Say what you like about Pope Francis, (and lots of uncharitable people do), he’s manna from heaven for the media.
Last week the Vatican released the new Catholic Catechism, a sort of owner’s manual for the faithful, in which it declares, “The death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” On taking a closer look, I was surprised to learn that, up until now, the Catholic Church had not entirely condemned capital punishment. In fact, in some instances, the general opinion was it’s not such a bad idea. We might reasonably assume that Catholicism would be dead-set against judicial murder, considering its unyielding stance on abortion. But no.
Quite a few ‘’traditional’’ Catholics are very put-out by the Pope’s latest ruling, asserting he has no right to change the Church’s centuries-old stance on killing prisoners. And what’s more, they add, “it’s in the Bible.” Well, so are a lot of spectacularly horrible things. Best not go down that road.
And It seems to me that changing the Church’s stance is exactly what popes ought to be paid to do, if it seems necessary to them.
According to Francis, the death penalty is, “contrary to the gospel, because it entails the wilful 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.” Which I take to be a somewhat arcane way of saying that only God has the right to kill people.
I also find it odd that nobody, on either side, cites the Fifth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” How clear does the message have to be? After that, there doesn’t seem a whole lot left to bicker about – but apparently there is.
Fortunately, nobody so far has trotted out the weary old, “an eye for an eye,” line, which is just as well. It inevitably leads to “a life for a life,’’ then “a war for a war,’’ and “a holocaust for a holocaust.’’ And nobody (well, hardly anybody) wants that.
Coincidently, just as the Catechism was raising pious eyebrows, I’d just reread The Plague, by Albert Camus, in which one of the characters delivers a lengthy diatribe against the French practice of officially murdering its citizens. The book was published in 1947, when France was still in the habit of guillotining malefactors.
Go back just a few centuries, and we find the church itself encouraging executions – not only for murder, but over what Montaigne, another great French writer, wryly dubbed “differences of opinion.’’ He was referring, of course, to heresy – but sheep-stealing, homosexuality, and blasphemy also could (and frequently did) cost many souls their lives.
Civilization has advanced since those dark days. France doesn’t officially kill its criminals anymore, nor does any other European country. This is progress. This is good.
However, 31 states in the United States still can, and do, put people to death. The world still has a ways to go yet, but human decency is getting there, one fewer death at a time, guided by the occasional nudge from His Holiness.
Patrick O'Gara, a former Blade editor, was a journalist all his working life. He now lives in Northern Spain with five dogs, two cats and eight hens, and a tolerant American wife.
Contact him at email@example.com.
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