U.S. Bishops Approve the Pope’s Capital Punishment Ban

Sæva indignatio. Few writers in the history of English letters could express “savage indignation” at human folly as did Jonathan Swift who wrote those words for his own epitaph. Our times give ample opportunity to empathize with him, and that is never more so than when clerics get together in large numbers.

Bishops have many daunting responsibilities and, if they are reasonable, they are not fleet of foot to beat a path to synods and conferences and plenary sessions and other impositions on their august office. Their patience in such meetings is exemplary, and so lesser souls should be patient with them when they sometimes fail to match up to Athanasius or Borromeo.

At the U.S. bishops’ General Assembly that took place June 11-14 in Baltimore, there were many items to discuss, chief of which was a protocol on how to handle prurient offenders, which passed under the lumbering title “Directives for the Implementation of the Provisions of Vos estis lux mundi Concerning Bishops and their Equivalents.” Vos estis lux mundi is the papal motu proprio issued on May 9, 2019, which prescribed procedures for holding bishops and religious superiors accountable for handling cases of sex abuse. Working within the framework of the Church’s hierarchical constitution, it retains bishops as their own regulators, while acknowledging that their failures in the past have cost the Church billions of dollars in fines and punitive damages.

This brought to mind the poet Juvenal—a match for Jonathan Swift when it comes to savage indignation—when he asked in his Satires: “Who will guard the guards?” Swift and Juvenal together at a conference of bishops would have provided lively commentary, and for that matter so would have Samuel Johnson. Dr. Johnson loathed Swift, probably because they were so alike in their instinct for righteous irritation, expressed in colorful ways in part perhaps because Swift was aggravated by an equilibrium disorder called Meniere’s disease while Johnson almost certainly had Tourette syndrome. Juvenal’s apostrophe, Quis ipsos custodes custodiet?, concerned the problem of randy guards guarding sex offenders. He proposed replacing them with eunuchs, not a practical solution today even with the current trend of “sex reassignment surgery.”

The saeve idignatio emerging from the Baltimore meeting, however, was not the response to the Vos estis document. After all, that issue has been a muddle for a long while. Rather, a more astonishing matter, though little noted by the multitude, was the Assembly’s handling of the controversial issue of capital punishment. Indeed, the bishops were informed that they were not to discuss the doctrine itself, but were only to consider the translation of a papal revision of the Catechism on the matter, specifically paragraph 2267. In 1992, John Paul II had revised this section, problematically inserting a prudential opinion discouraging lethal executions. But he also allowed: “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.” Supposedly, the latest revision exalts mercy at the expense of justice, neglectful of what the newly elected John Paul II said in a general audience in 1978: “There is no love without justice.” Until the present day’s climate of disdain for doctrine, “mercy and truth are met together” (Psalm 85:10), but, in the new dialectic, mercy has devoured truth altogether.

While John Paul’s revision text maintained the authentic teaching and the legitimacy of such punishment, the inclusion of a prudential opinion in a catechetical exposition of established doctrine opened the way for abuse, as this writer among others predicted. Now this has happened in a blatant way, and it is all the more confusing for its inarticulateness. Specifically, the new section calls capital punishment “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” Not for the first time in recent years, this woolgathering has opened a real can of worms. “Inadmissible” is not a theological term, and use of it without explanation is contentious. As a legal term, “inadmissible” means that it is not relevant to the case. In other words, capital punishment is to be treated as no longer relevant to justice, thus dismissing the magisterial structures based on natural law and Scripture. The cavalier treatment of natural law and Scriptural evidence makes prospects for maintaining all moral doctrine fragile and all moral praxis subjective.

Aware of the monumental dangers of this, a group of prelates published a “Declaration of the Truths Relating to Some of the Most Common Errors in the Life of the Church of Our Time” which included a relevant point (n. 28):

In accordance with Holy Scripture and the constant tradition of the ordinary and universal Magisterium, the Church did not err in teaching that the civil power may lawfully exercise capital punishment on malefactors where this is truly necessary to preserve the existence or just order of societies (cf. Gen. 9:6; John 19:11; Rom. 13:1-7; Innocent III, Professio fidei Waldensibuspraescripta; Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent, p. III, 5, n. 4; Pius XII, Address to Catholic jurists on December 5, 1954).

There have even been bishops so impatient with the subtleties that make theology logical that they have turned two thousand years of Christianity upside down by announcing that the death penalty is absolutely immoral. This epistemological novocaine contradicts an advisory of Cardinal Ratzinger in 1992: “If a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment … he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion.”

