Fr. George Rutler - A pastor who will always teach the authentic Catholic Faith.

 National Catholic Register, March 24-31, 2002

Many Americans dismissed Alexander Solzhenitsyn when he criticized the decadence of Western Culture. Others more recently ignored his plea for a restoration of the death penalty: "There are times when the state needs capital punishment in order to save society." This is Christian doctrine. Since popes are preserved from essential error by "grace of state," none has wrongly claimed authority to call capital punishment morally evil.


"Development of doctrine" does not apply here.

As the Church's teaching on contraception cannot "develop" in a way that would declare its intrinsic evil to be good, so the right of a state to execute criminals cannot "develop" so that its intrinsic good becomes evil. For Cardinal John Henry Newman, development of doctrine involves "preservation of type." Changes in the way a doctrine is expressed and applied cannot alter its essence.


Some Catholics, who once pointed out the flaws in the "seamless garment" argument, now rush to put on that garment as though there has been a sudden development. By definition, the development of doctrine cannot happen overnight.


The new edition of the Catechism revises the section on capital punishment. This was not a development of doctrine. It was, however, problematic for placing a prudential judgment in a catechetical text, more problematically so than in an encyclical like Evangelium Vitae. Paragraph 2266 of the Catechism names the primary consideration of retribution, but No. 2267 ignores it.


That the vast majority of opinion has turned against capital punishment is irrelevant to the case and is not universally so. Nor is it universally so that penal systems have improved in a way that renders capital punishment unnecessary. There are many very different systems.


There has been a development, not in essential doctrine, but in moral criticism. Here, I am edified by the fine scholastic logic of Justice Scalia, as when he identifies the mistaken modern equation of private morality and governmental morality.


Catholics have distinguished between peace and pacifism. They disserve systematic theology when they fail to make a parallel distinction between the dignity of life and a total ban on capital punishment. The cogency of Catholic apologetics crumbles when reason is abandoned for sentimentality in consequence of philosophical idealism and subjectivism. We also may be witnessing here some tension between personalist phenomenology and Thomist realism.

Absolute rejection of capital punishment weakens the cogency of pro-life apologetics. Some churchmen cite skewered statistics on the execution of innocent victims.


Since 1973 the present U.S. system has overturned about 33% of all convictions, although only .6% of those criminals were found to be factually innocent. DNA testing makes justice ever more secure, and capital offenders receive due process far more deliberately than other offenders. In numerous instances, e.g. the defeat of Senator John Ashcroft, strongly anti-abortion politicians have lost elections to pro-abortion candidates who were against capital punishment. This gets worse when criminals, freed in response to ecclesiastical appeals for mercy, kill again.


The pastoral commentary of the Church guides moral method, but the prudential calculus, in punishment as in the declaration of war, rests in the civil government whose authority pertains to natural law and is not granted by the Church. To propose otherwise under the guise of doctrinal development would be a species of clerical triumphalism that post-Enlightenment humanists claimed to abhor. Few see this as clearly as a distinguished Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.


Father Rutler is pastor in New York. He has a weekly program on EWTN and is the author of several books and many excellent articles on the Catholic faith


Father Rutler 10/22/2017 Parish newsletter


“Use your brain” is a maxim often heard, but often resented. Such was the case when our Lord confronted professional debaters. At the age of twelve his rhetorical skill astonished the rabbis, who presumably thought that he was just a child prodigy. But later on, the legal experts were not amused when he challenged their logical fallacies; yet he came into the world to win souls and not to win debates. Those experts did not think their souls needed saving, so they cynically used syllogisms to “entrap him in speech” (Matthew 22:15). They posed a trick question about paying taxes, to which Christ responded that they should use their brains: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).


Using the brain to figure out things of Caesar and of God does not easily answer the question, but it does establish some solid principles. Take for instance the neuralgic challenges to capital punishment. Well-used brains have understood that the death penalty belongs to the just domain of the government. The Catechism affirms this (CCC #2267).   (In 2018, Pope Francis changed the wording in the catechism to prohibit Capital Punishment)


This principle belongs to natural law, which in classical philosophy, is “. . . the universal, practical obligatory judgments of reason, knowable by all men as binding them to do good and avoid evil.” Saint Paul appealed to natural law: “Ever since the creation of the world, [God’s] invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made” (Romans 1:20).


Governments exist to maintain “the tranquility of order.” When popes governed the Papal States, they measured out punishments including death. One papal executioner, Giovanni Battista Bugatti, served six popes, including Blessed Pius IX, and personally executed 516 felons.


