In June 17th, Cardinal Dolan posted the following on Twitter:

Cardinal Dolan tweet on the death penalty


This tweet (as accurate as it is) prompted a wild discussion in social media, since there are many Catholics who are unwilling to assent to the recent Catechetical revision on the Death Penalty, from which this tweet flows.

In this context, Dr. Edward Peters has chimed in with this article, where he claims the Cardinal’s tweet to be ill-advised, because it might contradict perennial Church teaching on the death penalty.

First of all, I submit that Dr. Peters’ interpretation of the good Cardinal’s tweet misses the mark. At first, Dr. Peters correctly asserts that Pope Francis used the term “inadmissible” to sidestep the “intrinsically evil” terminology that could be problematic on account of previous magisterial formulations.

But then, Dr. Peters’ incorrectly postulates that Card. Dolan’s tweet stumbles on the “intrinsically evil” terminology by claiming that he tweeted “in terms well-known to tradition,” and “plainly stated that the death penalty is immoral.” I must emphasize that Dr. Peters is imprecise in equivocating “immoral” with “intrinsically evil,” since an act may be immoral without being intrinsically evil (for example, even those who believe the death penalty is licit would agree that the application of the death penalty in the case of St. Joan of Arc was immoral.)

Also, Dr. Peters assumes that Cardinal Dolan is tweeting with the intent of discussing tradition. By doing so, he ignores the wider context of the discussion, in which Dolan’s tweet rests. On one hand, as Dr. Peters notes, this tweet comes in the wake of a Catechetical revision from the Pope, where the Holy Father has clarified that the death penalty was not immoral at the time the Church advocated for its liceity (see the CDF’s clarification and this video). So, if Dolan is referring to this revision, he could not be propose something that is clearly not what the revision intended.

On the other hand, Cardinal Dolan is clearly referring to the problem of “loopholes.” In the previous Catechetical formulation, Pope St. John Paul II (who was a champion of death penalty abolition) wrote — in order to avoid the magisterial firestorm Dr. Peters so fears — that the situations where death penalty was licit were “rare, practically non-existent.” But many Catholics of a certain ideological bent, primarily in the United States, kept fighting for the death penalty, using the “practically non-existent” language as a loophole for its admissibility, in order to leave the status quo unchallenged.

Cardinal Dolan correctly notes that the current Catechetical revision has closed that loophole. This is the context of Cardinal Dolan’s tweet, and what he meant is easily comprehensible to anyone who is familiar with this debate. Asking for more nuance and details from a tweet is not fair, given the limitations of this social media platform. But any reasonable person can understand from where Dolan was coming from.

Nevertheless, Dr. Peters equivocates the cardinal’s clear meaning to employ a tactic, commonly used by those who disagree with Francis on this issue, of trying to reframe the debate according to their own terms (the “intrinsically evil” debate) in order to be able to create more solid ground for themselves and to piggy-back on previous popes, when the debate was on the morality of the death penalty in principle, but on the morality of its application in specific contexts.

My main objection to Dr. Peters’ article is that it perfectly encapsulates the mindset at the root of the resistance to Francis’ pontificate. Brian Killian has brought this phenomenon to our attention in this very blog earlier this week: papal critics assume that when they are in disagreement with the Holy Father, it is the Pope, and not them, who is wrong. In fact, they will often hold the Pope’s wrongness as a self-evident truth and build up their argument from there. Dr. Peters shows a scholarly, academic version of this problem.

Dr. Peters cites “numerous studies” arguing that the moral acceptability of the death penalty has been infallibly taught. He will then proceed to pontificate:

Therefore, Church leaders contradicting that position must, simply must, deal with the possibility that infallibility is in play here, and, at a minimum, they should refrain from unnuanced declarations that might, in the end, be shown as “opposed to the doctrine of the Catholic Church” (…) I am saying that declaring the [death penalty] as immoral per se puts one at risk of asserting something that many qualified scholars argue powerfully is opposed to infallible Church teaching, and possibly even to contradicting something divinely revealed. The real possibility of so offending the truth should, I think, trigger more respectful caution by those in positions of authority when speaking on these matters.

This is a complete inversion of the proper roles. It is not Church leaders (whom Dr. Peters later identifies as “popes and bishops”) that should be cautious of teaching things that “many qualified scholars” argue are divinely revealed or infallible. Rather, it is the scholars who should be cautious of teaching things contrary to what the popes and bishops present as Church teaching.

It is not the role of popes and bishops to stop teaching what the Holy Spirit, in his special guidance to the Church, leads them to teach, just because there are academics who might disagree. Why should the Pope refrain from teaching things that theologians might find hard to grasp? Why should the bishops be cautious of not contradicting the scholars’ theses?

Rather, it is the scholars’ role to teach in unison with the Pope and bishops with communion with him. It is the scholars’ role to accommodate the teachings of the Pope in their articles and dissertations.

