due to us as persons is a function of the respect due to the will of God made manifest within us. Therefore, when one man raises his hand against another to do violence and murder, he assails the living image of God, violating the respect due to His supreme divinity. In the strict sense, therefore, murder is not only a crime against humanity, it is also a crime against God, a sacrilege of the highest order.
So why does God forebear to let Cain suffer death in retribution for that sacrilege? Could it be, first of all, because Cain, like all human beings after the fall, is already under sentence of death, in his very nature? Or is it because, as Cain himself admits, though he remains alive, his penalty involves being withdrawn from the face of God? To us, someone's face is the image associated with his or her identity. If our image is a likeness of God, and God's face is withdrawn from us, what image is left to us? The murder of God involves our own annihilation. By departing from God's will, one leaves oneself behind.
So at the conclusion of the first Psalm, the Scripture reveals that "God knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the unrighteous is utterly effaced (erased, annihilated)." Pondered in this context, Pope Francis's assertion that even the most wicked murderer retains some human dignity entirely misses the point. The murderous act, wholeheartedly committed, is an act of self-annihilation. When one man cuts off the life of another, he disregards the image of God. In the process, he cuts himself off from the face of God, which is the face that God intends for his humanity. Without that semblance of human identity, what is the murderer?
The murderer of humanity is someone who has, quite literally, cut away the ground on which his human personhood must stand (a metaphor plainly depicted in the words of the Scripture). By disrespecting the image of God in another, he denies the image of God in himself, removing the outward sign of God's intention for our human being and rejecting the information it conveys about the dignity we derive from the fact that our being represents, and therefore discovers, His. What is left of human worth when that which informs the substance of our humanity is thus defaced and done away?
However, for as long as he (the murderer) lives God can see Himself therein. For human life is the commingling of God's spirit with the dust. The Holy Spirit is the person of God whose presence still connotes each human’s formal dependence upon His will, which is the very will the murderer’s action purports to refute. The Scripture informs us that, In the aftermath of Cain's reprieve, the sulky pride that was his motive for murder incubates into evil in all his line. So Lamech, speaking to his two wives, ups the ante of God's reprieve, pridefully boasting that, if Cain is avenged seven times, Lamech will be avenged seventy times seven times (Genesis 4:23–24).
That prideful passion stalks the Earth, contributing to a plague of evil so virulent it has to be undone by a massive, watery purge. Sparing one family of descendants in Abel's line, through Seth, God seeds the repopulation of the world. But given the aftermath of the mercy wasted upon Cain, He withdraws the marker that once constrained all human retribution against the murderous outpouring of human blood. To the command, in service of human life's preservation, "Be fruitful and multiply," God adds another command, to safeguard its perpetuation — "Whosoever sheds man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed, for, in the image and likeness of God, God made man."
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.
I wonder how the Vicar of Christ could miss this truth, so clearly conveyed in God's own command? I wonder how he could sit in judgment of God? For God Himself made the decision that His own Son should submit to torturous death, as any murderer is forced to do, not as a means to disgrace but on the way to ennobling the life of man and restoring due respect for the source of our life and all our worth, which is God and God alone?
By the word and example of Christ, we are told not to fear those who can destroy the body, but rather the one who destroys both body and soul in Hell (Matthew 10:28). The death penalty is not, from Christ's perspective, the most terrible fate. The most terrible fate is the one the murderer Cain experienced. Tellingly, the reprieve by which God extended his life also allowed his line to inflict upon the world the plague of prideful, violence that makes sin man's constant idol, so that "every intention of the thoughts of his heart" devises evil continually.
The notion that human beings have somehow outlived that wicked preoccupation is devilish nonsense. The 20th century should have proven that without a doubt. The present one shows ugly signs and portents of proving it more emphatically than ever. Whatever fine intention is avowed by those who sit in judgment of God's institution of the death penalty, we would do well to revere His judgment above our own. For what King Duncan said of the murderous Thane of Cawdor, we have reason to say to those who seek to slay humanity's body and soul in the Hell on Earth they promise in exchange for affirming the death of God: "More is thy due than more than all can pay."
Cain felt the truth of this judgment when God instituted the death penalty to curb our human hubris. For human pride pretends that, in the face of such evil, we can vaunt compassion as we sit in judgment of God's institution of the death penalty. But Catholic teaching rebukes this pretense. It helps us to realize that God's omniscience informs His judgment. God knows the true worth of His image and likeness within us. Despite our sins, it abides, albeit hidden beneath the tragic ruins left by sin. It awaits the saving, righteous Word of Christ, recalling us to glory or perdition.
God knows what we do not: the full and infinite extent of evil involved when one human being murders another. The death penalty for murderers is therefore not so much an act of retributive justice, as it is a demonstration of just humility. Only God can truly judge what God alone can truly understand. But His word to all humanity enjoins us to dispatch blood-shedding murderers to Him for judgment. I would, therefore, humbly ask Pope Francis, "Who are we to sit in judgment of God’s executive order?"