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Monday, October 31, 2005

The Local Archdiocese and the Death Penalty

Deacon Juan Barajas is the Director of Evangelization and Hispanic Ministry at the Archdiocese of Santa Fe’s Catholic Center, Alb., NM. Deacon Barajas writes a column that is mailed out to the Parishes of the Archdiocese to be included in the church bulletin.

For September 16, 2002 the column titled Stewardship reads:
“The Gospel of Luke, 15, presents several stories of God’s compassion. They are beautiful as long as we see ourselves as the receivers of God’s compassion. Are we willing to forgive others in the same way God forgives us? Many states in our country believe in Capital Punishment. We cannot be disciples of Jesus and believe in the death penalty. Forgiveness, and respect for life…this is what stewardship is all about.”

This certainly an extremely strong statement, it is nothing less that condemning to eternal damnation those who believe in the death penalty. In corresponding with the deacon he stated that it is an exaggeration to state that he was damning people, but never explained what else the statement could mean.
All across our city the message was sent which clearly stated that you are not a disciple of Jesus, not a Christian, not assured eternal salvation if you believe in the death penalty. This issue has been turned not only into an issue of physical life and death for the convict but it is an issue of spiritual life and death for all Catholics and non-Catholics.
However, note that the same Archdiocese that inform the city that “We cannot be disciples of Jesus and believe in the death penalty” also informed the city that “We also recognize that many people of good faith support the death penalty.”[1] We wrote to the Archdiocese asking them to clear up this contradiction of extremes in opinion but we received no response.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church #2266 states:
“Preserving the common good of society requires rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm. For this reason the traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in case of extreme gravity, the death penalty. For analogous reasons those holding authority have the right to repel by armed force aggressors against the community in their charge.”

The Maryknoll Catholic Dictionary states:
“It is Catholic teaching that society has the clear right to take life in order to repel unjust aggression against itself or its members. From this it follows that the state has the right to inflict the death penalty for serious crimes. There is much debate, however, on the value of the death penalty.”[2]

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.; a leading authority in his field who is also a professor in the Institute for Advanced Studies in Catholic Doctrine wrote:
“Capital punishment is part of the acknowledged Christian tradition, illustrated by St. Paul’s statement that, ‘The State is there to serve God for your benefit. If you break the law, however, you may well have fear; the bearing of the sword has its significance. The authorities are there to serve God; they carry out God’s revenge by punishing wrongdoers.’ (Rm. 13:4).”[3]

Clearly the official and traditional teaching of the Roman Catholic Church is that the death penalty is an acceptable practice. We have quoted only from publications approved by an ecclesiastical censor as Nihil Obstat meaning that it contains nothing that will hinder the Catholic faith.

Although, it is crucial to understand the following:
“The Pope says that the death penalty should not be used ‘except in cases of absolute necessity,’ which he considers ‘very rare, if not practically nonexistent’ [Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical The Gospel of Life #56]. Pope John Paul II has often asked U.S. governors and political leaders around the world not to execute specific people. He and many other bishops have made abolishing the death penalty an important part of their Jubilee Year efforts.”[4]

We must be fair and careful to understand this and take it into consideration.
For example, “The National Conference of Catholic Bishops went on record against capital punishment in 1974, and again in 1980.”[5] Also, “The three Bishops of New Mexico…have for a long time been on record as opposing the death penalty in our state.”[6]

We must be careful not to presume upon, or un-righteously judge, those with whom we disagree. When I wrote to Deacon Barajas I did not state my personal opinion regarding capital punishment. However, since I called his statements into question he made a faulty assumption. He wrote to me stating that if I thought I could find support for capital punishment in the Catechism I could probably find some Scriptures that I thought would support it as well. Of course, I explained that I had gone to the Catechism of the Catholic Church for the very reason that I ought to consult it, in order to find out what the official position of the Roman Catholic Church is.

Beyond the wish to abolish the death penalty and beyond the Pope’s requests to political leaders to not execute certain criminals on death row, the official Catholic Church teaching allows for capital punishment. It is unknown to us how or from where Deacon Barajas got the authority to condemn people for this belief. These are extremely serious issues; both the death penalty and the condemnation of those who believe in it.