If the Pope develops doctrine in a way that seems to contradict a previous formulation, then the scholar should humbly acknowledge that it was not an infallible teaching in the first place, even if the scholar has published work arguing that it was infallible. They shouldn’t double down and tell the Pope that he is contradicting infallible teaching. Just as with the scientist who is confronted with new evidence that refutes his previous hypotheses, so the theologian should amend his conclusions on these topics to reflect new papal formulations.

From reading Dr. Peters’ article, one would be tempted to think that the scholars have an authority superseding that of from Church leaders, such that the Magisterium should bow to the opinions of the theologians. It is no wonder that so many Catholics have been led astray from communion with the Vicar of Christ because they prefer instead the alleged expertise from popular figures online.

However, paraphrasing Dr. Peters, the real possibility of so offending the truth should, I think, trigger more respectful caution by those in academic positions when speaking on these matters.

As soon as we grasp the inversion of roles set up by Dr. Peters, it is easy to turn his argument on its head. Dr. Peters never categorically asserts that the “numerous studies” have definitively settled the infallibility of the death penalty’s liceity. In fact, he uses this uncertainty to justify his next argument:

Think of it this way: A hunter shooting toward something moving in the underbrush can’t defend his accidental killing of a human being by saying “I did not know it was a man, I thought it was a deer.” The hunter has a duty to verify the status of his target before he shoots.

First of all, it has not been lost in me how ironic it is to use this argument to defend the death penalty. For the “hunter and the deer” analogy works on the basis that, if you are not sure, you should not kill. If you don’t need to kill, then do not kill. And yet, this analogy is being used in favor of killing human beings, even if the “numerous studies” are not conclusive.

And here is where the argument becomes self-defeating, if we take into account the inversion of roles I mentioned above: if you are not sure that the death penalty’s liceity has been infallibly proclaimed, then you should not “shoot” Pope Francis’s development. Scholars might end up accidentally hitting, not the “deer” of Francis’s Catechetical revision, but the “hunter” of papal primacy, something they had no business aiming at in the first place.


Image: Adobe Stock

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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.

Dr. Peters’ deer & hunter: death penalty & the inversion of roles

32 Responses

  1. Kevin Davis says:

    “since an act may be immoral without being intrinsically evil (for example, even those who believe the DP to be licit would agree that the application of the DP to the case of St. Joan of Arc was immoral.)”

    That’s not a good example. The application of the DP in the case of Joan of Arc, or any other person unjustly condemned, is an immoral application of the DP and therefore contrary to the DP and as such an intrinsically evil act — because any condemnation, certainly death, of an innocent person is intrinsically evil. So, you’ve failed to substantiate what you mean by distinguishing “immoral” and “intrinsically evil.”

    • Pedro Gabriel says:

      If a specific application of a non-intrinsically evil act is immoral, then, by definition, that means that it contains a qualifier that separates it from the moral applications of the non-intrinsically evil act and which makes it immoral. That’s tautological.

      However, if we agree with your terminology, a non-intrinsically evil act ceases to be an act that may be justifiable sometimes, to be an act that is always moral in every single iteration.

      If we agree with your terminology, then there will be lots of acts that will not be intrinsically evil in principle, but will be intrinsically evil in many circumstances.

      Either way, my point stands. With the advances in non-lethal methods of containment and with our development in moral conscience, there is no application of the death penalty today that is moral, even if centuries ago there might be cases where it was moral to apply it. In my book, that is not the same as saying that the death penalty is intrinsically evil, otherwise it would not be justifiable in the past as it is not today.

      • Mary Angelica says:

        In what cases centuries ago was the application of the death penalty moral? I’m curious on what concrete examples one can come up with.

      • Pedro Gabriel says:

        This is a tough call, since for me to bring up a case of moral of the death penalty, I would have to be in possession of all the details of the case… but I think that maybe the Nuremberg trials mights be a case. The Nazis were given a chance they didn’t give their victims and the Nazi movement needed to be decapitated, otherwise the masterminds of this killer ideology could, even from jail, ellicit resistance to the Allies victory, after a worldwide conflict that needed desperately to end. But that is just a mere suspicion of mine, I cannot affirm this with all certainty.

      • Kevin Davis says:

        I’ve re-read your first three paragraphs several times, and I have no idea what you’re talking about. Honestly, I seriously don’t know what you mean. You are trying to distinguish “immoral” from “intrinsically evil.” You still have not supported the distinction. The killing of an innocent, your example, is intrinsically evil and immoral. You believe that in the past it was possible for death to be administrated (in cases of capital punishment) that were immoral but not intrinsically evil? Huh? As an aside, the death penalty was administered in the Bible (not least through the Israelites, commanded directly by God, to kill entire Canaanite tribes because of their wickedness) for reasons not related, at least not primarily related, to “methods of containment” and protecting society. It was considered justice in the eyes of God, as taught and commanded by God. But that’s another debate, that I doubt is even worth having — because it would simply reveal how radically different is our understanding of the Bible and Tradition. My point was simply that your distinction between immoral and intrinsically evil is confused and unsubstantiated.

