I’ve already laid out my personal experiences with the death penalty. Then I presented the Church’s long-standing traditional teaching on it. (The comments on that latter piece are almost as informative, in some respects, as my info-dump presentation itself.)
But today I caught wind of something that really made me deeply uncomfortable. The Vatican plans some reflections on Good Friday that juxtapose the crucifixion with the desire to abolish the death penalty. I kid you not:
[Pope] Francis will mark the occasion by presiding over a “Way of the Cross” service Friday night that begins in the Colosseum and continues onto Rome’s Palatine Hill. At each station of Jesus’ suffering, the pontiff and those attending the outdoor celebration will reflect using a text prepared for the event by retired Italian Bishop Renato Corti*.
At the station that marks Jesus being nailed to the cross, Francis and the pilgrims will use a reflection that questions modern-day uses of both the death penalty and torture.
“We gaze at you, Jesus, as you are nailed to the cross,” states the reflection. “And our conscience is troubled.”
“We anxiously ask: When will the death penalty, still practiced in many states, be abolished?” it continues. “When will every form of torture and the violent killing of innocent persons come to an end? Your Gospel is the surest defense of the human person, of every human being.”
While Catholic teaching holds that the death penalty can be used in a situation where the public authority can find no other way to contain a dangerous person, the last several popes have said that such situations likely no longer exist.
Francis has been even more publically opposed to the practice, saying March 20 that “today the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed.”
This juxtaposition of the crucifixion and the death penalty under a desire to eliminate capital punishment presents us with a real danger: it suggests an implied desire to eliminate the crucifixion as well. This attempt to sanitize our redemption runs directly counter to Christ’s own embrace of His cross as necessary for our salvation. In fact, those of you who remember your scriptures should be able to identify the context in which Our Lord issued his famous rebuke to St. Peter, “Get behind me Satan!” If you can’t quite place it, here’s a refresher:
Jesus saith to them: But whom do you say that I am?
Simon Peter answered and said: Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God.
And Jesus answering, said to him: Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven.
And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.
Then he commanded his disciples, that they should tell no one that he was Jesus the Christ.
From that time Jesus began to shew to his disciples, that he must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the ancients and scribes and chief priests, and be put to death, and the third day rise again.
And Peter taking him, began to rebuke him, saying: Lord, be it far from thee, this shall not be unto thee.
Who turning, said to Peter: Go behind me, Satan, thou art a scandal unto me: because thou savourest not the things that are of God, but the things that are of men. – (Mt. 16:15-23)
That’s right. Directly on the heels of Peter’s proclamation of faith and Christ’s institution of the papacy, Our Lord revealed to His disciples that he would suffer and die and rise again.
And Peter’s conscience, to borrow a phrase, was “troubled.” And he “anxiously” rebuked the Lord, saying that these things should not come to pass.
Yet our Lord, for His part, turned on His newly-minted vicar, and chastised him, going so far as to call him “Satan.” Why? Because he couldn’t accept that Jesus would face execution on the cross.
Bodily death is an evil, as is suffering. But only the distorted thinking of those who would immanentize the Eschaton — particularly in the shape of a materialism that seeks to create a heavenly analog here on earth over and above any desire for eternal salvation — would think that using the triumphant salvific act of Our Lord Jesus Christ as a political gambit in an ideological battle against capital punishment is a good idea.
All arguments that we must do everything in our power to ensure that innocent men are never executed — meritorious though they are in the pursuit of justice — run aground on the blood-soaked earth of Golgotha. As we meditate on the voluntary embrace of unjust crucifixion by He Who Was Most Innocent of All Mankind, it is impossible not to see the danger in the proposal made by this “reflection.” It is a diabolical twist, one which tempts us to envision a crossless Christ; a deathless salvation. It is reminiscent of the serpent in the Garden of Eden:
Now the serpent was more subtle than any of the beasts of the earth which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman: Why hath God commanded you, that you should not eat of every tree of paradise?
And the woman answered him, saying: Of the fruit of the trees that are in paradise we do eat:
But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of paradise, God hath commanded us that we should not eat; and that we should not touch it, lest perhaps we die.
And the serpent said to the woman: No, you shall not die the death.
For God doth know that in what day soever you shall eat thereof, your eyes shall be opened: and you shall be as Gods, knowing good and evil.
None of us want Christ to have suffered and died so horribly at Calvary. All of us scourged Him and mocked Him and crowned Him with thorns and drove the nails through His precious body.
We are all executioners. We dare not forget. We all deserve death for our crimes – the death which He suffered on our behalf.
Neither may we forget that it was God’s own justice which was satisfied by Christ’s death on the cross. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23) isn’t just a fancy saying. St. Thomas explains:
That man should be delivered by Christ’s Passion was in keeping with both His mercy and His justice. With His justice, because by His Passion Christ made satisfaction for the sin of the human race; and so man was set free by Christ’s justice: and with His mercy, for since man of himself could not satisfy for the sin of all human nature, as was said above (Question 1, Article 2), God gave him His Son to satisfy for him, according to Romans 3:24-25: “Being justified freely by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God hath proposed to be a propitiation, through faith in His blood.” And this came of more copious mercy than if He had forgiven sins without satisfaction. Hence it is said (Ephesians 2:4): “God, who is rich in mercy, for His exceeding charity wherewith He loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together in Christ.”
At my first reading of this strange innovation, I couldn’t put my finger on what was so disconcerting about it. I’ve been trying to figure out if it ties in with any previous heresy — it would seem that denying the necessity of Christ’s passion and death would have been numbered among them — but the closest match I can find, ironically enough, is Pelagianism, insofar as it denies the effects of original sin and the need for divine assistance in overcoming our fallen natures. Maybe it’s something all new. Seems like all the cool kids are doing heresy these days.
Whatever it is, it needs to go. This “reflection” should be thrown in the burn pile and replaced with something authentically Catholic.
*Bishop Corti, who wrote the reflections, has previously butted heads with Church tradition. In 2007, he suspended three priests who wanted to exclusively celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass after the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.