God got the death penalty so wrong, so Pope Francis had to put Him right

Jules Gomes looks at Francis’ teaching innovation on capital punishment

You don’t need God to defend the death penalty; the Golden Rule will do. The Golden Rule can be framed positively or negatively. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” says Jesus. “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others,” says Confucius. If you want others to value your life, you must value their life. If you inflict death on others, expect others to return the favour. Murder someone only if you are willing to face execution.

I’m not asking for revenge or retribution. I’m not arguing that the death penalty serves as a deterrent. I’m not calling for murderers to be executed so they will be incapacitated and won’t repeat the heinous crime of homicide.

I’m not pushing a Christian or religious morality. I’m not rooting for biblical or theological ethics. When arguing a pro-life position on abortion, I use exclusively scientific and philosophical arguments—I don’t go around bashing pro-choicers with my leather-bound ESV Study Bible. Scientifically, it can be argued that the unborn are distinct, living, and whole human beings. Philosophically, it can be argued that none of the differences between the embryo I once was and the adult I now am justify killing me at that earlier stage of development. 

So I don’t need to use an argument from authority to defend the death penalty. Conversely, I don’t need to use the reductio ad Stalinumargument and ask how just would it be to send Stalin to prison for life, perhaps with the possibility of parole for good behaviour. Anders Breivik is not exactly in the same league as Uncle Joe, but one must ask how justice is served when the mass murderer who went on a shooting spree in Norway killing 77 people, is given a sentence of 21 years in prison. That’s about 100 days per murder. 

Is the life of each of Brevik’s 77 victims, many of them children, worth just 100 days in a cozy 3-room cell with TV, exercise room, and IKEA-style furniture paid for by the taxpayer? What if Brevik is unrepentant when he is released from jail? More importantly, how does this sentence fulfil the Golden Rule? If you kill 77 people the lawful authority representing these murdered people doesn’t get to kill you but inters you in an upgraded version of Travelodge for a few years. Does this even come close to meeting the standards of the Golden Rule?

Last week, Pope Francis changed Canon 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church declaring the death penalty “inadmissible”. The Revised Francis Version reads: 

“Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

Canon 2266 states that “legitimate public authority” has not just the “right” but also the “duty” to “inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offence”. The principle of proportionality is clear in this teaching. This is another way of defining “justice” or “fairness”—we should treat the offender, “just” as he treated his victim. The golden rule of, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is another way of phrasing this principle.

The original version, before Francis fiddled with it, allowed for “recourse to the death penalty” on two conditions. One, the offender’s “identity and responsibility have been fully determined”. Two, “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor”. If it is possible to protect people from the offender, one should refrain from imposing capital punishment. Why? Because “these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person”.

What does the Catechism mean when it uses ambiguous language like “concrete conditions of the common good”? And doesn’t Golden Rule achieve the “common good” in the best possible manner? Most importantly, aren’t you depriving the human offender of his “dignity” when you fail to apply the Golden Rule and don’t treat him in the same manner he has treated others?

In the case of capital punishment, the State applies the Golden Rule. “In the state of nature, I have the right to kill those who attempt to take my life, and in entering into society, I have accorded this right to the magistrate; why should he then not use it?” asks a Swedish philosopher debating an English Lord in Gabriel Bonnot de Mably’s 1776 book, De la législation, ou Principes des lois.

Pope Francis’ revision stresses the offender’s dignity but fails to acknowledge the dignity of the victim. “Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.” The sentence, crafted in the passive voice, is a masterstroke in evasion. Where does this “increasing awareness” come from? What are the arguments for the moral, biblical and theological basis of this “dignity”?

The outstanding logical fallacy in the statement, however, is the non sequitur. Our dignity as humans comes from the divine declaration in Genesis that each person is created in the image and likeness of God. This dignity is marred by sin, but it can never be permanently effaced or erased, even if a person were to commit a heinous crime. Thus, the guilty offender is also never deprived of the “possibility of redemption”.

Jesus’ exchange with the two criminals crucified on either side of him at Calvary reflects this possibility of redemption. In the case of the two criminals crucified alongside Jesus, the penitent criminal acknowledges his guilt and is welcomed into paradise. The other criminal rejects the possibility of redemption, but nevertheless still retains his human “dignity”. Was Jesus stripped of his dignity because he suffered the death penalty?

The non sequitur arises from failing to establish a link of consequence between an offender retaining his human dignity and an offender being given the death penalty. Is Pope Francis telling us that capital punishment strips a human being of his God-given dignity? If so, the Pope’s erroneous conclusion flies in the face of the most fundamental teaching of Holy Scripture.

The most glaring evidence against Pope Francis’ error is in the archetypal flood story in the book of Genesis. You don’t need to be a Jew or Christian to benefit from the story. Like Jordan Peterson, you can treat it as an archetypal narrative that is foundational to Western civilisation and is the repository of wisdom. “It was realists who created, or noticed, Old Testament God,” observes Peterson. But Pope Francis says he believes in this God, so he ought to be taking these stories and scriptures a lot more seriously than Peterson does.