      • Pedro Gabriel says:

        I have supported my distinction, even if you gratuitously reject my reasons. But, lest it be my fault for not explaining myself clearly, I will try again.

        You are trying to drag the death of St. Joan of Arc to the “killing of innocent” category, forgetting that it was *also* an application of the death penalty. And that’s how I used it in my argument.

        So, my argument is:

        Death penalty is not intrinsically evil

        The death penalty applied to killing innocents is immoral

        Therefore, it does not matter if killing the innocent is intrinsically evil, because the subject of both sentences is “death penalty”

        So, the death penalty can be immoral (in certain circumstances) and not be intrinsically evil (in principle).
        But if you want to force the equivalency between “intrinsically evil” and “immoral”, then my argument stands too.

        For applying the death penalty to kill an innocent is immoral / intrinsically evil. We agree

        And we also agree that the above sentence does not contradict the perennial teaching of the Church on the death penalty

        Then, both me and Francis and Dolan can argue that applying the death penalty *today*, with our evolution in non-lethal methods of containment and increased moral conscience is immoral/intrinsically evil

        And, by doing so, we are not contradicting perennial teaching of the Church. Otherwise the first example (St. Joan of Arc) contradicts it too.
        Of course, I disagree with this kind of semantical equivocation between “intrinsically evil” and “immoral”, because that would mean that we should also equivocate “non-intrinsically evil” with “moral”.

        This means that a “non-intrinsically evil” act will always be “moral”, because you cannot use the term “immoral” without bringing up “intrinsically evil”.

        This leads to the absurd notion that if you think the death penalty is not intrinsically evil, then it must mean that the death penalty is always moral.

        Which leads me to think: why needlessly multiply concepts? If in your definition, “intrinsically evil” means “immoral”, then why not simply say “immoral” and be done with it?

        But, according to my understanding, “intrinsically evil” means something different. It means “an act that can never be justified”. This means that a “non-intrinsically evil” act is something that *may* be justified in certain circumstances. This implies that there are circumstances where it *may not* be justified. And why would it not be justified if it were not immoral to act like that in those particular circumstance?
        Finally, regarding your biblical examples, I would like to point out the following:

        1. We are Catholics, therefore we do not believe in advancing personal interpretations of Scripture to contradict magisterial teaching

        2. In the Old Testament, God also allegedly ordained genocides (i.e. killing of women and children), an act that is considered intrinsically evil by the Church today (and, so I hope, by you too.) I have yet to find an apologetic answer to this that satisfies me, but I do know that your use of Old Testament morality to defy the Church is a very weak point

      • Kevin Davis says:

        I don’t understand why the misuse of the death penalty — a violation of the death penalty — has any relevance. All sorts of laws are misapplied, violated, etc., and no one argues that this has any bearing on the morality of the law. And the arguments for the death penalty being “inadmissible” today have nothing to do with past misapplications. In the new CCC revision, it is explicitly because the DP is “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” not, by the way, merely to keep society safe. As for distinguishing “immoral” and “intrinsically evil,” I actually was not saying that they shouldn’t be distinguished but, rather, that you had not distinguished them cogently or in a way that made sense in the case of the DP. And, finally, there is no “alleged” in God’s command for Israel to wipe-out entire Canaanite tribes, even punishing Saul in 1 Samuel for not doing so entirely. I was taught hermeneutics at a state university by non-Christian professors, and none of them had any doubt about what the text was saying in this regard. It’s only Christians who wiggle around it. Since they were individual, direct, time-specific commands from God, we of course cannot make it into any sort of prescriptive policy (a law) for us, as not even Israel did. Yet, we know that God rendered death on the wicked despite, according to the new CCC, it supposedly being “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” I guess God also attacked the “inviolability and dignity” of Ananias and Sapphira by killing them in Acts 5. None of what I am saying was controversial in the Catholic Church until recent decades.

      • Pedro Gabriel says:

        “All sorts of laws are misapplied, violated, etc., and no one argues that this has any bearing on the morality of the law.“

        If the situation evolves in such a way that every application of the law is an immoral misapplication, then people will be forgiven for saying that the law is immoral, and needs to be struck down.
        “And the arguments for the death penalty being “inadmissible” today have nothing to do with past misapplications.”

        Correct. That’s why I never argued that. What I did argue was that there are immoral applications for non-intrinsically evil acts. And used past misapplications as an *example* to illustrate that.
        “In the new CCC revision, it is explicitly because the DP is “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” not, by the way, merely to keep society safe.”

        That is a partial reading. Both the CCC and the CDF state 3 reasons for the revision and one of the reasons is based on the evolution of non-lethal means, making the DP obsolete to keep society safe.

