«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.

Death penalty – A Catholic nation’s experience

11 Responses

  1. Peter Aiello says:

    Abolishing the death penalty may be a Catholic position; but it is not a Biblical position
    Genesis 9:6 says: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man”.
    God said this to Noah roughly 1500 years before the Mosaic Law. God ordered the death penalty because of human dignity. The pope says that we should abolish it because of human dignity. Who should we believe?

    • Pedro Gabriel says:

      As a Catholic I do not believe in Sola Scriptura, but rather that the Magisterium is the authoritative interpreter of both Scripture and Tradition.

      As for the Noahide Law, it likewise commands us not to eat meat with the blood still on it. I am glad I have a Pope to tell me I’m not a bad Christian for eating a rare steak.

      • Peter Aiello says:

        It’s interesting that the Noahide law of not eating flesh with blood in it (Genesis 9:4) was affirmed at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15:29. The Gentiles were told that they did not have to be circumcised and keep the Mosaic Law; but they were advised to “abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled”. The Bible speaks for itself.
        Vatican II, in Dei Verbum 21 says: “Therefore, like the Christian religion itself, all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture.” We can also read Scripture for ourselves and see what is in it, and form our consciences accordingly.

      • Pedro Gabriel says:

        What is interesting in that quote from the Council of Jerusalem is that it explains *the reason* behind the Noahide law prohibiting the consumption of meat with blood: the fact that blood had a religious significance in many rituals of the ancient world, namely pagan.

        In a historical context such as our own, where animal blood does not have such a ritualistic weight, such a prohibition does not make sense and therefore the Church (Scripture’s authoritative interpreter) does not enforce such a prohibition.

        Thereby, this just goes to show the dangers of interpreting Scripture by ourselves, without any guidance. For such biblical quotes, literally interpreted at face value, are used by Jehova’s Witnesses to withhold blood transfusions from their followers, endangering their lives.

        Yes, Scripture should be used to form our consciences. But no one ever said that it should be read without any guidance or attention to literary style or historical context, especially to gather arguments against the Church’s teaching (a self-defeating endeavor). That’s a misuse of Scripture, similar to the one done by Protestants when they, for example, use Scripture to condemn the use of religious statues.

        So, you have two alternatives relatively to the Noahide Law of not ingesting meat with blood: either 1) you condemn me as a bad Christian for ingesting rare steaks… and then I will ask you what authority you have to accuse me of such, when my informed opinion (which is in synch with the authority of the Church) leads me to the opposite interpretation ; or 2) admit that such Noahide law does not make sense today… and then I will reply that the same can be said about the Noahide law regarding the death penalty.

      • Peter Aiello says:

        Acts 15:39 says: “from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well”. This doesn’t sound like enforcement. I don’t have the authority to condemn you anyway for eating rare steaks.
        I don’t see where any Noahide law has been rescinded as was the Mosaic Law. We know that the Church only recently has had a problem with the death penalty.
        With development of doctrine, we need to “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1Thessalonians 5:21). Scripture is essential for this. If our understanding is imperfect, so be it. Is the pope’s understanding always perfect? There is a lot of legitimate debate about that nowadays. It is becoming more evident that we need to do our own homework.
        Saint Paul, in 2Corinthians 1:24 says: “Not for that we have dominion over your faith, but are helpers of your joy: for by faith ye stand”; and 1Peter 5:3 says to the elders: “Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock”.
        These verses seem to have a different tone than what we have today in the Church. Original Christianity sounds less imposing. It must be due to developed doctrine. We are not under law but under grace.

      • Pedro Gabriel says:

        I really can’t reconcile this statement “I don’t see where any Noahide law has been rescinded” with anything we’ve said regarding rare steaks.

        As for your “less imposing” Bible quotes, you seem to have left out many quotes where Peter and Paul deliver people to Satan or something as such. And this just shows how we can always find a Bible quote to fit our argument… one more reason to have a living Magisterium.

        And even if it is not explicit in Scripture, the Apostolic Church was certainly more imposing as far as certain contemporaneous accepted doctrines go, since no soldier, executioner or otherwise killer of people (either lawful or unlawful) could become a Catechumen. The death penalty doctrine was actually a later medieval *development*

        Either way, to whom is the Church supposed to be “less imposing”? To the ones who seek to find ways to disregard the Pope’s teaching on the death penalty? Or to people on the death row? To dissenters from a magisterial papal document… or to the divorced and remarried?

        It is precisely because I cannot find in your reasoning a satisfactory answer to all these objections that I have indeed decided to “hold fast to what is good”. I sincerely can’t grasp how killing people when we have the means to not kill them is “good” so that I should need to hold fast to that.

      • pat says:

        or other old testament laws, like those prohibiting sodomy perhaps….?

      • Pedro Gabriel says:

        The only reason why I have approved of this comment is to reply very clearly.

        I am a Catholic. Ergo, i believe everything that the Church teaches. Including that homosexuality is a sin if someone acts upon such an orientation.

        And it is precisely because I am a Catholic that I do a proper biblical exegesis of Old Testament Law, instead of trying to use supposed inconsistencies between the levitate laws and Church teaching to win arguments, like Protestants and atheists usually do.

        The next time you try to entrap me by pinning some heterodoxy on me remember this: I am not the one trying to find ways not to assent to a papal teaching.

      • Peter Aiello says:

        Dissenting from papal teaching has become easier to do without even trying. I wonder if the pope is indirectly encouraging us to make greater use of our personal consciences.
        When Paul and Silas preached to the Bereans in Acts 17:11, they “searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so”. We can do the same.

      • Pedro Gabriel says:

        I really do not agree with that assertion that Francis has made it easier to dissent from papal teaching without even trying. Case in point, the death penalty. Someone who has really been attentive to the previous two pontificates would clearly understand what the Church’s wishes for the present day and age would be (i.e. the death penalty’s abolition.) Unfortunately, many people were not listening to the Popes at the time, but rather following politically skewed popular apologists and the political ideologies they were trying to seduce us to, so that they have assimilated a web of arguments that turns those Popes appeals into something they were not, or a list of pre-made excuses to water down those teachings. So, when a Pope comes along and gives the next step, closing all the loopholes, people get surprised. But that is not the fault of Francis.

        Also, I would point out two more things:

        1) “Dissenting without even trying” is indeed easy. But it was like that before Francis too. Dissenting has always been easy, for our intellect is corrupted by the leanings of Original Sin. Being faithful (especially when we don’t agree) is what’s hard… and it has always been like that, even before Francis.

        2) Actively searching for biblical snippets to sustain a dissension from papal teaching and diffusing it through social
        media does not qualify as “not even trying”

        Yes, you can search Scriptures and your conscience to find ways to disobey the Pope (that’s not, however, “doing the same” as Paul and Silas.) You can do that, since we are endowed with free will. That’s not the right way to do things, nor the Catholic way, though. The Catholic and right way is to do a proper exegesis of the Bible, taking into account historical context and literary style, and always in Communion with the Magisterium.

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