Timothy Broglio is Archbishop of the Archdiocese for the Military Services. Early this year, he attracted a great deal of media attention, mostly negative, for a letter he issued condemning the Obama' administration for requiring Catholic institutions to include contraception in its insurance coverage. An adroit diplomatist, Broglio reached a compromise with the Pentagon, and the letter was read. More recently, following the usual logic of the seamless garment, the Archbishop declared his opposition to the execution of Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, the confessed perpetrator of the 2009 massacre at Fort Hood, Texas.
The Archbishop's explanation of his decision has all the earmarks of duplicity: "The church teaches that unjustified killing is wrong in all circumstances. That includes the death penalty." Just to confuse things even further, he added this bewildering statement: "Maj. Hasan and his victims are all entitled to justice," the archbishop added. "Maj. Hasan, at least, now has recourse to a scrupulous appeals process. Would that his victims have received as much fairness."
Maj. Hassan, as the Archbishop well knows, does not want to appeal; he wants to be executed. He is, after all, guilty not must of murder, but of violating his military oath and of treason against the government that hired him. But that is a small point. The big point is Broglio's claim that the Church opposes the death penalty.
Of course the Church teaches that unjustified killing is wrong in all circumstances, and of course that includes the death penalty if it is being applied unjustifiably, but are there no cases when it is justifiable?
Broglio could not have graduated from even an American seminary, where the standards are as low as any institution of higher learning, without knowing, first, that the Church until very recently strongly affirmed the duty to execute certain criminals and, second, that even the evasive and incoherent relevant passage in the current Catechism does not rule out the use of capital punishment. In fact, he has as rigorous an education as the Church these days provides, which makes his position even less "justifiable."
Before citing a few obvious facts well known to the Archbishop, let me put the question in the abstract. Does the Catholic Church now teach the opposite of what it has taught for 1900 years of existence? If it does, are we to side with the New Church or with the Church of Christ, His apostles, and the greatest doctors of the Church? Or would it not be fairer to say that if the Church asks us to repudiate the teachings of the Old Church, then it cannot be either Catholic or universal?
Here is what the current Catechism says:
”[T]he traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged a 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 cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty.”
I could rest my case here, did the authors of the Catechism not go on to make the entirely specious argument that since the purpose of the death penalty is to protect the innocent and since that can be done as well with incarceration as with capital punishment, the death penalty is not really needed. The argument is specious because the primary function of punishment is justice and not protection of the public. Even if the capital punishment or incarceration did not protect anyone, the punishment of criminals is still an important function of all governments. Besides, life imprisonment does not protect inmates and guards from the wrath of a killer, and solitary confinement is far too inhumane for a Christian to contemplate.
What do liberal Catholics mean when they say "the Church" opposes or, as they like to say, "has always opposed" the death penalty? Presumably they do not mean the Church's precursor, the children of Israel, whose Scriptures are filled with justifiable homicides inflicted by rulers and prophets. The Old Law, at least, was crystal-clear: Justice is vengeance, the retribution of tit for tat--[Exodus 21:24-25] “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, stripe for stripe.”
Setting aside the Law, where are the condemnations of capital punishment in the New Testament? Is it where Christ deliberately does not tell the men about to stone the adulteress that killing criminals is always wrong? Or when He tells Pilate that his power to execute comes from God? Or when Paul says in Romans 13 that the ruler holds the sword not in vain but as a terror to the wicked? "But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”
Perhaps they will cite Augustine's plea for clemency with Macedonius? But Augustine makes it clear that the death penalty is legitimate:
"Surely, it is not without purpose that we have the Institution of the power of kings, the death penalty of the judge, the barbed hooks of the executioner, the weapons of the soldier, the right of punishment of the overlord, even the severity of the good father .... While these are feared, the wicked are kept within bounds and the good live more peacefully among the wicked.”
Whether we turn to Thomas Aquinas ( Principibus et judicibus tantum, non autem privatis personis, peccatores occidere licet.[i]) or St. Alphonsus or any of the great Catholic teachers--to say nothing of the tough-minded Reformers--we find frequent appeals for mercy but a clear understanding that justice may require the death of a criminal.
There is a case to be made against the death penalty, but it is rooted in non-Christian and anti-Christian theories of the human person. There is no Christian and, in particular, no Catholic argument to be made, except by a round-robins-barn set of hypothetical arguments plus tortured exegesis of passages from Scriptures and the Fathers, ripped out of context. The less said about phenomenology the better, particularly if one does not wish to insult a decent Pope who has passed away.
The case for capital punishment is as solid as the case against abortion, perhaps even solider. I should venture to say that it is only those who believe there is nothing beyond human life who can reject the requirement of justice. As a young atheist, I strongly opposed capital punishment, but in becoming a Christian I learned a deeper wisdom.
[i] St. Thomas (Sum. Th. II ii 64.3, “Rulers and judges only, but not private persons are permitted to kill sinners.”)
Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, and The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors' Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and four grandchildren.