        You cannot isolate each reason from the full rationale. They are supposed to work in tandem. If nowadays, the evolution of non-lethal means permits the safety of society without recourse to the DP, then it follows that every DP is an “attack on the inviolability of the human person”

        But you keep arguing here things that I have dealt with in a previous article, with links both in the text and in the comments. This part of the discussion goes beyond the scope of the OP.
        “I was taught hermeneutics at a state university by non-Christian professors, and none of them had any doubt about what the text was saying in this regard. It’s only Christians who wiggle around it.”

        So it’s the Christians who are wrong about how they should interpret their own religion?
        “Since they were individual, direct, time-specific commands from God, we of course cannot make it into any sort of prescriptive policy (a law) for us, as not even Israel did.”

        Good. Now apply the same reasoning for the DP today.
        “I guess God also attacked the “inviolability and dignity” of Ananias and Sapphira by killing them in Acts 5.”

        This fateciousness does not suit well. God does not *kill* anyone, that’s something that human beings do. A person who is *killed* by God is said to have died, not have been killed.

      • Kevin Davis says:

        Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to continue this debate much further. I do appreciate your demeanor, Pedro, and your overall thoughtful and respectful approach. I must say that Acts 5 clearly depicts God directly killing both Ananias (5:5) and his wife (5:10). I am not aware of any exegete, any commentary that argues otherwise. For that matter, according to Romans 5 we are all born with a death penalty thanks to Adam’s sin, but that’s another (albeit related) and bigger topic altogether. What is certainly clear, God kills people directly, as he did to Ananias and Sapphira. I can see why you’re confused about the DP if you can’t even see or accept this. I would be very interested to read your exegesis of Acts 5:1-11, even just a brief summary related to my point.

      • Pedro Gabriel says:

        On my end, I always understood the Bible to say God “killed” Ananias and Sapphira in the same way the Bible says God was “jealous” or “changed His mind regarding Israel’s extermination.” Those are terms meant to anthropomorphize God and, therefore, to make His actions more recognizable to us humans. Either way, I think there is a categorical distinction between people “killed” by God and people killed by other people in the name of God.
        “Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to continue this debate much further. I do appreciate your demeanor, Pedro, and your overall thoughtful and respectful approach”

        Thank you. Peace, brother.

      • Kevin Davis says:

        Just one point: Acts doesn’t say that God “killed” them. It implies it: strongly, clearly, and no commentary disputes that, not that I am aware. They collapse dead, at separate times under the exact same circumstances, as a sign of God’s judgment. Read Acts 5:1-11. There is no possible other reading. The anthropomorphizing element, which I don’t dispute in other texts throughout Scripture, doesn’t apply here. There is no anthropomorphizing language in this passage. You either have to reject the authority of the Bible, which the Church has always taught as infallible on matters pertaining to God and humanity in relation to God, or accept that God does in fact bring death directly upon people.

      • Pedro Gabriel says:

        The “anthropomorphic” argument was based on me uncritically accepting your argument that the Bible said God “killed”
        Ananias and Saphira without me checking hahaha

        My point is not whether God caused Ananias and Saphira to die, but whether that act constitutes a “killing” analogous to the killings of Old Testament times, carried out by God’s people

        But we’re digressing off-topic. I propose we end it here and just depart as brothers

      • Mary Angelica says:

        Pedro, thanks for the direct answer. I am trying to work out the threads of teachings throughout the centuries in conjunction with Francis’ teaching, and the parts I am struggling with which reason for a total ban “today” is two-fold.

        The first is the basis for an “increased awareness of human dignity”. This seems odd to me because the DP presumes human dignity, in a weird way, rather than doing away with it. It treats those who receive it as moral agents. One doesn’t execute an insane man, but only a truly guilty one. God doesn’t condemn animals who kill people to hell.. they are animals… No. hell is reserved only for moral agents, that is, humans and angels. Furthermore, It seems wrong to argue that the Church did not have this same awareness as it does today. Whatever the developments in doctrine, even the traditional teaching of the Church going back thousands of years, allowed the DP under very strict conditions, and encouraged mercy for criminals. I am having difficulty in finding the direct line between human dignity itself and opposition to the DP. It may seem apparent to many today, and I get it, but my impression is that there is an underlying impulse in our culture that is less about personalism and the imago Dei and more about the utilitarian morality that bases itself on the avoidance of punishment/ suffering. It seems like those arguing against the DP have no concept of retributive justice, and see the prison system as purely about rehabilitation. Not all are like this. I know JPII talked about it. I’m just making an observation of our current culture. As an example, It’s not just the DP either. There is a similar argument going on with respect to corporal punishment (which oddly enough Pope Francis is fine with, in moderation), or even punishment in general. As a mom of a 9 month old, I don’t know how many times I have run into mommy blogs condemning not only spanking, but also the notion of punishment, preferring instead the idea of “consequences”. I’m not unsympathetic to many of their ideas, but there is an undercurrent here, and in the case of us Catholics and the DP, there may also be an imbalance theologically.

