John M. Crisp: The pope has it right; we should listen


John M. Crisp - Tribune News Service



I’m not a particular fan of the Catholic Church, but I like Pope Francis, who appears to be a simple, devout, humble man who has somehow found himself at the head of a vast, opulent patriarchy. I’ll like him even more when he finds a way to establish the equality of females in the church hierarchy.

In the meantime, he has done some good things. For example, the Catholic Church hasn’t always been at the forefront of science, but on the crucial issue of climate change the pontiff is way ahead of our current American leadership.

And recently Pope Francis, who has for years criticized the death penalty, changed several sentences in the Catholic catechism to fully reject capital punishment, and he committed the church to its abolition worldwide.

In some respects, Francis rises above his religion with this position. The long Judeo-Christian tradition is fraught with capital punishment, bookended by the wrathful God of the Old Testament — which prescribes capital punishment for everything from cursing your parents to pretending to be a virgin — and the post-Judgment-Day, everlasting death that sinners face in Hell.

Indeed, Christianity’s central event is the most famous execution of all, the crucifixion of Jesus, which according to traditional theology is the sacrifice that redeems all sinners, at least the ones who believe in Jesus. In fact, without capital punishment, there would be no Christianity.

While it’s hard to reconcile Jesus’s most benevolent sentiments — Judge not, that ye be not judged; Let him that is without sin cast the first stone; Love your enemies — it’s not hard to find other scriptures that appear to authorize capital punishment, and Christianity — with notable exceptions — has never mounted organized, systematic objections to the death penalty.

So we can commend Pope Francis for favoring what Jesus said over the actual practice of the Christian church, although it’s worth noting that he’s only catching up to developed Western countries, nearly all of which abolished capital punishment long ago. And the countries that still use capital punishment — China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and so on — aren’t likely to pay much attention to the moral authority of the world’s leading Catholic.

The exception to the Western abolition of capital punishment is the United States, where we use it capriciously: Some states don’t use it at all, and others are avid practitioners, even though we’ve never found ways to ensure that we apply the penalty even-handedly, without regard to race, gender or social class.

And we continue to use it, even though clearly we sometimes execute innocent people. It’s inevitable, and it probably happens more often than we think.

American Catholics don’t always heed what the pope says. In defiance of church doctrine, according to a Pew Research Center report, 89 percent of them believe that artificial contraception is morally acceptable or not a moral issue, at all.

But maybe Francis’s ruling last week will provide the occasion for soul searching by some American Catholics who are in a position to change things. For example, the governor of Texas, the nation’s leading death-penalty state, is a Catholic. So are five justices of the Supreme Court, and if Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed, he’ll make the sixth.

These Catholics, as well as the rest of us, may ignore the sound reasons to abolish capital punishment, as well as other Catholic doctrines, but Pope Francis is a good, smart man, and when he says that the death penalty is “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” maybe we should listen.

Of course, Supreme Court justices are obligated to a different authority, the Constitution, which prohibits “cruel” punishment, no matter how evil the criminal. The Constitution hasn’t changed, but our conception of cruelty has, and what the founders accepted in 1791 — hanging, flogging — we see as cruel. This is a move in the right direction, but it’s always threatened with reversal.

Pope Francis calls capital punishment “inhuman.” “Cruel” and “inhuman” aren’t identical, but they’re in the same ballpark. The pope is right on this one. It’s time to abolish capital punishment.

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John M. Crisp

Tribune News Service

John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at jcrispcolumns@gmail.com.

John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at jcrispcolumns@gmail.com.

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