The Pope has announced the new official position of the Catholic Church on the death penalty. Calling it an attack on the inherent dignity of all humans, the Catholic Church now teaches that the death penalty is not an acceptable or appropriate punishment for murder.
The Pope, and now the Catholic Church, see this as a moral issue — that it is a violation of a person’s humanity to take the life of a criminal convicted of a crime, regardless of how heinous the crime is.
To a Catholic, church authority is God’s authority. When the Pope speaks as the vicar of Christ, it is as if God himself has commanded it. This is because, according to their catechism, the authority of Catholic teaching is not only the Bible, but their sacred church traditions, and their sacred Magisterium, which is the teaching of human leaders. From http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P77.HTM I quote:
2051 The infallibility of the Magisterium of the Pastors extends to all the elements of doctrine, including moral doctrine, without which the saving truths of the faith cannot be preserved, expounded, or observed.
Thus, to a proper Catholic, the authority of God is not only seen in God’s word (the Bible) but in their church traditions and in the official declarations of the Pope. This is important to understand, because not all Christians place church tradition or human teaching on equal footing with the authority of Scripture. Some of us believe Matthew 28:18 which tells us, “And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
We believe the authority of Christ, called the word (logos) in John 1:1, is enshrined in the Bible (the word of God). That is why the Bereans examined the Scriptures to make sure what Paul and Silas taught was true (Acts 17:11). Their authority was the Scriptures, not Paul and Silas.
So, what troubles me about the Pope’s announcement is that it gives the impression that Christianity, per se, is against capital punishment. To me, the Bible clearly establishes the death penalty as the appropriate punishment in some cases.
How often have we heard that the Bible says, “Thou shalt not kill”? On the face of it, that would make the death penalty wrong. But is that what the sixth commandment really says? Understanding Scripture from the perspective of giving it authority over our lives requires careful study of word meaning and usage, textual context and cultural and historical settings. Without such considerations, this commandment might be construed to mean we aren’t to kill anyone or anything (including plants) ever, at all.
But the Hebrew word רָצַח (ratsach) doesn’t mean all forms of killing in general. It specifically refers to murder. So, God’s authoritative command is, “You shall not murder”. In the Bible, murder is always morally reprehensible, while other forms of killing are not, such as killing in war and in cases of capital punishment. But that is Western Civilization’s old, traditional Biblical view. Now people really don’t care what the Bible says about the death penalty — even some Christians, it would seem. They are either ignorant of it altogether, or they distort the little they do know to fit popular opinion.
Even the crucifixion of Christ has been misrepresented by claims that Jesus was a victim of the death penalty. Missing the whole point that his sacrifice paid for our sins and made our salvation possible, the idea is put forth that the evil of his crucifixion was that he suffered from social injustice — the very thing we must fight to suppress. This is a gross perversion of the gospel.
But not all Americans are swayed either by Catholic dogma or Scriptural authority. Many consider the death penalty issue a matter to be solved by democracy (what policy do most people support?) or by utilitarianism (what would make most people happy?). The question of right or wrong is no longer one of moral absolutes but of moral relativism.
When any culture tries to define what is moral, they must have some authority as their basis. What makes that difficult in our day and age is that multiculturalism has not only given us conflicting authorities, but also an increasing trend towards anarchism and the rejection of authority altogether.
Historically, the death penalty remained basically unquestioned until modern times. The argument that the death penalty should be abolished because it is as obsolete and irrelevant as the Old Testament is poorly thought through. True, the Old Testament is often used to support arguments in favor of capital punishment. However, the “Thou shalt not kill” argument against the death penalty also comes from the Old Testament — and poor translation at that.
Bottom line, people in general no longer have the Biblical world view to differentiate between killing and murdering. And this distortion in thinking has even infected the Catholic Church and even evangelical denominations. Increasingly, arguments of morality distort Biblical teaching and appeal to the perceived authority of popular opinion (utilitarianism).
In the U.S., support for the death penalty has fluctuated, though in general has maintained a majority over those who oppose it. See the Gallup poll data at https://news.gallup.com/poll/1606/Death-Penalty.aspx
But when it comes to the moral question of whether something is right or wrong, I am not content with popular opinion polls. I believe that truth is absolute, not relative. If you believe that God created us and that we are accountable to his standards, then there can only be one ultimate authority for what is right and what is wrong. To me, that clearly must be scriptural authority.
If you don’t believe in God or don’t believe he holds us accountable to his standards, then you will be comfortable with taking a vote to determine the morality of a thing. But if you are Catholic, you try to ride a three-way balancing act: Scripture, church tradition and what the Pope says. Neither way leads to the truth. Only Jesus does.
Natural law, which formed the basis of American jurisprudence, says that the laws of Man should conform to God’s laws. For Catholics or others who are opposed to the death penalty on the basis that it attacks their human dignity, I ask you to examine this Jesus Christ whom you pretend to follow. Does he attack the dignity of unrepentant sinners when he metes out the penalty of death?
Matthew 10:34 — Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
Romans 6:23 — For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Revelation 19:1-16 — Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.