        However, that’s not too troubling to me.. I am happy to admit that my thought is incomplete on this, and that the Pope has brought to light some of the necessary parameters. I also understand well that different Popes will emphasize different aspects of the teaching. Not every Pope needs to talk about retribution… But I cannot for the life of me understand his statement that we have achieved sufficient alternatives. To parallel your case, the example the case I have thought of is that of notorious drug lords of cartels who wield a lot of power in third/ second world countries. I’m not so much talking the typical dealer, but the top dogs. One such cartel has basically overrun the country of my heritage, and other places have witnessed hundreds of thousands of deaths. The problem is though that this is a modern example, and Pope Francis bars them. This is hard for me to swallow. Does he really think the Latin American countries have the necessary infrastructures to detain drug lords without them running things from jail? Heck, that is exactly what they are doing right now. The statement sounds like it was written by someone in the first world, not someone in the third or second world. Personally, I am not sure what I would do either, for the reasons you cite as well. I also recognize that many of these countries also got rid of capital punishment a while back or have untrustworthy, corrupt governments,, so it may not be a concrete option. At the very least though, if there were an argument against the DP for them, it would probably be more on the basis of facts on the ground than principled.

      • Pedro Gabriel says:

        Interestingly you have problems with the part of the revision that most people struggle less (which doesn’t mean that they do not struggle with it)

        Regarding the evolution on non-lethal methods of containment, let me just point out that it is undeniable that we’ve had a massive development in that regard. There is absolutely no comparison. Why, for a substantial part of our history, there weren’t even prisons, but only jails where people would await their judgment and sentence!

        Also, this evolution is not only confined to methods of containment and isolation, but also to developments in social resources and psychology that make it more likely for convicts to be reinserted into society or at least to live a productive life even behind bars. Ancient societies simply did not possess those resources

        I am very sorry to hear of your experience, but I really do believe that we have the means (Mexico too) to avoid that those drug cartel convicts run the show outside. In this sense, I do believe Pope Francis is not talking as a first world person, for remember, he is an Argentinian and his homilies on the mafia show that he understands the evils done by crime syndicates. Still, if a country is unable to contain these situations nowadays, I think that there is structurally wrong with that country’s functioning that will not be solved simply with having DP in place. The situation is simply not analogous with the WW2 one where the whole world was in shambles.

      • carn says:

        @Mary Angelica:

        “I am having difficulty in finding the direct line between human dignity itself and opposition to the DP.”

        I can offer a LOCAL one, which i think – although i am at least as skeptical about current DP theology developments as you – is rather convincing.

        Article 1 of German constitution says that human dignity is inviolable and that it is the duty of all of the German state to honor and protect it. It is explicitly forbidden in the constitution to change that article; this is referred to in judicial literature as “Ewigkeitsklausel”; so it is meant seriously that the German state is to honor and protect human dignity and minor excuses like the sky is falling or a third world war are to be dismissed.

        This – in a sense ridiculous – binding of the German state to honor and protect human dignity till until all things end is of course due to the Holocaust. Never again.

        But just like one would require of a repeated serial killer released again on probation not only a convincing promise that he is not to repeat his crimes but also limit his access to the tools he used to commit his crimes, Germany’s sincere promise not to obliterate human dignity once more is not enough.

        The tools used for this obliteration must also be kept from Germany’s hands.

        And one of these tools was DP or more generally, the right of the state to take human lives if the law allows so and the severity of the circumstances justify it according to the evaluation of the people making the decisions whether to kill or not to kill.

        Accordingly, to honor and reinforce the literally eternal promise of Germany to do “it” never again, the German state has to be stripped of the right to take live preferably totally, if possible; accordingly, DP must be banned in Germany.

        And this is applied mostly consistently; the only circumstances in which intentional taking of life is somewhat permissible for state actors are of the type that the kidnapper has put a gun to the victims head and counts downwards; and even then the police sharpshooter could reject to order to kill if his conscious has objections in that moment.

        What is total normal in other states regarding hijacking of planes, namely that fighter jets are ready and can be ordered to shoot down civilian planes that are to be used as weapons like 9/11, is only possible cause the secretary is ready to give the order and offer his resignation the next second and that there is within the military willingness to carry out such an order with each individual in the command chain right to the pilot being round the clock aware that the legality of that order is questionable and they might be liable to some extent, up to being charged for manslaughter. Cause the German supreme court – following the logic that Germany has lost any credibility to have a right to kill – found the respective laws to be unconstitutional.

        It is even questionable whether Germany might have and use a military; if there hadn’t been Stalins armies right on Germany’s doorstep, with all likelihood Germany would not have military forces today; cause military action usually involves killing.

