«I express my hope that your deliberations will encourage the political and legislative initiatives being promoted in a growing number of countries to eliminate the death penalty and to continue the substantive progress made in conforming penal law both to the human dignity of prisoners and the effective maintenance of public order»
— Pope Benedict XVI; Address to Sant’Egidio Community’s “No Justice Without Life” international meeting; Nov 30th, 2011
Turmoil was stirred among anti-Francis critics when His Holiness reviewed the Catechism of the Catholic Church §2267, so that the death penalty (DP) is now considered “inadmissible” in Catholic doctrine. These critics claim that Francis has overturned traditional Church teaching on this topic, contradicting even his two immediate predecessors (who maintained that the DP might be admissible in extreme cases.)
However, even if it is true these previous pontiffs (Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI) upheld the traditional position on the admissibility of the DP, those same popes were also consistent in teaching that the DP should only be applied in very limited situations, and that nowadays those situations were so rare, they could be considered practically non-existent. Notably, both St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI called several times for the abolition of the DP.
In the meantime, those abolitionist papal pleas fell on deaf ears for a substantial part of the American Church. These Catholics ignored their popes’ teachings about the rarity of situations that would justify the DP, and would instead focus all their attention on the “non-intrinsically evil” nature of the DP, invoking “prudential judgment” to justify their disagreement about anything else. In a lawyerly fashion, they would turn the exception into the rule… and, most importantly, they would promote their prudential judgment as the true Catholic teaching, regardless of the Pope’s opinion on the matter.
This is strange, because outside of the USA (and extra-American social media highly influenced by American apologetics) there is not much debate about whether the DP is a Catholic position (let alone the only Catholic position admissible.) For example, the Community of Saint’Egidio, a Catholic organization supporting worldwide abolition for the DP, has a constant presence in the Vatican, as the opening quote shows. On the other hand, the USA (where most pro-death penalty apologetics seem to originate) is one of the last western countries to still have the DP in place… and where a significant portion of Catholics cheer for it.
I do think that this is due (at least partly) to the growing and unhealthy polarization sweeping through America’s political landscape nowadays. The American right-wing favors the DP. Liberal progressives, on their end, call for the abolition of the DP. These same liberal progressives are wrongly against a series of traditional Catholic teachings (contraception, abortion, homosexuality) on which conservatives have chosen to focus their political action. It seems that the polarization has become so great, that conservatives can’t fathom the possibility of conceding an inch of ground for any kind of victory for liberals in the political arena. Association of abolitionism with progressive policies has become so entrenched, that anyone that calls for DP abolition is viewed as an enemy of the Church… even if that person is the Pope himself.
Which brings me to the purpose of this article. I wish to break this intellectual trap so many of my American brethren have fallen prey. I’ll do so by writing about the experience of a Catholic country, very conservative by European standards until very recently, that did away with the DP before the Sexual Revolution came into the scene. I’m talking about my own country: Portugal.
If you ask Portuguese people to give you the reasons they are most proud of their nation, it is likely that one of the reasons that’ll come up will be Portugal being “the first nation to abolish the death penalty.” This piece of trivia has been ingrained as an unquestionable truth in the Portuguese collective psyche, even though it is not entirely correct (San Marino and Venezuela did it first.) Nevertheless, Portugal was one of the first to do it, just like it was one of the first to abolish slavery and life imprisonment.
The year was 1867 AD. Portugal had, at the time, a very traditional, pious and devout Catholic population. The regime was a monarchy, in which the king didn’t wear a crown, since one of the his predecessors had coronated the Virgin Mary as the Queen of Portugal. Catholicism was the kingdom’s official religion, enshrined on the 6th article of its Constitution. Love for the Catholic religion figured in the national anthem. The flag was teeming with Catholic symbolism. There were Catholic churches in every village and Catholic holidays were part of the official calendar (and still are.)
This does not mean that this regime didn’t have confrontations with the institutional Church, but we should not be naïve and think that this kind of things doesn’t happen in any form of government where Church and State are not separated, where religion becomes a form of attaining secular power.
It was in this context that King D. Luís signed the law abolishing the DP for ordinary crimes in Portugal. It is to this year of 1867 that the Portuguese people usually refer to when they boast of being the “first country to abolish the death penalty”.
This is again (if we are to be nitpicky) not entirely correct. The DP was abolished for common crimes, but remained in place for military crimes. Complete abolition only came in the next century, in 1976. Either way, it was earlier than many other European countries, like secular liberal France or the protestantized and anti-Catholic United Kingdom.
(Just to add a little parenthetical note, Portugal did introduce full abolition later than another Catholic country: I’m referring to Vatican City, which did so in 1969)
However, even if complete abolition only came in 1976, the last execution in Portugal for an ordinary crime was in 1846 (30 years prior to the abolition), and the last execution for a military crime occurred in 1917 (in the context of the First World War.)
This is an interesting fact, since from 1933 to 1974, Portugal was ruled by an ultraconservative dictatorship, based on Catholic principles. No one can accuse this dictatorship of being liberal-friendly. Or even post-Vatican II Church-friendly. However, for all its faults, the regime never officially executed anyone. Certainly there were rebels dying in prison, or by torture, or by “accident”… but the DP was never reinstated in law, or officially used on anyone.
And today? Having not executed a soul for a non-military crime for more than 150 years, Portugal is considered one of the safest countries in the World, ranking third on the Global Peace Index 2017.
As far as liberal policies go, Portugal only legalized abortion on demand in 2007, 34 years after Roe vs. Wade. Even so, Portuguese abortion laws are still stricter than the American ones. As for the legal recognition of homosexual unions as marriage, Portugal did it only 5 years prior to the USA. Both these measures occurred in the context of an aggressive push from left-wing parties, with a little help from the media… a media constantly exporting American culture to our country, de-catholicizing it.
I believe that right-wing leaning Catholics in the USA have nothing to fear from learning from Portugal’s experience. It is indeed possible to build a safe country without recourse to capital punishment. It is indeed possible to be a faithful Catholic, and to eschew liberal and progressive agendas, while being completely against the DP. In fact, in some countries (like my own), the abolitionist position is the “traditional” position.
Can you imagine how disconcerting it is, then, when a Portuguese person hears American Catholics fight tooth and nail — even against the Pope himself — to maintain provisions for such a cruel punishment? How perplexing it is to be accused of maintaining a modernist perspective on this issue, when my country’s abolitionist tradition already has been established for a venerable century and a half?
Regardless of Pope Francis’ catechetical revision about the DP, the simple fact remains: the complete abolition of the DP is a Catholic position, tried by Catholic countries, without interference from Marxist or hedonist progressivism. I urge my American brethren to drop their support from this practice. It serves no purpose nowadays, except perhaps to foster disobedience against the Pope.
Do not be afraid. If you do it, you’ll be in the company, not of secular progressives, but of your Catholic brethren overseas.
[Photo credits: Iluminure from an unknown author, depicting an Auto-da-Fé from the Portuguese Inquisition]
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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.