William Barr, a Catholic, has generated controversy since he began his tenure as Attorney General of the United States in February 2019. Among other things, on July 25, 2019, he ordered the Federal Bureau of Prisons to execute five federal inmates: Daniel Lewis Lee, Lezmond Mitchell, Wesley Ira Purkey, Alfred Bourgeois, and Dustin Lee Honken. There had been only three federal executions since the Supreme Court restored capital punishment in the Gregg case on July 2, 1976. During George W. Bush’s first term, under Attorney General John Ashcroft, three men were executed, including Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh on June 11, 2001, and Juan Raul Garza a week later. The most recent federal execution, until this year, was that of Louis Jones, Jr., on March 18, 2003. No executions were conducted during Bush’s second term or the entire presidency of Barack Obama. After 17 years, all that changed. Four of the five men named by Barr (excluding Alfred Bourgeois) were executed this summer, as well as a fifth man, Keith Dwayne Nelson. Barr’s order ended with the ominous line “Additional executions will be scheduled at a later date.”
Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church did not condemn the death penalty in grave cases as a matter of retributive justice. On March 25, 1995, however, Pope John Paul II published his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (the Gospel of Life), which formally taught—with the authority of the Supreme Pontiff—that in the modern era instances of the just implementation of the death penalty are “practically non-existent” (EV 56). “Only God is the master of life!” (EV 55). The Catechism of the Catholic Church was revised accordingly. Both John Paul II and Benedict called for the abolition of the death penalty worldwide. John Paul II even wrote a letter to President Bush, asking him to spare Timothy McVeigh.
The phrase “practically non-existent” may have given some Catholic politicians some wiggle room to claim—albeit implausibly—that any particular execution was somehow an exception to the rule, one of those very rare cases where it was somehow “necessary.” I have not seen such arguments used in practice, however; instead, defenders of the death penalty simply reject this Catholic doctrine and say that it is a matter of justice, the same as in the past. Perhaps, then, it should not be surprising that Pope Francis, whose entire pontificate is centered on the theme of divine mercy, on August 2, 2018, decided to “close the loophole” (so to speak) and teach, as Supreme Pontiff, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” This decision was accompanied by a letter to all the Catholic bishops of the world from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and this section of the Catechism was revised once again. Consequently, there can be no doubt whatsoever that the death penalty is against Catholic teaching. Any arguments to the contrary are either ignorant or disingenuous, or offered by traditionalists who badly misconstrue papal authority as though it were incapable of being exercised in the development of doctrine.
Therefore, I and many other Catholics were justly upset to learn that a GOP organization that calls itself the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, which has no official connection to the Church’s hierarchy, announced on September 3 that they were going to give Attorney General Barr their annual Christifideles Laici award for his “fidelity to the Church … and steadfast service in the Lord’s vineyard.” It is highly ironic that that name (which means “Christ’s lay faithful”) is taken from John Paul II’s 1988 encyclical, in light of the entirety of his teaching! Barr, by his public actions as Attorney General, is not outstanding in his fidelity to the Church. Instead, he is using his position of governmental power to pursue injustice in direct contradiction to Catholic teaching. By choosing to give this award to him, the self-described Catholic Prayer Breakfast has created what Catholic moral theology calls “scandal.” Here’s how the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines scandal:
Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. the person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor’s tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense.
Scandal takes on a particular gravity by reason of the authority of those who cause it or the weakness of those who are scandalized. It prompted our Lord to utter this curse: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt 18:6; cf. 1 Cor 8:10-13). Scandal is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others. Jesus reproaches the scribes and Pharisees on this account: he likens them to wolves in sheep’s clothing (cf. Mt 7:15).
Anyone who uses the power at his disposal in such a way that it leads others to do wrong becomes guilty of scandal and responsible for the evil that he has directly or indirectly encouraged. “Temptations to sin are sure to come; but woe to him by whom they come!” (Luke 17:1) (CCC 2284-85,87)
By ordering new federal executions after a 17-year hiatus, and only one year after the pope unambiguously clarified that the death penalty is never acceptable in the modern era, Barr has broken faith with the Church. While he may feel he is justified in his dissent and that these executions are just and right, his subjective intentions, conscience, and culpability have no bearing on the objective situation, which is that he is publicly pursuing a goal directly and explicitly contrary to the common good as understood and defined by the Church. And this not on a small matter, but a grave one: that of life and death itself, which three popes have now addressed. First Barr himself, and then by honoring him, the organizers of the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, have created grave scandal.