        For use of force by police officers the somewhat semi-fictional legal thought is used, that a cop using his gun against a criminal is only trying to stop the criminal from continuing to commit the crime.

        So in sum, in Germany there is in my view a rather convincing argument that Germany shall not kill and therefore shall have no DP, which in my view would remain convincing at least for quite some time to come.


        That’s Germany. The arguments apply to no other state as such.

        One thing i thought of as possibility is that somehow some German bishops/cardinals forgot the small detail, that this argument applies to Germany only, and forgot the small detail, that the world shall not be saved by Germany (“am deutschen Wesen soll die Welt genesen” was retrospectively not a good plan), and somehow used a bungled “applies to all nations” version of the above argument to convince other bishops/cardinals and the Pope in the end; with the result, that nobody can formulate the dignigy-> DP inadmissible argument, cause it originated in specific circumstances and that was lost when passing from mouth to mouth and therefore no general version did arise/was formulated.

        I truly hope that this is not the case, cause that would be a true shame for the involved prelates to bungle a sensible argument applying to Germany in a way, that makes the whole idea incomprehensible and prone to counter attacks.

      • Kevin Davis says:

        Well, I didn’t say that the Bible said “killed.” I simply said that God killed Ananias and Sapphira, which is what every commentator and everyone with basic reading comprehension would understand Acts 5:1-11 as saying. So, if you accept that that’s what the passage says, then you must agree that God does directly cause the death of certain persons. You claimed that God doesn’t directly kill anyone, only other people kill. That was wrong. That was my point. And, since God kills them as a form of judgment, it most certainly does have some bearing in how we think about whether the death penalty is “an attack on the inviolability and integrity of the human person.” In the case of Ananias and his wife, God deals the death penalty directly and without human mediation, but if killing someone directly (and, by the way, not in order to protect society) is “an attack on the inviolability and integrity of the human person” then God committed an immoral act. All of my mainline Protestant friends believe that is the case. They simply reject the account in Acts 5 as some sort of legend that got passed around.

      • Mary Angelica says:

        Pedro, I didn’t know that about the prison system, though it makes some sense of the differences.

        Having said that, maybe I don’t know enough about the Mafia, and I know even less about how it is in Europe, but my impression is that though powerful, politically embedded, destructive to society, and tricky to handle even from the cell, they are nowhere near the force of nature that the Latin American drug cartels have been in the past decades. The latter are so numerous and influential that they themselves have formed political and economic “parallel states” replete with their own militaries, effective governance over cities, etc. In some respects, the Mafiosos probably had to manage their violence, but the cartels thrive under chaos and bloodshed. They are,right now the main reason for the mass migrations to the US from central America, as their own governments are increasingly incapable of combating them. Again, I might be wrong, but I don’t think the Mafia has inspired that level of destruction. Mexico might now be able to push back against the cartels, and they have. They are one of the wealthier, more stable Latin American nations, unlike places like El Salvador, Nicaragua, and now Venezuela, which is basically a narco-state run by a cartel masquerading as a government.

        As for the prison systems there, they are even less effective than their governments, as they are more run by the inmates than by the guards. I have an uncle back in Venezuela who in his younger years was in one of these jails for theft. Let’s just say that the things he had to do in prison to stay alive were way worse than the thing he did outside. So no. I do not think many of these countries have effective means, right now at least, of protecting the people from the cartels in jails. They should aim for it, but right now they are failing even to protect their people in general and lack the resources that you mention are present in modern prison systems in the US and Europe, as well. And while these cartels are not having the global impact that the Nazis did, they are having international impacts that like I said, have lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the displacement of millions.

        Now, as you said, even if these countries have ineffective structures, that doesn’t imply that the DP is a solution. I agree. I am not sure I necessarily would like the idea of some of these governments (especially the narco-government in Venezuela) having the power to execute. But that response only confirms my point that in cases like these, the remaining arguments against the DP cease to be principled and now become consequentialist in nature. They are dependent on whether the DP for these drug lords will do more good than harm for the people at large, and I don’t think we can easily conclude that, in each case, the DP will do more harm or good, as, again, we don’t have all the facts.

    • Odo says:

      Pope Francis has actually spoken on Ananias and Sapphira: “the Lord punishes these two with death, because Jesus clearly said that one cannot serve both God and money: they are two masters whose service is irreconcilable.” It is obvious that Pope Francis believes in God’s wrath; he actually speaks on its pretty often especially in his later years. (And for various reasons I don’t think this passage is a very good analogy for the DP)

  2. Manuel Dauvin says:

    Hasn’t the church always framed the teaching in terms of society’s right of self defense? So it is like war.
    If the USA decided to go to war with Iran over access to the Persian Gulf that would be an unjust war.(assuming some knowledge of just war principles) It would be inadmissible for a catholic to condone it. (It’s an analogy…that archaic literary device that is sadly on death row )
    The Catholic church now teaches that we have reached a state of understanding and society where there can be no just [death penalties].
    Do we forget that the criminal serving time is fulfilling the demands of justice. The punishment replaces the guilt and its acceptance constitutes the following of God’s will…a path of potentially great sanctification. Why would the church turn is back on this prisoner merely to entertain some discussion on the ethics of killing someone who possess no present danger? Its weird…this clinging. They need to do a little prison ministry.