One supposes that the use of the term “inadmissible,” clumsy as it is, is an attempt to shy from being explicit and even heretical on the matter. The canon lawyer Edward Peters wrote that “declaring the death penalty as immoral per se puts one at risk of asserting something that many qualified scholars argue powerfully is opposed to infallible Church teaching, and possibly even to contradicting something divinely revealed. The real possibility of so offending the truth should, I think, trigger more respectful caution by those in positions of authority when speaking on these matters.”

When the proposed revision of the Catechism’s section on the death penalty was introduced at the Baltimore assembly, one perceptive bishop asked what “inadmissible” means. The bishop selected to present the text said that the proposed draft provided “a context and justification for the development of this teaching on the dignity of the human person, but also emphasizes the continuity of Catholic teaching on the topic.” Here at work is George Orwell’s doublethink which mitigates cognitive dissonance by proposing two contradictory statements as mutually complimentary. Thus, doublethink claims with a straight face that to declare the death penalty inadmissible is identical to the Church’s uninterrupted magisterium which maintained that capital punishment is admissible and even sometimes necessary. In 2019 as in 1984, anyone who can make dissonance mellifluous by using a condescending facility of expression is considered an intellectual beacon, even when his intelligence is merely above average where average is modest. And this is because, as Erasmus wrote in his Adagia, “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” Our Lord warned that there is a peril in following disseminators of cognitive dissonance: “Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch” (Matt. 15:14).

Sadly, things got worse. For when pressed on the specific point of what “inadmissible” means as used in the proposed text, the responding bishop said: “To my mind, the pope maintains and our version imitates a certain, if you want, eloquent ambiguity on that point.” Eloquent ambiguity. No bishop asked for further explanation and a silence fell on the room, like the silence when the sons of Noah covered their father’s nakedness, but this time the shame was rhetorical. It was this writer’s pleasure to have been a priest for William F. Buckley, who, like Newman’s gentleman, was “merciful to the absurd.” But had anyone described confused and potentially heretical thought as “eloquent ambiguity,” Bill would have replied, as he did indeed do to a guest on his Firing Line television program: “I won’t insult your intelligence by suggesting that you really believe what you just said.” To that we might add that executing a man is swifter and more humane than torturing him with clichés and hanging him with a frayed syllogism.

There is a time and place for ambiguity when it is an exercise of temperate expression. The ancient Greeks even had a deity or daimon, Sophrosyne, who represented a strength of character exemplified by discretion, circumspection, and restraint, according to Socrates in Plato’s Charmedes. But such venerable shrewdness is not the cynicism that cajoles bureaucrats into calculation for the sake of obfuscation and servile ambition. Significantly, when Sophrosyne escaped Pandora’s box, she retreated to Mount Olympus, leaving the human race, including its clergymen, bereft of her guidance. “Sophrosyne,” meaning moral sanity or restraint, was for Stoics like Zeno one of the four chief virtues and it remains a cardinal virtue for Christians. It is far different from ambiguity in the sense of obfuscation. That “uncertain trumpet” helps explain why 50 percent of millennial Catholics have left the Church, leaving it “unprepared for battle” (1 Cor. 14:8).

If “inadmissible” does not mean something essentially different from what has already been said magisterially about capital punishment, why is it necessary to revise the Catechism to include it? Secondly, if the word “inadmissible” is deliberately ambiguous, why does it belong in a catechism whose purpose is to eschew ambiguity? After all, in a catechism, ambiguity is even more problematic than a prudential opinion. Thirdly, how can ambiguity be eloquent since the etymology of eloquence means “forcefully expressive” and “revelatory” and is thus the opposite of verbal camouflage?

Only the angels of light know what would happen if assemblies of bishops spoke like the Lord “with authority and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22). Or suppose the bishops operated on the dominical principle: “But let your speech be yea, yea: no, no: and that which is over and above these, is of evil” (Matt. 5:37). An incapacity for indignation at calculated ambiguity is the consequence of a bureaucratic culture which melds ayes and nays into maybes. At the Baltimore assembly, the bishops approved the eloquently ambiguous statement by a vote of 194 for and 8 against, with 3 abstentions. Perhaps they were thinking like Nancy Pelosi, who said of the Affordable Care Act: “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.” Years from now, whether the Church will have risen from its present slough of despondency to a shining new eminence, or lie battered in a heap of broken basilicas and quivering banalities, the wonderful question will be: “How was it that, at a meeting in 2019, almost all of the American bishops voted for something without knowing what it means?”

Fr. George W. Rutler

Fr. George W. Rutler is pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. He is the author of many books including Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press) and Hints of Heaven (Sophia Institute Press). His latest books are He Spoke To Us (Ignatius, 2016); The Stories of Hymns (EWTN Publishing, 2017); and Calm in Chaos (Ignatius, 2018).