Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
Jack Smith over at the Catholic Key tells us that when the US Conference of Catholic Bishops launches Respect Life Month in October, one of the seven major articles made available in their Respect Life Program will concern the Church’s teaching on the Death Penalty. Here is the article, penned by Bp. Robert W. Finn:
Divine Mercy and the death penalty
By Most Rev. Robert W. Finn
“The greater the misery of a soul, the greater its right to My mercy. . . . On the cross, the fountain of My mercy was opened wide by the lance for all souls—no one have I excluded!” (Diary of St. Maria Faustina Kowalska: Divine Mercy in My Soul, p.1182)
“Help us O God of our salvation; . . . according to thy great power, preserve those doomed to die!” (Psalm 79:9, 11)
In January of 1999, Pope John Paul II made a pastoral visit to St. Louis. When he met with Governor Mel Carnahan of Missouri, the Holy Father asked him to commute the death sentence of Darrell Mease, who was scheduled to be executed in the next weeks. Carnahan granted the Pope’s wish, saying he was moved by the Pope’s appeal for mercy.
The Pope did not request a reevaluation of the merits of the condemned man’s case. Rather, he presented a simple and straightforward petition for mercy. The sentence was changed from death by lethal injection to life imprisonment without parole. The common good of society remained protected from the perpetrator. Justice was not confounded, but a higher purpose was served in putting aside the irreversible remedy of death.
The Church’s stance on capital punishment has always been based on the responsibility to protect society. St. Thomas Aquinas says that the legitimate civil authority is obliged to defend people from a dangerous criminal. At the same time, he cautions, “The execution of the wicked is forbidden wherever . . . the wicked are not clearly distinguished from the good.” (Summa Contra Gentiles V., Book III, c.146). Besides reminding us of well-known cases where innocent people were condemned to die, this should remind us that as Christians we are urged not to see anyone as irredeemably wicked.
An alternative to the death penalty
Prior to his intervention in St. Louis, Pope John Paul had laid out his case for the limitation of the use of the death penalty in his encyclical The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae) (1995) and in his extraordinary 1997 modification of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). He still allowed for the application of the death penalty as a just choice that authority may make in its responsibility to safeguard society from the unjust aggressor. Yet the revised text goes on to say: “Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm—without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself—the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.’”
The sworn responsibility of authority to secure the common good is not easily laid aside. But here the Church, convinced that society can be protected without executing dangerous criminals, charges us to look to a less violent, less final remedy. The Catechism directs us to a solution that preserves the common good without definitively curtailing the individual good of the perpetrator, offering him the opportunity for redemption. Each man, no matter how sinful and flawed, has a final purpose and call to salvation, one that we ought not too easily or unnecessarily preempt.
The above is the “ought” for laying aside the death penalty: legitimate authority can fulfill its responsibility using lesser but sufficient means for protecting the common good. But we should add that the argument of Divine Mercy, while never violating justice, transcends the human “ought.”
Mercy surpasses justice and heals hurts
The correct dispensing of justice always seeks to provide something which is well suited to the person and the circumstance. Justice is giving each person his “due.” (CCC, no. 1807) When Jesus freely submitted to human “justice,” He provided by means of His Cross an act of justification that, because He was divine, satisfied all our sins.
God did not abolish justice. Rather, He intended by the offering of His Son to purge human justice of any sense of wrath or revenge. Time and again we see that violence begets violence in a seeming unending spiral. God told St. Faustina that “Mankind will not have peace until it turns with trust to My mercy.” (Diary, p.300)
In the Divine Mercy, God receives and quenches human vengeance in Jesus’ own wounded Heart. In this Heart, which is an abyss of love, mercy overcomes hatred. Mercy brings healing that is impossible on a merely human level. Divine Mercy can restore hope, because it flows from the heart of the Risen Christ who, once and for all, has vanquished the finality of death. The deep truth that faith teaches is that only in the context of mercy—God’s mercy and our own forgiveness and mercy—can we, as wounded human men and women, find healing and hope. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Mt 5:7).
A prayer of reparation
The Chaplet of Divine Mercy, which God gave to the world through St. Faustina, is a beautiful prayer that has a powerful efficacy to repair the hurt wrought by sin. As we respond to God’s call to continuing conversion, the invocations of the Chaplet may be offered as a litany of reparation. With our hearts turned to the Father, we use the Chaplet to profess and invoke God’s mercy accomplished in Christ’s sorrowful Passion. We unite ourselves with the sacrifice of His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world.