    • carn says:

      “The Catholic church now teaches that we have reached a state of understanding and society where there can be no just [death penalties].”

      Is this the case?

      I just ask, cause of numerous experience with people who could just have said “Ok, carn, agreed, if due to some weird circumstances effective detention means are not available, then DP would be admissible till the weird circumstances can be corrected.” and end that way long discussions, that people think that Church now teaches that DP would be even inadmissible if the state of society deteriorates somehow to situations more similar of past times.

      So if the state of society would deteriorate in a way that among other things leads to the continued absence of effective prison systems, leading to prisoners – at least those still willing to commit crimes – still being a danger, would this effect the admissibility of DP in your opinion?

    • Mary Angelica says:

      Manuel, my impression is that most defenders of the DP in this discussion are defenders of the “DP in principle”. For them, what’s at stake isn’t the abolition of DP so much as the infallibility of the Church. They see comments of Pope Francis as inconsistent with pronouncements of past popes or councils who supported the DP.

      Whether that is true or not is currently what is up for debate.

      There are a few differences between the DP and just war theory. Just war requires the motivations to be purely defensive. What up happening is that supposing the requirements are met, you as a soldier can fight against the unjust starting nation. However, since of the soldiers that you kill may be personally innocent as well. They may have been drafted and at that point are fighting for their own lives.

      Capital punishment adds the requirements of legitimate authority and true guilt. I as a civilian don’t have the right to execute. The state also can’t execute an insane possession who could be a threat to public safety. Nor can the state kill someone who is innocent as a scapegoat in orderto bring back moral order.

  3. Manuel Dauvin says:

    Even in a just War the use of nuclear weapons would be inadmissible. In the revision the church has made the same pronouncement regarding the use of death on a prisoner. it is largely the progress of Technology that has madethose options inadmissible.

    • carn says:

      Rather strange comparison.

      The use of nuclear weapons is impossible without severe effects on civilians. And it is near impossible without killing civilians. And it carries the risk of wiping out large percentages of mankind.

      The only time nuclear weapons were used in war, they were deliberately used within weighing the lives of innocent and defenseless human beings against other things like the life of soldiers, other civilians and military and political goals.

      Even if it had been not explicitly declared so, simple application of the just war doctrine and the principle that intrinsic evil may not be done so that good may come from it would on its own render using nuclear weapons illicit.

      On the other hand, the argument how from previous principles the inadmissibility of death penalty follows, is not that obvious, if “inadmissible” means “inadmissible even if effective detention systems are in the concrete situation not available and caught murderers repeatedly escape and continue murdering”.

  4. Manuel Dauvin says:

    I failed to convey the analogy. (Analogy is harder and harder to convey because it’s so easy to focus on the differences).
    In nuclear war the technology is so extreme that the previous just war principles become extremely difficult to apply even if you could insure that you simply destroy the entire army of the enemy with no civilians.
    Modern technology is making the original principles of the dp similarly difficult to apply, in fact, they have become inadmissible. Murderers cannot escape the prison. If a murderer gets out of jail only to murder again it will be a failure of sentencing not security. Killing a human being because we do not wish to fine tune the justice systems terms and parole procedures.
    My understanding of the issue is not technical.

    • carn says:

      “In nuclear war the technology is so extreme…
      Modern technology is making the original principles of the dp similarly difficult to apply,…”

      The analogy does not work. As you say technology made war more severe; but technology did not make DP more severe; DP did not change much; technology made it slightly less severe (by reducing the likelihood of killing innocents due to better ability to identify the guilty – mostly DNA testing); technology made also the alternative – life imprisonment – less severe AND more effective at protecting society.

      So war changed/new war technologies were devloped, which makes absolute negative evaluations without exceptions of new war technologies an option at least somewhat justifiable in a straight forward way.

      DP did not change much, only the alternatives changed, which makes absolute negative evaluations without exception of the thing nearly unchanged since millennia not straightforward, cause the negative evaluation “do not use it anymore, cause now there are alternatives” depends on the availability of these alternatives. If these were unavailable in some time and place for some reason, the reasoning would immediately make DP admissible again.

      Therefore there is no relevant similarity; in one case the thing itself changed and therefore it is argued that what it changed into is to be inadmissible; in the other case the thing itself did not change and only becomes inadmissible due to alternatives which changed and the inadmissibility would again come into question, when the alternatives were absent.

