Please forgive me if I've used this story before. I may have told it in a homily or one of these bulletin articles. Bishop Mark O'Connell, one of the Boston Auxiliary Bishops, is a classmate and friend of mine. After priesthood ordination, Mark studied in Rome for a Doctorate in Canon Law. He is a bibliophile and likes to collect antiquarian items. One day while browsing a Roman used bookstall, he came across an interesting one. It was an early Nineteenth Century ticket to a memorial Mass for a deceased Roman Gendarme. What made it interesting was that the policeman was executed after being found guilty of murder. In those days, Rome was part of the Papal States. Here was the Church celebrating a Mass and praying for God's mercy on the soul of a person they had executed for a heinous crime! How Catholic! We always trust that God's mercy has the last word.
The story came to mind because Pope Francis recently released his latest encyclical letter Fratelli Tutte, "On Fraternity and Social Friendship." A papal encyclical is a high-level Church teaching. Only an Ecumenical Council document has a higher theological authority. In Fratelli Tutte, Francis addresses the need to eliminate many of the world's most urgent social problems. He wrote the letter during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic and hopes the world will see it as a plan to improve our world as we go forward from the pandemic.
One of Francis' important statements in Fratelli Tutte is that capital punishment must now be regarded as a moral evil, although not intrinsically evil. This teaching is a new development of Catholic moral teaching. As the Nineteenth Century incident points out, the Church hasn't always taught capital punishment is evil but carried it out themselves. St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, the two most significant Christian theologians, taught capital punishment could be used to punish the guilty and protect society from evil criminals. The Council of Trent, at the time of the Reformation, confirmed that teaching.
Over the last few decades, dating back to St. Pope Paul V, Church teaching on the use of capital punishment has been developing. It is a result of these developments that Pope Francis' teaching in Fratelli Tutte has come about. In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae in 1995, St. Pope John Paul II tightened capital punishment restrictions. He proclaimed its use should only be when there was no other way to defend innocent human beings' lives from aggressors. In 1999 John Paul II called for its abolition. Pope Benedict XVI, in the post-synod document Africal Micnus also called for an end to capital punishment. Some theologians see a thread of these developments going back to Augustine when he pled for mercy for two assassins.
In Fratelli Tutte, Pope Francis grounds his condemnation of capital punishment on mercy and opposition to revenge. In the past, the Church has allowed capital punishment in retribution and not revenge. The punishment should fit the crime the Church feels. Recent popes, and now Pope Francis, has stated increased prison security eliminates the need to protect society from unjust aggressors by putting them to death. Capital punishment is no longer necessary. Francis writes that it is more useful to promote criminal justice reform and restorative justice programs.
As Catholics, we believe that while the teaching of Jesus in the scriptures doesn't change, our understanding of them does. God's grace is always at work in our world, helping us to gain a clearer understanding of God's will. That is how the Church has grown from being the imposer of capital punishment to now condemning it.
While capital punishment is not imposed here in Massachusetts, many other states and, after a seventeen-year hiatus, our Federal Government has begun carrying it out again. Just last weekend, the Federal Prison system executed a woman for the first time in over forty years. Fratelli Tutte now makes it incumbent for all Catholics to add their voices to those who oppose capital punishment. It is a pro-life issue.
An Election Prayer
Loving God, I ask you to guide me during this important election season:
Help me to understand the Gospels, in which Jesus Christ reveals his path of love, mercy and compassion, especially toward those who are poor, sick or struggling in any way.
Instruct me on what the church teaches on the important issues of our day: abortion, racism, migration, war and peace, health care, the death penalty, economic justice, care for the environment and on all those questions that I must ponder with your help.
Enable me to form my conscience so that I may vote wisely.
Loving God, I ask you to help me to live peacefully with others:
Allow me to be open to the opinions of others with whom I disagree.
Fill me with a spirit of charity toward those who may oppose me.
Give me patience in times of struggle.
Loving God, I ask you to help me stand with those who are marginalized or persecuted:
Increase my courage so that I can stand up in times of danger.
Create in me a new heart that I might be brave in times of turmoil.
Make me someone who is ready to care for, advocate for and suffer with those on the margins.
Loving God, I ask you to aid our civic leaders:
Grant them good health and a spirit of wisdom.
Open to them paths of reconciliation.
Teach them your ways of love, mercy and compassion.
Loving God, I ask you to bless our nation:
Crown it with your compassion.
Support it with your care.
And nurture it with your love.