Beliefnet
One Sunday last July, the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend in Indiana had a video shown in all its churches in lieu of a homily. The subject was the death penalty, and the video gave the distinct impression that the Catholic Church now condemns capital punishment and, consequently, that lay Indianans should agitate for repeal of the death penalty in their state.

Sitting in the pews were many Catholics of the kind called Conservative. That is, Catholics who have remained loyal to the pope and his teaching while all around them our culture of dissent told them that they could make up their own minds--chiefly about sexual morality. A few years ago, in the encyclical Gospel of Life, John Paul II had argued that the death penalty should become so rare as to disappear. It was now possible to protect society from dangerous criminals by imprisonment, something that had the added bonus of providing a prolonged opportunity for repentance on the part of the imprisoned. The relevant paragraphs of the Catechism of the Catholic Church were revised to bring them in line with the Gospel of Life.

After the pope's statement, Catholics who hadn't been particularly known for their susceptibility to papal direction eagerly embraced the campaign against capital punishment. The church itself seemed to be allying herself with societal forces that were otherwise hostile to church teaching. What was going on? Had the pope changed the church's traditional doctrine--that the state had the right to exact capital punishment--in order to sign onto a campaign already in process under secular auspices? Could that doctrine be changed by papal fiat? And was the pope letting down his loyal troops?

The pope's personal opposition to the death penalty is little in doubt. It has become commonplace for the Vatican to lobby heads of state and governors, urging them to commute the sentences of those sentenced to die for their crimes. The pope has pleaded for the life of Derek Barnabei, a condemned convict in Virginia, a tactic that worked three years ago when, on a visit to Missouri, John Paul II urged the Protestant governor to spare a man on death row and the request was granted. But leaving the pontiff's personal views aside, has the church changed her teaching on capital punishment?

The answer is no. Nowhere has the pope said that capital punishment is morally wrong or that the state does not have the right to exact it. He has not overthrown a teaching that stretches back through the centuries--something he arguably could not do. When the video was shown in Indiana, the faithful were given a pamphlet which contained the relevant revised paragraphs from the Catechism. Paragraph 2266 recalls the three purposes of punishment: retribution, protection of society, and moral medicine. These are not all of equal weight. "Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense." Nothing could be more traditional.

It is Paragraph 2267 that might be confusing in the wake of Gospel of Life. It begins with a reiteration of the traditional doctrine: "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." That seems clear enough, but the sentence has not ended. It goes on: "if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor."

Now, taken literally, this sounds like the Catechism recommends imprisonment for future, possible acts of the criminal. But surely we can't lock people up because they might conceivably harm others. People are imprisoned for acts actually performed, and it is these acts that must be punished in order to "redress the disorder" their crimes have caused. The passage is also confusing because it sounds as if the traditional defense of the death penalty rested on protecting human society from an unjust aggressor.

But keep in mind that protecting society is only the secondary purpose of punishment. If, however rarely, the state's right to take the criminal's life is legitimately exercised, only recourse to the primary purpose of punishment--redressing the wrong--can justify it. It will not do to say that locking Adolph Eichmann up will prevent him from continuing with the Final Solution and give him a chance to repent. By his crimes, Adolph Eichmann had forfeited own life. One life compared with six million seems risibly disproportionate, but it is the most that could be exacted from Eichmann, and it justly was.

Not all murderers are Eichmanns, however, and loyal Catholics will attend to the pope's desire that the death penalty become rare to the point of non-existence. How can this be done in terms of the three purposes of punishment? Life imprisonment would have to be held to fulfill the primary purpose of punishment, redressing the disorder, as well as, and secondarily, the other purposes. What the pope wants is achievable without doing violence to the traditional doctrine. And again, however rare, capital punishment could not be justified by the secondary purposes of punishment.

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