When human efforts seem futile and human solutions leave us empty, we pray the Chaplet to beg for a new beginning: the healing of the damage done by our sins and those of others. Our plea for mercy will not fail to reach the Father.
Christ’s execution and the gift of Divine Mercy
The Church’s annual novena to the Divine Mercy begins on Good Friday, the day of the execution of Jesus. The hour of mercy is the hour of His saving sacrifice. This is when blood and water gushed out for our salvation. “On the cross, the fountain of My mercy was opened by the lance for all souls—no one have I excluded.” (Diary, p.1182) This is the moment that shook the world and stirred the faith of the pagan centurion to say, “Truly, this was the Son of God.” (Mt 27:54)
As we seek a reason to put aside the practice of the death penalty, perhaps the best motive is our desire to imitate God in His mercy toward those for whom Jesus died. Mary, Mother of mercy, pray for us and teach us to show mercy to others.
Most Rev. Robert W. Finn has been bishop of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph (Missouri) since 2005. A former chairman of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Task Force on the Life and Dignity of the Human Person, he is currently a consultant to the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities. The accompanying article is a component of the 2010-2011 Respect Life Program of the USCCB’s Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities.
The Cafeteria being as wide open on the right as on the left in America, the normal way this will be treated by prolifers who like the death penalty will be with the standard insistence that “non-dogmatic” means “disposable”. This, strangely, is not the attitude that prolife Catholics take with Humanae Vitae (which also defines no dogma), but it is the attitude they often tend to take with Evangelium Vitae, at least when it comes to the Church’s counsel that the death penalty should only be imposed as a last resort. I’ve never understood this, nor the cavalier way in which death penalty supporters can casually blow off the clear guidance of the Church with the logic “Prudential” mean “I can do whatever I like”. Take, for instance this knee jerk response immediately following at Catholic Key:
Bishop Finn’s mistake is forgivable since the CCC makes the same mistake. The highest purpose of the criminal justice system is NOT protecting society. Justice is first and foremost about giving to each what is deserved. What is the JUST punishment for this particular crime? Punishment involves the deprevation of a good. Are there some crimes so heinous that they only good that can be surrendered that is commensurate with the evil done is the good of temporal life itself? The first obligation of criminal justice is retribution (NOT vengeance) - a balancing of the scales. Aquinas himself argues for the idea of retributiion being the first obligation of criminal justice. Until we recover this awareness the lack of clarity on this issue will remain.
So nice of Some Guy with a Keyboard to correct the mistaken teaching of Holy Church in Evangelium Vitae. As everybody knows, St. Thomas would be the first to exalt himself over the teaching of Holy Church and tell the Pope what a dunce he is when he is articulating the Faith of the Church and applying it to the issues of the day. Totally his style.
What so many Catholic, left and right, don’t seem to get is that our task as Catholics is to make sense, not nonsense, of the Church’s teaching. When the Church clearly articulates guidance—and that *typically* means non-dogmatic guidance—our job is not to say, “Does this agree with my personal preference?: If so, I will berate people (like those damn contraceptors who won’t listen to Humanae Vitae over there) for not listening to the Magisterium. If not, I will blow it off as the prudential opinion of Euro-weenies who are over-influenced by liberals. JPII was fine, but he was also one of those pointy-headed intellectuals, so his views on the death penalty can be brushed off as a mistake and I don’t have to think about it at all.”
Sorry, but the Church does not exist to affirm us in our ideological preferences. It exists to teach us (among other things) and challenge us with the truth of the gospel. Our posture is to be one of docility to the voice of the Magisterium, not to be blogospheric popinjays who glance at the teaching, declare it nonsense, and return to our comfy ideological holes. We are not, as Catholics, to play the game of Simon Peter Says, in which the Faith is reduced to nothing but a few dogmas, while all the rest of the Church’s wisdom is to be reflexively spat out if it does not comport with our cramped tribal pieties. Only thus and not otherwise will our Catholic faith fulfill the truth Chesterton spoke when he said, “The Catholic Church is the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.”