Pope Francis and the Death Penalty

Pope Francis and the Death Penalty
by pragerfan

Posted: August 5, 2018

[Ed. note: I may update this article as I find better ways to word things or as new information comes to light.]

In response to a comment by L.A. Times reader "ganidny" who commented:
The authorship of the Bible followed by Roman Catholics stretches from the earliest years of Judaism right on through the first hundred years after Jesus arrived, taught and was crucified, and the whole point of the New Testament is to expand upon, and often to correct, the mistaken teachings of earlier times. It is clear enough. Jesus Himself said: (Matthew 5: 38, NLT) "You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' 39 But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. 40 If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. 41 If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles." The Pope is but the Vicar of Christ, and the death penalty is the ultimate human taking of 'an eye for an eye.' How can he teach anything other than that the death penalty flies in the face of the teachings of his Master, for it throws sand into the eyes of our Heavenly Father who made and loves us all - even the worst of us - to teach anything else.
It's not the purpose of the New Testament to expand upon or to correct the Old Testament. Nowhere does the New Testament claim that Old Testament teachings are mistaken or outdated. Jesus Himself says He has come to "fulfill the Law," not to revise or discard it. St. Paul says in II Timothy 3:16 that "all Scripture is given by inspiration of God" and is profitable for teaching and instruction in righteousness. The "Scripture" here must be the Old Testament because the New Testament had not yet been written and compiled. The purpose of the New Testament — and what its writers provided to us — is a written record of the fulfilment of God's salvational promise in the Incarnation, life, ministry, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Though by no means obvious on a first reading, "an eye for an eye" is one of the greatest moral advances ever devised. An "eye for an eye" limits revenge, and discourages encourage excess revenge - i.e. an "eye for an eye" means that the punishment must fit the crime. It also taught that the eye of a commoner is just as precious as the eye of a prince, a notion that contemporary ancient cultures roundly rejected. Finally, it taught that the murderer must be punished: a man who murders another man's son must be punished; punishment is not to be inflicted upon the son of the murderer (a revenge killing which commonly occurred in ancient cultures and which occurs in some countries today — so-called "honor killings"). An "eye for an eye" was never meant to be taken literally (because an injury can never be exactly duplicated), and never was, except in one case: a life for a life in the case of murder.

The Sermon on the Mount is intended to show us how we ought to act as believers toward others in our personal lives, whereas the purpose of Old Testament Law was to develop a moral framework applicable to all and suitable for governing the world's first monotheistic civilized society — the ancient Hebrews — entrusted by God with the responsibility of bringing His message of Ethical Monotheism into the world. So the OT (specifically the Torah) and NT, while both divinely inspired and both a necessary part of the Christian faith and bible, nevertheless historically play very different roles.

While no Bible translation is perfect, be careful with paraphrase translations, such as the New Living Translation, which often take excessive liberties with the text when compared to the original languages. I would recommend for example the King James Version (not without its idiosyncracies) or the English Standard Version, instead. NIV can also be good. Consult your priest or pastor for more information on this.

Capital punishment for murder is the only law given before there was a Jewish people (Genesis 9:6), and repeated in all five books of the Torah. The New Testament writers do not morally assess the death penalty, just as they do not morally assess the war-fighting profession nor many other things. We cannot conclude from the silence of the New Testament that the death penalty would be, as His Holiness states, "inadmissible in all circumstances." This may be a statement of specifically what the Pope wants Roman Catholics to believe and/or a statement based on emotion, i.e. extending how he feels — and therefore how he wishes all Catholics to feel — about what Jesus did, said, and taught, and then on this basis conclude that the death penalty is inadmissible (i.e. immoral).

However, Christians — including Roman Catholics — who believe the entire Bible to be divinely inspired must come to grips with the fact that the Old Testament is quite clear that the crime of murder carries with it at least the possibility of capital punishment. This does not mean every murderer must be put to death — but it does mean that if no murderers are ever put to death, then society has irreparably cheapened and degraded human life.

Today's Christians who discard the Old Testament — and by so doing hope to evade the Old Testament's moral teaching on murder and capital punishment — are Marcionists. Marcionism rejects the Old Testament and the God of Israel. Marcionism was condemned as a heresy by the Christian church as early as the third century (Origen, A.D. 208, Adversus Marcionem). The letter to the Hebrews, if taken allegorically, can also be seen to refute Marcionism in chapter 13, verse 8 - "Jesus Christ, the same yesterday (the OT), today (Apostolic times, before the NT was compiled), and forever (NT)."

That the death penalty is never admissible is not a position found in Holy Scripture. It is a subjective moral judgment which can only be inferred. "Never" is a absolute term, and absolute pacifism regarding capital punishment is not supported by historical Roman Catholic Church teachings (hence the Pope's need to change the Roman Catholic catechism). To be fair, however, it does not appear that the Pope made his statement ex cathedra, and therefore his statement would not be considered "infallible" as far as Roman Catholics understand the broader notion of Papal infallibility.

Steve the Builder's essay on Capital Punishment
Dennis Prager: Pope Francis Rewrites Catholicism and the Bible