That was the civil side of ruling; the spiritual side did everything possible to bring the guilty to confession and a state of grace before meeting God, because happiness is the realization of the purpose of life and is not mere pleasure; and unhappiness is the contradiction of that purpose, and not mere pain. Without that perspective, the death penalty seems an arrogant violation of life, and that is why today opposition to the death penalty increases as religious faith decreases. That dangerous alchemy substitutes emotion for truth and platitudes for reason. Such lax use of the brain is to theology what Barney the Dinosaur is to paleontology.


Two professors, Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette, have published an excellent book: By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed. Such right use of the brain explains that abuses of punishment are intolerable, and the application of mercy is a permissible use of prudential opinion. But to posit the death penalty as intrinsically evil contradicts laws natural and divine, and no authorities, be they of the State or the Church, have the right to deny what is right by asserting that.


2017-10-22 – 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Matthew 22:15-21


 U.S. Bishops Approve the Pope’s Capital Punishment Ban

 Fr. George W. Rutler, June 26, 2019, Crisis


Sæva indignatio. Few writers in the history of English letters could express “savage indignation” at human folly as did Jonathan Swift who wrote those words for his own epitaph. Our times give ample opportunity to empathize with him, and that is never more so than when clerics get together in large numbers.


Bishops have many daunting responsibilities and, if they are reasonable, they are not fleet of foot to beat a path to synods and conferences and plenary sessions and other impositions on their august office. Their patience in such meetings is exemplary, and so lesser souls should be patient with them when they sometimes fail to match up to Athanasius or Borromeo.


At the U.S. bishops’ General Assembly that took place June 11-14 in Baltimore, there were many items to discuss, chief of which was a protocol on how to handle prurient offenders, which passed under the lumbering title “Directives for the Implementation of the Provisions of Vos estis lux mundi Concerning Bishops and their Equivalents.” Vos estis lux mundi is the papal motu proprio issued on May 9, 2019, which prescribed procedures for holding bishops and Religious superiors accountable for handling cases of sex abuse. Working within the framework of the Church’s hierarchical constitution, it keeps bishops as their own regulators, while acknowledging that their failures in the past have cost the Church billions of dollars in fines and punitive damages.


That brought to mind the poet Juvenal, a match for Jonathan Swift when it comes to savage indignation, when he asked in his Satires: “Who will guard the guards?” Swift and Juvenal together at a conference of bishops would have provided lively commentary, and for that matter so would have Samuel Johnson. Dr. Johnson loathed Swift, probably because they were so alike in their instinct for righteous irritation, expressed in colorful ways in part perhaps because Swift was aggravated by an equilibrium disorder called Maniere’s disease while Johnson almost certainly had Tourette syndrome. Juvenal’s apostrophe, Quis ipsos custodes custodiet?, concerned the problem of randy guards guarding sex offenders. He proposed replacing them with eunuchs, not a practical solution today even with the current trend of “sex reassignment surgery.


The saeve idignatio emerging from the Baltimore meeting, however, was not the response to the Vos estis document. After all, that issue has been a muddle for a long while. Rather, a more astonishing matter, though little noted by the multitude, was the Assembly’s handling of the controversial issue of capital punishment. Indeed, the bishops were informed that they were not to discuss the doctrine itself, but were only to consider the translation of a papal revision of the Catechism on the matter, specifically paragraph 2267. In 1992, John Paul II had revised that section, problematically inserting a prudential opinion discouraging lethal executions. But he also allowed: “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” Supposedly, the latest revision exalts mercy at the expense of justice, neglectful of what the newly elected John Paul II said in a general audience in 1978: “There is no love without justice.” Until the present day’s climate of disdain for doctrine, “mercy and truth are met together” (Psalm 85:10), but in the new dialectic, mercy has devoured truth altogether.


While John Paul’s revision text maintained the authentic teaching and the legitimacy of such punishment, the inclusion of a prudential opinion in a catechetical exposition of established doctrine opened the way for abuse, as this writer among others predicted. Now that has happened, in a blatant way, all the more confusing for its inarticulateness. Specifically, the new section calls capital punishment “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” Not for the first time in recent years, this woolgathering has opened a real can of worms. “Inadmissible” is not a theological term, and use of it without explanation is contentious. As a legal term, “inadmissible” means that it is not relevant to the case. In other words, capital punishment is to be treated as no longer relevant to justice, thus dismissing the magisterial structures based on natural law and Scripture. The cavalier treatment of natural law and Scriptural evidence, makes prospects for maintaining all moral doctrine fragile and all moral praxis subjective.


Aware of the monumental dangers of this, a group of prelates published a “Declaration of the Truths Relating to Some of the Most Common Errors in the Life of the Church of Our Time” which included a relevant point (n. 28):


In accordance with Holy Scripture and the constant tradition of the ordinary and universal Magisterium, the Church did not err in teaching that the civil power may lawfully exercise capital punishment on malefactors where this is truly necessary to preserve the existence or just order of societies (cf. Gen. 9:6; John 19:11; Rom. 13:1-7; Innocent III, Professio fidei Waldensibuspraescripta; Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent, p. III, 5, n. 4; Pius XII, Address to Catholic jurists on December 5, 1954).