Indeed there is a movement within the Roman Catholicism to abolish the death penalty, but considering that the church teaches infallibly through its Catechism that the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude the death penalty in case of extreme gravity.
People of God: News Paper of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe,
“Almost all civilized nations have long ago abandoned the death penalty. In our day society does not have to use the death penalty to protect citizens from dangerous persons.”[7]

If this is so then what does it say about the Vatican, the Pope’s city? As we have seen in The Catechism of the Catholic Church #2266 provision is made for the death penalty does this mean that Vatican City is not civilized?
Thus, it appears that the church is attempting to take a splinter out of the eye of the state while they have a pole in theirs. “why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:3-5).

Today there are various clergy as well as lay people in the Catholic Church who are strongly opposed to the death penalty but they must abolish it from their own infallible teachings first. Note that the abolition of the death penalty, according to Catholicism, does not have to do with the protection of ones family from intruders nor does it have to do with fighting a war.

Joe Ross wrote,
“Knowing that every person is made in God’s beautiful and holy image, how can we presume to cut short another’s life before God has given every opportunity for conversion?”[8]

There are various problems with this statement. First and foremost, God is sovereign, He is in control of everything, nothing occurs which is outside of God’s knowledge or control. This is not to say that all that happens is God’s perfect will, after all we do live in a cursed creation and do have free will, yet we learn from Job 1:6-12 in particular that even the works of the devil must be approved by God.
No one dies before their time, if they did then God is not sovereign and if God is not sovereign then He is not God. In the case of the death penalty, no one is executed before their time, as far as salvation is concerned.

The quote stated:
“how can we presume to cut short another person’s life before God has given every opportunity for conversion?” This presumes that we can beat God to the punch, that we could overpower Him, as it were, that human will can cancel out God’s. Yes, humans have free will and yes God wishes that all be saved but simply stated, as much as God wants all to come to Him He will not force people who want nothing to do with Him to spend eternity with Him, that would turn heaven to into hell, “‘Do I have pleasure at all that the wicked should die?’ says the Lord God, ‘and not that he should turn from his ways and live?’” (Ezekiel 18:23).

Yet, God is omniscient, God knew from before the creation of the universe when a person would be executed.
The Bible states:
“He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, ‘So that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of.” (Acts 17:26-27).

Thus, the Lord ends all our arguments and proves Joe Ross wrong. God has determined, preappointed times, the dwellings. He has decided when and where we would live in order that our lives, the situations we find ourselves in, the people we know, the good, the bad and the ugly would make us realize that we need Him. According to this fact of Scripture there is no such thing as a person who was never given a chance. Mr. Ross is asserting that God does not give certain people a chance for salvation or that in some cases He just waited so long that we humans did not give Him enough time.

No one who dies or is killed without having accepted Christ would have done so if the had just one more day, one more year, one more decade or century.

[1] People of God (News Paper of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe), Opposition to the Death Penalty, Nov. 2001, Vol. 19, #10, p. 3 and New Mexico Catholic Conference; Press Release Opposition to the Death Penalty 10-9-01
[2] Albert J. Nevins, M.M., ed., The Maryknoll Catholic Dictionary (New York: Dimension Books, 1965), Nihil Obstat Rt. Rev. Msgr. James T. Clarke, Censor Librorum 11-27-64. p. 101
[3] Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.; a leading authority in his field, he is also a professor in the Institute for Advanced Studies in Catholic Doctrine, The Catholic Catechism, A Contemporary Catechism of the Teachings of the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1966) Nihil Obstat: Daniel V. Flynn, J.C.D., Censor Librorum. Imprimatur: James P. Mahoney, D.D. Vicar General Archdiocese of New York 12-13-74. p. 345
[4] Fr. Pat McCloskey, “Ask a Franciscan,” St. Anthony's Messenger, August 2000, p. 48
[5] Anthony Wilhelm, Christ Among Us, A Modern Presentation of the Catholic Faith-Third Revised Edition (New York: Paulist Press, 1981) Nihil Obstat: Rev. Charles W. Gusmer Censor Librorum. Imprimatur: Most Rev. Peter L. Gerety, D.D. Archbishop of Newark. p. 280
[6] People of God (News Paper of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe), Opposition to the Death Penalty, Nov. 2001, Vol. 19, #10, p. 3
[7] People of God (News Paper of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe), Opposition to the Death Penalty, Nov. 2001, Vol. 19, #10, p. 3
[8] Joe Ross, Living and Dying on Death Row: An Eyewitness Account, 2001 Respect Life Program.

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