I think Antonin Scalia makes a lot of sense in what he says about the death penalty and the traditional Catholic teaching on it, but he is mistaken in what he says about the Catholic faith (“Scalia Defends Death Penalty,” Feb. 17-23). It is not just the infallible or ex cathedra teachings which a Catholic must believe; all of the teachings of the ordinary magisterium on faith and morals bind the conscience of the Catholic faithful. As Lumen Gentium points out, those teachings in the ordinary magisterium that have been constantly reaffirmed are infallible for that very reason.

Even though Scalia misstates Catholic teaching on the deposit of Faith, he is still on the right track. How can a moral doctrine like the Church's teaching on the death penalty, which has been constantly reaffirmed over the centuries, be changed by one pope? Scalia believes in the traditional Catholic teaching on the death penalty, reaffirmed as recently as 1953 by Pope Pius XII, but not in the teaching of Pope John Paul II. How can Scalia be wrong, let alone a “dissenter,” since he is believing in a constantly reaffirmed and hence infallible teaching of the ordinary magisterium?

I think the answer is that the present pope's teaching on the death penalty is no teaching at all. It is simply his prudential judgment on the issue being passed off in the Catechism as a revised or developed Catholic teaching. This situation in the Church today is not right and must be corrected. If one reads the relevant paragraph in Evangelium Vitae, one can see that the present pope has keyed his virtual opposition to the death penalty to his perception that the modern penal system without recourse to the death penalty is effective enough to do the job of protecting society on its own. The problem is that his teaching charism does not cover things like criminology. His teaching office pertains to matters of faith and morals only. I'm sure Antonin Scalia would have more authority on the question of the effectiveness of the modern penal system than the pope would.

In your editorial “Scalia's Dissenting Opinion” (Feb. 17-23), you imply that St Thomas Aquinas would have come around to this pope's particular view on the death penalty. I think that is highly unlikely. My reading of the Summa tells me that the Angelic Doctor saw God's granting of the ultimate sanction to mankind as keyed into human nature — the Cain and Abel factor, if you will — and not dependent on changes in human society. Society can become more civilized, which would make recourse to the death penalty less necessary in the interest of not using excessive force.

But human nature does not change and there will always be crimes that cry to heaven for vengeance. For these crimes, at least, recourse to the ultimate sanction is true justice and should be applied to the offender. “If a man be dangerous and infectious to the community on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good.” — St. Thomas Aquinas.


Montague, New Jersey

Editor's Note: Since we have received many letters on this subject, we believe it is worth addressing, in some detail, the issues Mr. Trouve raises.

Mr. Scalia oughtn't be called a “dissenter,” says the letter, because, in disagreeing with the Pope, Scalia is affirming the magisterium. Yet this can't be right, since it implies that the Pope is the dissenter rather than the one who says the Pope is wrong.

Pope John Paul II is no dissenter. Nor is his teaching in opposition to historical Church teaching. In fact, the Catechism — updated to incorporate the teaching of Evangelium Vitae — begins its treatment of the death penalty (in No. 2267) by stating:

“Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”

St. Thomas Aquinas says essentially the same thing in the letter's quote and in the quote from our editorial. The Catechism goes on to teach that we ought not kill when we need not kill.

“If, however, nonlethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.”

The Catechism's next sentence, taken from Evangelium Vitae, is not “keyed to an understanding of the penal system”; rather, it teaches that what a state ought to do when it has no good reason to resort to capital punishment:

“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 definitely 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.”

Under the circumstances, we don't think that St. Thomas Aquinas, were he alive today, would dissent from the Catechism's teaching.