After the flood, this God commands Noah (a representative of the post-diluvian humanity) to implement capital punishment for murder. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Gen 9:6). In the one verse, God inextricably links the death penalty to human dignity. However, the link made in this verse between capital punishment and human dignity completely contradicts the way Pope Francis links the two concepts.

It is precisely because humans have dignity and that dignity is divine and sacred that Noah is charged with implementing the death penalty for a murderer who takes the life of another human being. In the context of murder, the death penalty is the only means for preserving human dignity. The death penalty thus becomes the strongest statement the state and society can put forth on the sanctity of life. Life is so sacred and imbued with such dignity that if you dare to take the life of another you will forfeit your own life.

Pope Francis’ position on “dignity” also bites the dust because his dismissal of the death penalty deprives the murderer of the dignity of moral agency—which only humans and not animals possess. Pope Francis has subconsciously bought into the myth of materialistic determinism, which greatly diminishes the biblical concept of humans created in the image of God. The status of the offender is now reduced to that of a victim who is not responsible for his actions.

The principle of the death penalty is so intrinsic to the sanctity of life that capital punishment for premeditated murder is the only law repeated in all five books of Moses, the Torah. Manslaughter is dealt with more leniently. Further, to prevent a miscarriage of justice, the legal requirements for evidence in the Torah are very high and require two or three eyewitnesses for a capital punishment conviction.

What if the possibility of the wrong person being executed was taken away by foolproof evidence beyond all doubt? What if the entire murder was captured on CCTV and facial recognition software confirmed the identity of the killer and there was DNA evidence with letters and recordings to prove that the murder was premeditated? Would Pope Francis still argue that the death penalty is “inadmissible”? When this question was posed to Diann Rust-Tierney and Barry Scheck, both opponents of the death penalty, in an Intelligence Squared debate in the US, they kept dodging the question and refused to answer on the grounds that the debate was on public policy and not the morality of capital punishment.

I remain puzzled by the position of many British conservative evangelicals on the death penalty. Using the same corpus of texts, they argue that the Bible prohibits homosexuality, but are unwilling to concede that the same legal corpus also prescribes the death penalty. Even if one were to discount the prescription for capital punishment in the Deuteronomic or Levitical laws and argue that it was specific to ancient Israel and abrogated by the New Testament, as John Stott does in Issues Facing Christians Today, one would have to point out that the early sections of Genesis prescribing the death penalty predate the Mosaic Law and are universal in application. No conservative evangelical would argue that the laws prohibiting incest and bestiality are no longer applicable because they occur only in the Mosaic Law and are nowhere mentioned in the New Testament!

Pope Francis might also argue that it is only for God and not for the State to take a person’s life. Paul’s letter to the Romans debunks both the idea that the New Testament abrogates Old Testament law and the argument that the State is not authorised to execute a murderer. The State bears “the sword” as “the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer”, writes Paul (Rom 13:4), a clear reference to capital punishment. Jesus, the Torah-observant Jew, makes it clear that he comes to fulfil and not cancel the Mosaic Law. 

The same logic of the State refraining from killing should apply in the case of abortion and euthanasia. Oddly, abolitionists often tend to be pro-death when it comes to abortion and contend that the mother aided by the medical machinery of the State should be allowed to kill an unborn child (or terminally patient).

So what’s the difference? Abortion is killing an innocent human being who does not deserve to die. The death penalty is killing a guilty human being who deserves to die because he has taken the life of another person, as the Golden Rule would have it. Is it chronologically significant that Britain stopped killing the really guilty people when capital punishment was abolished in 1965 but started killing innocent babies a couple of years later when abortion was legalised in 1967?

Is it statistically significant that 9 million babies have been aborted since 1967 while the homicide rate has doubled since 1965? In 1965, the murder rate was approximately 6.8 per million of the population, by 2001/02 this figure had doubled to 16.6 per million, the highest murder rate over the period shown.

Pope Francis has God and the Bible, but you don’t need God or the Bible to defend the death penalty—the Golden Rule will do. And believers and atheists and secular humanists are equally happy to categorically endorse the Golden Rule. Christopher Hitchens says that the Golden Rule “with its innate sense of fairness is well within the compass of any atheist”. Sam Harris judges the Golden Rule to be “a brilliant distillation of many of our ethical impulses”. Peter Singer points out how the Golden Rule is consistent with “the point of view of the universe” and is accepted by all the major ethical traditions, in some form or other.

On the afternoon of July 23, 2007, in Cheshire, Connecticut, two men broke into the home of Dr. William Petit. The intruders almost beat Dr. Petit to death with a baseball bat. One of them raped his wife while the other sexually assaulted their 11-year-old daughter, Michaela. The two men then strangled Mrs. Petit to death, tied down the two daughters on beds, doused them with gasoline, and, while the girls were still alive, set the house on fire. Mrs. Petit and her daughters died.

If you were the judge in the murder trial would you sentence the murderers to life imprisonment trusting Pope Francis’ New Revised Catechism that the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person?

Or would you apply the Golden Rule and do unto others as you would have them do unto you?

(Originally published in Republic Standard)

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