Compounding the Scandal
I am sorry to say that the Most Rev. Charles Chaput, Archbishop Emeritus of Philadelphia, today added to the scandal. He could have dodged a bullet, as the pandemic forced a rescheduling of the breakfast and he had to cancel his planned keynote address. Instead, he published it today in First Things (a journal that, to be honest, regularly creates scandal), “in support of the prayer breakfast and General Barr.” Only one paragraph in the speech concerns Barr, so I’ll quote it in full:
We’re honoring Attorney General Barr today, and I have a word to say about that. It’s “amen.” I heard him speak at Notre Dame last October, and I was deeply impressed by two things: the content of his remarks, and the fact that he obviously meant them. Throughout my life, the men and women I’ve most admired have all had the same qualities: a thinking Catholic brain, a character of substance, and a moral spine. General Barr has all three. As an added bonus, he’s disliked by all the right people. I want to thank the various and interesting critics of General Barr for confirming me in that judgment.
No mention was made of Barr’s five executions—a lie of omission. I do not object to his calling him a “character of substance,” as I do not know him personally, and he may have “a moral spine” in his personal life, despite the fact that he uses his office to pursue something gravely immoral, if we charitably assume he is acting in good conscience (even though, as a Catholic, he ought to know better). But a “Catholic brain”? There is a phrase in Latin that is so important in Catholic theology: sentire cum ecclesia. It means to “think with the Church.” Barr has shown publicly that he does not think with the Church, at least on this point.
If support for the death penalty were merely his private dissent, and he had some other role in the government, such as Secretary of the Interior, in which his opinion made no difference, he could perhaps be excused, provided he did not use his office to promote that opinion. He would still not be thinking with the Church, obviously, but we all know that many Catholics in the pews support the death penalty, just as many others support abortion and/or euthanasia (which John Paul II also condemned in Evangelium Vitae). But because his job puts him in the unique position of being able to re-start federal executions, it is inexcusable.
Also inexcusable are Archbishop Chaput’s remarks publicly praising him. Archbishop Chaput even scoffed at those who disapprove of Barr receiving the award, quipping that Barr is “disliked by all the right people.” Perhaps His Excellency should re-examine the criticisms of some of Barr’s critics, whom he said “confirmed” him in his own positive opinion.
Archbishop Chaput was not at all unaware of the situation. Exactly one year and one day after the pope changed the Catechism, Chaput published an article in his archdiocesan newspaper on the death penalty. In it, joining his fellow U.S. bishops, he directly condemned Barr’s decision, which he called “egregious.” He went on to quote his own remarks from 2005, in which he powerfully articulated the Catholic case against the death penalty, including the fact that the system is racist.
Killing the guilty is still the wrong choice for a civilized nation. Why? Because it accomplishes nothing. It does not bring back or even honor the dead. It does not ennoble the living. And while it may satisfy society’s anger for awhile, it cannot even release the murder victim’s loved ones from their sorrow, because only forgiveness can do that.
What the death penalty does achieve is closure through bloodletting, and violence against violence — which is not really closure at all, because murder will continue as long as humans sin, and capital punishment can never, by its nature, strike at murder’s root. Only love can do that.
He concluded his column by stating: “We need to abolish the death penalty now.”
I heartily commend Archbishop Chaput for his witness to life and social justice! It is especially admirable that he spoke out forcefully, given that he knew his own conservative reputation and therefore could expect opposition from many of his own deepest admirers. Therefore, it is all the more incomprehensible that he published this column today, which has contributed to the ongoing scandal. If I could, I would ask him to redress some of the scandal by reiterating Catholic doctrine, which he clearly holds. I would also ask him to call on Barr by name to put a stop to any further executions.
As of today, Bishop Robert Barron is scheduled to give the keynote address at the virtual Breakfast on September 23. Assuming he plans to go forward with this address, I hope he uses this opportunity to as a teaching moment on the Church’s opposition to the death penalty, and to explicitly denounce the scandal of the award being presented. If not, I would beg him to withdraw from this event, lest he also give scandal and discredit himself as an authoritative spokesman for the Church.
 For a detailed analysis, see my post: “Pope Francis changes the Catechism: Death penalty now ‘inadmissible’” (8/3/18).
Image: By Office of Public Affairs from Washington DC – Candlelight Vigil 2019-186, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79149661
Dr. Rasmussen is an adjunct professor in Georgetown University's Department of Theology & Religious Studies. He has a Ph.D. in the same subject from The Catholic University of America, specializing in historical theology and early Christianity. He is the author of Genesis and Cosmos: Basil and Origen on Genesis 1 and Cosmology (Bible in Ancient Christianity 14; Brill, 2019).