  5. Marie says:

    The effort it must take for theologians and the like to pick at every word said and to challenge Papal Authority must be exhausting. In the end, it is no different than going over an essay and ignoring the content by focussing only on the grammar and style. It’s a cop out. In this day and time, there is no need for the application of the death penalty. In this day and time we recognize that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of a serious crime; in this day and time more effective systems of detention have been developed; in this day and time we do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption. This causes scandal?

    • Mary Angelica says:

      While I understand the sentiment, the reasons why orthodix theologians do this is because many heretics try to get away with ambiguities in order to maintain their heresies under the guise of orthodox language, and because there may be a butterfly effect in terms of implications when people sneak in imprecision.

      The distinction between homoousios and homoiousios is literally one letter. It also manifested one of the fiercest debates in ecclesiastical history, precisely because what was at stake, ultimately was the actual divinity of Jesus vs the oneness of God.

      Pope Francis recognizes this, btw. Whatever side you are in this debate.

      • Marie says:

        Thanks. For someone like me, with a very limited theological background, I love this site for all the information I am learning, I remain puzzled however, at times with some of the arguments put forth. Some of this is way over my head, and I need to look it up, including homoousios and homoiousios! lol. Thank you 🙂 Other arguments, however, do not begin at the correct starting point (which is in line with the Pope), and the argument or theory is more about their knowledge than about the pursuit of understanding the teachings on that particular topic. The circle continues and continues without acknowledgment of error. Sometimes I think they make it far more complicated than it needs to be, perhaps because they have so much knowledge or just a refusal to conceed. Does that make any sense to you? In the end, it is all about how we process whatever knowledge we have, and our willingness to remain humble throughout. I very much enjoy reading yours, and others insight into these issues.

  6. Lazarus says:

    Can someone explain to me why the admissibility of the death penalty is not a legitimate development of doctrine like slavery? The bible doesn’t command that we not have slaves, but rather we treat them with dignity. The Church now teaches it is evil. If he Church now teaches that it is inadmissible, why is it not ‘case closed’ like slavery?

    • Mary Angelica says:

      The main idea is that a development can’t contradict previously established doctrine. Consistency is necessary. As for the DP, My understanding is that the Church can’t make an absolute pronouncement against it as intrinsically evil, (which JPII does for slavery, though that itself may be a bit more complicated than we tend to think… I explain why below). I’m also unsure of what has changed about the DP besides effective means in certain parts of the world of maintaining public safety without resorting to execution.

      Regarding slavery, I think the Church’s various actions throughout its history can in part be attributed to an evolution in the meaning of the terms “slavery” and “property”. As I understand it, how slavery is understood today involves that slaves are treated in whatever way the master wishes, because the slave is the property of the master. If something is our property, we may generally do with it what we wish. But if such is the case, then being reduced to someone else’s property is directly incompatible with human dignity. This is clear, and it is also why JPII included it in the list of intrinsically evil actions which VII listed as insults to human dignity reducing human beings to means for profit.

      However, “property” was not always understood in this sense. In the past, property simply meant right of use, or what pertained to a person who was in charge. It was much broader, because it designated relationships where the power from one over another was far from absolute in the eyes of the law. So for example, the wife and children of a man were considered his “property”, at least to some extent, but they were not without rights, and they were seen as human beings as well, even if you had a strong hierarchical/ status difference. If property is understood like this, it ceases to be incompatible with human dignity per se. In the early Church, the slave was considered the property of the master in the broader sense, but he also had rights and dignity. A Christian master couldn’t simply do what he wished with his slaves, as you note, except expect the work was expected of them. Of course, people’s experience of slavery in the past varied widely… some were basically employees, and others were chattel… and I’m not praising even the ancient versions, but it was basically this general legal and social relationship in which one person was in charge of the other, and the latter obligated to the first, not necessarily a relationship of absolute or near absolute ownership of one person over another that comes to our minds today.

      I don’t think that the Church could have opposed slavery in the way VII did had it not come to involve this absolute ownership as part of its definition, or at least the way it manifested itself today. It would have encompassed too much otherwise, some of which might not even be necessarily bad (if the legal relationship mirrored more a wholesome employer/employee relationship, or when you consider the fact that we are all slaves of Christ according to Paul). However, I do think that the Church was also equipped with seeds that would eventually lead to the end of even the broader notion (think the letter to Philemon). As a modern comparison, the Church allows the employer/ employee relation with certain conditions. It is effectively our modern version of old form slavery, but she also teaches that such a relationship isn’t the ideal in Rerum Novarum, and there is much in the scriptures that point this out too.

  7. Etio says:

    Are we as Catholics meant to turn off our brains, in your view? The Church throughout its history has plainly taught that the death penalty isn’t intrinsically evil. The argument is silly. Just admit that it’s not intrinsically evil, then say whatever you want about its application.

    • Pedro Gabriel says:

      Okay, I have no problem doing that. Here goes: the death penalty is not intrinsically evil, but its application nowadays is not admissible

      It’s like you didn’t even read the article or something

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