There have even been bishops so impatient with the subtleties that make theology logical, that they have turned two thousand years of Christianity upside down by announcing that the death penalty is absolutely immoral. This epistemological novocaine contradicts an advisory of Cardinal Ratzinger in 1992: “If a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment … he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to prevent himself to receive Holy Communion.”


One supposes that the use of the term “inadmissible,” clumsy as it is, is an attempt to shy from being explicit and even heretical on the matter. The canon lawyer Edward Peters wrote 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.”


When the proposed revision of the Catechism’s section on the death penalty was introduced at the Baltimore assembly, one perceptive bishop asked what “inadmissible” means. The bishop selected to present the text said that the proposed draft provided “a context and justification for the development of this teaching on the dignity of the human person, but also emphasizes the continuity of Catholic teaching on the topic.” Here at work is George Orwell’s Doublethink which mitigates cognitive dissonance by proposing two contradictory statements as mutually complimentary. Thus, Doublethink claims with a straight face that to declare the death penalty inadmissible is identical to the Church’s uninterrupted magisterium which maintained that capital punishment is admissible and even sometimes necessary. In 2019 as in 1984, anyone who can make dissonance mellifluous by condescending facility of expression is considered an intellectual beacon, even when his intelligence is above average when that average is modest. And this is because, as Erasmus wrote in his Adagia: “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” But our Lord warned that there is a peril in following disseminators of cognitive dissonance: “Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch” (Matt. 15:14).


But things got worse. For when pressed to the specific point of what “inadmissible” means as used in the proposed text, the responding bishop said: “To my mind, the pope maintains and our version imitates a certain, if you want, eloquent ambiguity on that point,” Eloquent ambiguity. No bishop asked for further explanation and a silence fell on the room, like the silence when the sons of Noah covered their father’s nakedness, but this time the shame was rhetorical. It was this writer’s pleasure to have been a priest for William F. Buckley who, like Newman’s gentleman, was “merciful to the absurd.” But had anyone described confused and potentially heretical thought as “eloquent ambiguity,” Bill would have replied, as he did indeed do to a guest on his Firing Line television program: “I won’t insult your intelligence by suggesting that you really believe what you just said.” To that we might add that executing a man is swifter and more humane than torturing him with clichés and hanging him with a frayed syllogism.


There is a time and place for ambiguity when it is an exercise of temperate expression. The ancient Greeks even had a deity or daimon, Sophrosyne, who represented a strength of character exemplified by discretion, circumspection, and restraint, according to Socrates in Plato’s Charmedes. But such venerable shrewdness is not the cynicism that cajoles bureaucrats into calculation for the sake of obfuscation and servile ambition. Significantly, when Sophrosyne escaped Pandora’s box, she retreated to Mount Olympus leaving the human race, including its clergymen, bereft of her guidance. But “sophrosyne,” meaning moral sanity or restraint, was for Stoics like Zeno one of the four chief virtues and it remains a cardinal virtue for Christians. It is far different from ambiguity in the sense of obfuscation. That “uncertain trumpet” helps explain why 50 percent of millennial Catholics have left the Church, leaving it “unprepared for battle” (1 Cor. 14:8).


If “inadmissible” does not mean something essentially different from what has already been said magisterially about capital punishment, why is it necessary to revise the Catechism to include it? Secondly, if the word “inadmissible” is deliberately ambiguous, why does it belong in a catechism whose purpose is to eschew ambiguity? After all, in a catechism, ambiguity is even more problematic than a prudential opinion. Thirdly, how can ambiguity be eloquent, since the etymology of eloquence means forcefully expressive and revelatory and is thus the opposite of verbal camouflage?


Only the angels of light know what would happen if assemblies of bishops spoke like the Lord “with authority and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22). Or suppose the bishops operated on the dominical principle: “But let your speech be yea, yea: no, no: and that which is over and above these, is of evil” (Matt. 5:37). An incapacity for indignation at calculated ambiguity is the consequence of a bureaucratic culture which melds ayes and nays into maybes. At the Baltimore assembly, the bishops approved the eloquently ambiguous statement by a vote of 194 for, 8 against, with 3 abstentions. Perhaps they were thinking like Nancy Pelosi who said of the Affordable Care Act: “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.” Years from now, whether the Church has risen from its present slough of despondency to a shining new eminence, or lies battered in a heap of broken basilicas and quivering banalities, the wonderful question will be: “How was it that at a meeting in 2019, almost all of the American bishops voted for something without knowing what it means?”