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The Death Penalty – WWJD? Accept It

“Pope Francis has issued his strongest statement yet against the death penalty, calling it “contrary to the Gospel.”

Christ, the Word of God, who is God, came also as the Incarnate Word, to live amongst humankind, fully and truly as a human being. This is the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.

Sentenced to die by crucifixion, Christ accepted the penalty. He did so without objection, even though, in response to Pilate’s assertion that he (Pilate) had the authority to put Christ to death, Christ could have protested. He could have argued, as Pope Francis now purports to do, that the death penalty is always inadmissible because it is the voluntary killing of a human being, which no merely human authority has warrant to do to any person, much less a person innocent of any wrongdoing.

Instead, Christ replied in words that avowed that Pilate’s authority came “from above”, i.e., from God. This attribution to God is consistent with Christ’s words in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he says to God his Father “Not My will but thine be done.” Rather than clinging to his own human will for bodily life, Christ voluntarily followed God’s will: that he should suffer death in order to open the way to human redemption.

Christ accepted the death penalty because, by God’s command and will, he was called to accept it. Now, Christ’s human life was perfectly sacred in the eyes of God. Otherwise, how would he have become the sacrifice, perfectly acceptable to God, required for human redemption?)

But this fact, that Christ’s life was sacrosanct, far from precluding the death penalty, made it all the more necessary that he should suffer it. For it was God’s will that he should voluntarily surrender his human life in order re-open the way to life itself, which is in God alone, for all human beings.

Because of original sin, the life that is possible for humanity’s fallen nature, apart from Christ, is not perfectly sacred in the eyes of God. That’s why Christ’s sacrifice was necessary to our salvation. We are subject to death because the death penalty was already pronounced against all such as we are, in consequence of Eve’s mistake, and Adam’s voluntary complicity therein. Until and unless we are reborn, in and through Jesus Christ, all human beings are sentenced to death, in any sense mere human authority can execute. Such is the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.

Unless he means to deny that human beings are mortal by way of God’s permission and decree how can Pope Francis contend that capital punishment is always “inadmissible”? Does he mean to reject the will of God that encompasses our mortality. Since Christ, by his incarnation and death, accepted it, how is this consistent with Francis being the Vicar of Christ, either in the Seat of Peter, or as the celebrant in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass? How is it consistent with loving evangelization and true pastoral care?

In the Gospel, Christ does not define true life as that which subsists in the shadow of sin and death. The life Christ offers to humankind, as affirmed by His resurrection, is life reborn in the light of God’s presence, lived in the Spirit of God, utterly free from the shadow of death and sin. People who choose to reject Christ remain mired in mortal sin. As that term implies, their sinful condition means that they are already dead, by God’s decree. If they are put to death by human power, what is the Church instructed by Christ to do but to let the dead bury the dead (Matthew 8:21).

As for those innocents, already in communion with Christ, their newness of life is beyond the reach of any human power, to save or to destroy. Therefore, any humanly inflicted death penalty is as irrelevant to them as it is redundant to those Christ describes as dead through sin. Understanding this, the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching has followed the admonition of Our Lord, when he said “Do not be terrified by the one killing the body, but who cannot kill the soul. Rather, fear the one who can destroy both body and soul, in Hell.” (Matthew 10:28)

Because of this instruction, the Church’s pastoral care is not obsessed, with saving the body from the penalties inflicted by human law, except to see that justice is done, according to God’s rule of justice for all. So, pastoral care seeks to requite humanly adjudged evil with undoubtedly true good, by preaching the Gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ to those for whom the natural penalty of sin is imminent or ongoing. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)

Pope Francis appears to reject the Scripture in which St. Paul writes:

“For princes are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil. Wilt thou then be afraid of the power? Do that which is good: and thou wilt have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to thee, for good. But if thou do that which is evil, fear: for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is God’s minister: an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil.”

The sword is an instrument for killing. If not borne in vain (i.e., with no regard for this purpose) the wrath it executes encompasses the killing for which it is made. Contrary, therefore, to what Pope Francis has argued, the Church’s past acceptance of the death penalty was not the result of historical blinders. For the office of God’s avenger is established by God himself. The Scriptural warrant for the death penalty is therefore premised on God’s perfect knowledge of what is, and is to come. So, for example, God showed his wrath even to the people of Israel, so that many suffered death. (Exodus 32:25-28) for their false worship of the Golden Calf.

And beyond such death as this, when the dead face Final Judgment, those “not found written in the book of life” will be “cast into the pool of fire. This is the second death.” (Revelations 20:14) If it be true that, at first and at the last, sin warrants death, by the judgment of God; then, voluntary killing cannot always be “inadmissible”, for it was and will be admissible, to the ministers of God who say to him, “Thy will be done.”

Does Pope Francis mean to expunge this truth from the memory of the faithful? But if the Church accepts teachings that expunge the truth about God’s wrath, what becomes of the salutary fear God must inspire—the fear with which the wisdom of the heart respecting God begins its journey through obedience to love.

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 if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, and the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand.


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