In this week's Register, a distinguished panel discusses the Church's teaching on the death penalty: Cardinal Avery Dulles, Justice Antonin Scalia, Notre Dame Law Professor Charles Rice and Father George Rutler.
We believe it's important to discuss Pope John Paul II's teaching that supportable uses of the death penalty have all but disappeared — understandably, many Catholics struggle with the teaching.
But the Pope's teaching shouldn't just be discussed and debated — it should be defended and adopted.
Many readers have written us to argue that they needn't agree with every prudential judgment of a pope. They inform us that they have considered his prudential judgment about the death penalty and rejected it.
They should reconsider. The Pope's teaching on capital punishment doesn't seem like a mere “prudential judgment.” John Paul opposed the Gulf War, for instance. His opposition to the Gulf War was something that Catholics ought to have taken seriously; since it came from the Pope, we at the Register even felt it was important to adopt it. But Catholics weren't bound in any way to do so.
In the case of capital punishment, however, the Pope hasn't merely called for capital punishment to be opposed by Catholics (which is already more than he did in the case of the Gulf War). No, he has put the highest level of Vatican diplomacy behind that call, including personally interceding on behalf of men and women on death row. And he hasn't merely written about the matter in general audience or Regina Caeli addresses; he has codified it in an encyclical, which carries nearly the heftiest possible doctrinal weight. And he didn't just write it in an encyclical: He saw that it was incorporated into the Catechism.
Some have been disappointed by the Register's strong words in defense of that teaching. Catholics ought to be even more disappointed with those who blithely oppose the Pope.
We should press for fidelity to the magisterium on every subject. When the Holy Father tells us in nearly every imaginable way — from pep talks to encyclicals to personal action — that he wants capital punishment stopped, and we treat that teaching as a casual thing, we only encourage the dangerous modern tendency to shrug off the teachings of the Church.
That's why our original editorial objects not to discussion of the teaching, but to the manner in which it is discussed. It is well and good to raise serious questions about Church teaching in forums that are meant to help Catholics better understand the teaching. But to simply convince people that the Pope is wrong is inappropriate and irresponsible.
Think of it this way: If a scientist believed that the drinking water used by most Americans was carcinogenic, no one would question his right to press the matter in scientific journals and in discussions with peers. But if he held a press conference to tell the world about it, rather than subjecting his theory to peer scrutiny that might disprove it, he would be guilty of dangerous sensationalism.
If the way we air scientific theories is important, then the way we air our opinions about faith and morals is even more important, because they touch on the soul. And if we're worried about someone saying drinking water is poisonous, we should be even more worried about someone who says papal teachings are at variance with Catholic truth.
Some argue that Pope John Paul II is too influenced by his experience of 20th century Poland — which fell under the grip of Nazis and Soviets during his lifetime — to see the death penalty issue clearly.
Perhaps it's the opposite. Perhaps, since he has seen what the culture of death is capable of, he wants to stop it in its tracks.
There's a reason we have a pope, and there's a reason this one is warning us with full throat about capital punishment. We ignore him at our peril.