NEW YORK — Can Catholics who disagree with the Pope's teaching on the death penalty still call themselves good Catholics?

That's a growing question in the wake of Pope John Paul II's strong pronouncements against the death penalty and the strong anti-capital punishment language in the revised edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

On Oct. 27, two faithful Catholics who hold conflicting views on the death penalty engaged in a friendly debate at the Union League Club in New York. Popular author and television commentator Father George Rutler argued for its use, and National Catholic Register correspondent Alejandro Bermudez came out against it.

“I'm for the death penalty for the same reason the Pope is against it,” Father Rutler said to the crowd of about 85 professionals who had gathered for the event. “I'm for it because I believe in the dignity of human life.”

By exacting the ultimate price for murder, Father Rutler explained, the state reaffirms the importance of the life taken and the evil of the act committed. He added that the essential point to remember is that the Pope has not called capital punishment intrinsically evil.

Father Rutler said he would defend anyone's right to oppose the death penalty, but said he fears that some Catholics have become so concerned about defending the Pope from secular assailants that they end up assuming he can't ever be disagreed with.

“The Catholic tradition has always defended the legitimacy of the death penalty on the basis of the natural law principle that the state has the right to protect itself, with whatever means necessary, from threats to the common good,” Father Rutler told the Register. “I am very concerned that second-rate theologians will exploit the Holy Father's teaching in order to sentimentalize the logic of the Church's traditional defense of capital punishment.”

But Father Rutler's sparring partner, Alejandro Bermudez, had his own fears, which he made clear in a conversation with the Register after the debate.

“I became concerned with capital punishment,” Bermudez said, “when I began to see many loyal defenders of the Church opposing the Pope on the death penalty, people who are very supportive of the Pope on most other issues. It gave me the feeling that many of them are supporters of the Pope insofar as he supports their politics.”

“It seemed to me that this was a case of Americanism,” added Bermudez, a native of Peru.

Bermudez opened the debate with the surprising claim that he considered the death penalty legitimate — but not in developed countries such as the United States. He said countries that lack civil order or which have no organized penal system, the death penalty might be necessary. He cited Peru as an example of a country that, in the fight against terrorism, has used the death penalty to good effect.

“Since death is a mystery,” Bermudez said, the death penalty should be a last resort, not one of many forms of punishment available to magistrates in a civil society.

“Popes who have defended the death penalty in the past were not making definitive teachings,” Bermudez said. “[We should recognize] a development in the Church's doctrine here. The Pope is teaching that we should move away from the death penalty in a civil society to avoid playing with a mystery. We shouldn't go looking for excuses in theologians who disagree with the Pope to defend our own views,” Bermudez said. “In the end, it is the Pope who has the supreme right to make final statements, not the theologians.”

Father Rutler minimized the extent to which Catholics are bound to follow Pope John Paul's teaching on capital punishment, saying it represents a mere “prudential judgment” of the Holy Father.

But Father Rutler's view would likely prove problematic for many in the Church.

For instance, Notre Dame law professor Charles Rice, an author and specialist on the natural law and questions of fidelity to the magisterium, told the Register in a recent unpublished interview: “You've got to ask is this the successor of Peter? And the answer is: He is the successor of Peter. Evangelium Vitae is not merely his personal opinion [on the death penalty]. They've put it in the Catechism.”

Rice, who once supported the death penalty, said the teaching is a challenge for many, and called it “the Humanae Vitae of orthodox, conservative Catholics.”

In Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) No. 56, the Pope wrote, “the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, reflecting the Church's preference for nonlethal methods of maintaining civil order, says in No. 2267, “If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.”

The debate between Bermudez and Father Rutler was held under the auspices of the Youth Auxiliary of the Knights of Malta. Proceeds from the event went to support ACI-PRENSA, an organization directed by Bermudez that is committed to educating and catechizing the 5 million poor who surround Peru's major cities. Many of the poor had fled from rural locations in fear of the Shining Path guerrillas, who terrorized the country between 1984 and 1994.

At the end of the death penalty debate, its organizer Bill Grace said, “What remains to be seen is whether or not the Pope could declare his teaching on this infallible in the future.”

(John Mallon contributed to this article.)