Louie Verrecchio
October 13, 2011
Expressing human dignity via the death penalty
By Louie Verrecchio

Catholic News Service recently published a story under the rather dogmatic sounding title, "Dead wrong: Catholics must no longer support capital punishment."

The storyline largely hinges on a condescending quote from Tommaso Di Ruzza, a "desk officer" at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, who said, "It is not a message that is immediately understood — that there is no room for supporting the death penalty in today's world."

No room? Really?

It would seem that either the desk to which Di Ruzza has been appointed came outfitted with a matching cathedra, or perhaps it is he who doesn't immediately understand Catholic doctrine on the matter.

In truth, the issue of capital punishment is not nearly as clear cut as Di Ruzza (and many in the left-leaning media both Catholic and otherwise — a red flag if ever there was one) wish to contend.

The fact of the matter is that Catholic teaching has always held, and continues to hold, that there is "room" for the just application of the death penalty under certain circumstances; the questions that remain are how much room and to what end — the answers to which have not been definitively provided by the sacred Magisterium in spite of Di Ruzza's self-assurance to the contrary

It is certainly true that Pope John Paul II spoke out often against capital punishment; consistently calling for its practical elimination.

It is likewise true that Pope Benedict XVI has largely upheld his predecessor's view that capital punishment is "an affront to human dignity," which is hardly surprising given their shared formative experiences during World War II.

It must also be noted, however, that the Holy Father has never sought to distance himself from the words that he spoke in 2004 as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith when he said, "There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia."

Cardinal Ratzinger's position makes a very important distinction between that which is never justified and that which sometimes is, one that Di Ruzza arrogantly dismisses as ill-informed.

What in practice constitutes the proper application of the death penalty is subject to change according to time, circumstance and place as Sacred Scripture itself clearly attests.

When Cain murdered Abel, for instance, the Lord did not demand Cain's life in return; in fact, He took steps to protect it (Gen 4). Immediately following the flood, however, God instituted a death penalty saying, "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image" (Gen 9).

So, what exactly facilitated this change in "public policy?"

Had the relative value of human life somehow increased? Had God Himself changed? The answer in both cases is certainly not! What changed was the condition and the needs of humankind as determined according to God's infinite wisdom.

In considering the proper role of capital punishment when creating laws that will serve to teach truth in an effort to form a just society (as all good laws do), our focus should never stray far from the one constant in the matter — the inviolable sanctity of all human life.

This means we must carefully assess that which is always changing as well; namely, the condition and needs of modern society, so we can then determine how best to communicate, uphold and teach eternal truths through the rule of law.

The time has surely come for us to ask a hard question:

Has the John Paul II approach to capital punishment been effective in promoting a culture of life, or has it in some way become a contributing factor in the current culture of death?

Let's be honest — the sacred hierarchy in recent decades has expended so much energy focusing on the dignity of human life as it exists in convicted killers that the infinite value of the innocent lives taken in the commission of violent crime have been inadvertently overshadowed.

Think about it, have you ever seen an American bishop before a body of legislators testifying as to the infinite value of human life on behalf of a murder victim? The intentions of our shepherds have undoubtedly been good in this effort, but at some point — and I would suggest now — we need to ask ourselves what we have to show for it.

An honest answer is that we have a culture that embraces a view of human life that is as distorted today as it has ever been.

Has anyone else ever noticed that individuals who decry the unfairness of capital punishment are not infrequently the very same people who support a woman's "right" to exterminate the child in her womb? Wherein lies the common thread if not a certain ambivalence toward murder?

Or what should we make of the fact that no small number of the anti-capital punishment crowd, though all-too-often unmoved by the slaughter of millions of unborn children, are frequently among the very first to stand up for so-called "animal rights" and radical environmental causes? Is not the common thread here the outright rejection of God's image as it exists in mankind alone?

Clearly, wholesale opposition to capital punishment has not been a very effective tool for promoting an understanding of man's unique dignity; in fact, I would submit that it may just be having the exact opposite effect.

When a secularized nation enacts laws prohibiting capital punishment outright (e.g., as Australia recently did) many naively assume that this constitutes a victory for the culture of life. Closer examination, however, reveals that it may very well be more accurate to consider it a manifestation of the kind of humanistic narcissism that considers man to be the ultimate goal and master of all things; the final arbiter in determining the relative value of individual human beings, fully capable of deciding who shall live and who shall die.

It's high time to admit that the hierarchy's stand against capital punishment in recent decades has sent the unintended, false message that human life is of finite, calculable value. In other words, it has apparently been interpreted by the culture at large to mean that the worth of human life can be measured just as the price one must justly pay in exchange for murder is something to be weighed, similar to the way in which various sentences are determined in response to other serious crimes.

The result, as we can now plainly see, is that our society has lost sight of the uniquely infinite value of human life, as a result, our laws and our lifestyles routinely place greater value on other, far inferior things.

In a country where Bernard Madoff received a sentence of 150 years in jail for financial fraud and yet murderers frequently outlive their prison sentences, is it any wonder that American culture tends to value money, status and power over people? Of course not — this is exactly what our laws are communicating, and if we're honest we must admit that the John Paul II contribution to the death penalty debate hasn't helped.

The bottom line is this — Tommaso Di Ruzza's pontifications, dutifully disseminated the world over by Catholic News Service, shamefully misrepresent Church teaching.

Faithful Catholics have every right, and indeed the duty, to debate how the truth of human dignity is best communicated as it relates to capital punishment in our quest to form a just society through the rule of law.

Given the fact that anti-capital punishment ideologues are often very comfortable bedfellows with those who support legalized abortion, earth worship, gay marriage and a whole host of other godless agendas, it should be painfully obvious by now that the present course of action — one that purports to promote a culture of life by calling for the elimination of the death penalty — is failing miserably.

Hindsight and logic alone would seem to suggest that the infinite value of human life may only be truly reflected when the price paid for murder is of equally infinite value; that penalty, of course, being death itself.

As such, it is reasonable to believe that the death penalty might paradoxically be the clearest and surest way to demonstrate to the culture at large the inherent dignity and infinite value of every human life.

© Louie Verrecchio

 

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Louie Verrecchio

Louie Verrecchio is the author of several titles including the internationally acclaimed Harvesting the Fruit of Vatican II Faith Formation Series. A columnist for Catholic News Agency from 2009–2013, his writing on a wide variety of Catholic topics has been published by media outlets all over the English speaking world. He has been the featured speaker at numerous conferences in parishes and dioceses throughout the United States, and his work has been endorsed by such notable churchmen as Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop Alexander Sample, Bishop Walker Nickless and others. He is one of traditional Catholicism's most widely-read bloggers. For more information, please visit: www.HarvestingTheFruit.com

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