A few of my conservative Catholic readers have been provoked by my post about Pope Francis versus Archbishop Chaput on the death penalty to suggest a little intemperately that I don’t know what I’m talking about. The Catechism permits the death penalty, they write. And anyway, His Holiness was not articulating doctrine ex cathedra (i.e. speaking infallibly) when he called on “all Christians and people of good will” to struggle for its abolition; i.e. he’s entitled to his opinion but Catholics don’t have to pay attention to it.
Well, I never claimed that Francis was making a doctrinal statement, only that what he had to say can be seen as a rebuttal to what Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput allegedly told Colorado GOP gubernatorial candidate and death penalty supporter Bob Beauprez:
He said, “Bob, you pray on it, sleep on it, reach the conclusion that is right for your soul.” And he said, “I’ll back you up, because church doctrine is not anti–death penalty.” I want to be very clear about that.
So here’s what the Catechism has to say about the death penalty:
If, however, non-lethal 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 more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.
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 definitively 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 non-existent.”
(That last quote, by the way, is from John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium vitae.)
To conclude from this that church doctrine is (in Chaput’s alleged words) “not anti-death penalty” is ridiculous. It would be like saying someone is not anti-abortion if he or she would allow abortions “only in the very rare cases where it was absolutely necessary to save the life of the mother.”
Moreover, the catechetical position is not that a Catholic gets to decide whether his or position on the death penalty is “right for your soul.” It’s that an objective determination needs to be made as to the state’s ability to protect people from a convicted murderer by non-lethal means. In other words, what Chaput should have told Beauprez was: “According to church doctrine, you can’t continue to support the death penalty in Colorado if it’s possible to keep people safely locked up.”
In this respect, it’s important to bear in mind that Beauprez has been attacking his opponent, Gov. John Hickenlooper for granting convicted murderer Nathan Dunlap a temporary reprieve from the death penalty, and has promised to commute Dunlap’s death sentence if he is defeated for reelection. “You know,” Hickenlooper told CNN, Nathan Dunlap’s gonna die in prison, one way or the other.”
Hickenlooper, who is not a Catholic, has in recent years changed his position on the death penalty. There’s no question that he’s on track with Catholic doctrine. Beauprez and, apparently, Chaput — not so much.