2018-08-13 10:54:12 UTC
The Boston Globe
Arguable - with Jeff Jacoby
Monday, August 6, 2018
Popes, politicians, and the penalty of death
Pope Francis announced on Thursday that the Catholic Church will henceforth
teach that the death penalty is always wrong, and will “work with
determination towards its abolition worldwide.” The announcement made news —
it was reported on the front page of The New York Times and The Washington
Post — but it hardly came as a surprise.
Just last fall the pope had declared capital punishment to be “contrary to
the Gospel” and “inhumane . . . regardless of how it is carried out.” A year
and a half before that, he had called on Catholic politicians to make the
“courageous and exemplary gesture” of opposing all executions.
Yet if the pontiff’s views on the death penalty were well known, last week’s
proclamation nonetheless marked a dramatic change in church doctrine, which
for nearly two millennia had always upheld the legitimacy of the death
penalty in appropriate cases. The death penalty is supported in the Bible —
both Old and New Testaments. It has been firmly defended by many of the most
eminent figures in church history, from St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas in
ancient times to popes, cardinals, and scholars in the modern era.
“The infliction of capital punishment is not contrary to the teaching of the
Catholic Church,” the Catholic Encyclopedia, published in 1911, stated
categorically . The Catechism of the Catholic Church, originally promulgated
by the Council of Trent in 1566, emphasized that the execution of murderers
is lawful precisely because it upholds the Biblical commandment — “Thou
shalt not murder” — that prohibits unlawful homicide. In the words of the
“Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is
entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of
which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. Now the punishments
inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime,
naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing
outrage and violence. The just use of this power, far from involving the
crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to the Commandment which
prohibits murder. The end of the Commandment is the preservation and
security of human life.”
To be sure, popes in recent decades have been much more wary about the death
penalty. Pope John Paul II expressed his skepticism in a passage of his 1995
encyclical “Evangelium Vitae” (The Gospel of Life). All the same, when the
catechism was revised on his watch, it continued to make clear that the
execution of murderers was not, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, always
wrong. In the section on the Commandment against murder, it upheld the
lawfulness of the death penalty in certain cases:
2267. Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been
fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude
recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of
effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.
Even as many Catholic leaders moved firmly into the anti-capital punishment
camp, that position was never binding on the faithful — unlike the church’s
stand on other sanctity-of-life issues. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who
before becoming Pope Benedict XVI headed the Vatican department in charge of
clarifying and teaching Catholic doctrine, made that point explicitly in
“Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia.
. . . There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics
about waging war and applying the death penalty.”
Now that Francis has ordered the church to make its opposition to capital
punishment absolute, will that tolerance for “legitimate diversity of
opinion” on the subject vanish?
I doubt it. If the College of Cardinals backs him up, the pope may be able
to unilaterally change a formerly authoritative — indeed a formerly
uncontroversial — doctrine of Catholic belief. But it is unlikely that he
will change what Catholics actually believe. According to a recent poll by
the Pew Research Center , most American Catholics, 53%, favor the death
penalty as an option in murder cases. That tracks closely with US public
opinion generally: 54% of Americans favor capital punishment, while 39% are
opposed. Though the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has been lobbying
against the death penalty for years, it has never managed to persuade a
majority of its flock to follow suit.
Pope Francis has revised the Catholic Catechism's teaching on the death
Nor is the pope’s pronouncement likely to make any measurable difference in
the behavior of public officials who are Catholic.
In its story reporting Francis’s decision last Thursday, The New York Times
speculated that “the pope’s move could put Catholic politicians in a new and
difficult position, especially Catholic governors like Greg Abbott of Texas
and Pete Ricketts of Nebraska, who have presided over executions.”
There was no comment from Abbott, but Ricketts wasted no time dumping cold
water on the notion that a shift in Catholic doctrine will keep him from
upholding his duty to his state.
“While I respect the pope’s perspective, capital punishment remains the will
of the people and the law of the state of Nebraska,” the governor said in a
statement following the announcement from the Vatican. “It is an important
tool to protect our corrections officers and public safety. The state
continues to carry out the sentences ordered by the court.” Catechism or no
catechism, the execution of Carey Dean Moore, who murdered two Omaha cabbies
in 1979, will take place as scheduled next week.
Meanwhile, another Catholic governor was quick to embrace the pope’s
announcement. “In solidarity with Pope Francis,” declared New York’s Andrew
Cuomo, he plans to introduce “legislation to remove the death penalty — and
its ugly stain in our history — from state law once and for all.” Cuomo
hailed the pope for “ushering in a more righteous world” and for teaching
that the execution of murderers has no place in the 21st century.”
Obviously this was mere posturing, not least because the death penalty was
abolished in New York 11 years ago. Cuomo’s opposition to capital punishment
is no more determined by Catholic doctrine than his support for gay marriage
and abortion rights. Cuomo is “in solidarity” with the pope only when the
pope endorses Cuomo’s preexisting view. When the governor and the church are
on opposite sides of an issue, solidarity disappears.
As it should.
When it comes to the death penalty — when it comes to any contentious
issue — neither New York’s liberal Catholic governor nor Nebraska’s
conservative Catholic governor should be taking direction from the pope or
any other clerical leader. In the workings of American law and politics,
religious leaders are respected, sometimes very deeply respected. They do
not give orders, however. American culture is deeply informed by
Judeo-Christian values, but when politicians hammer out public policy, the
only “scripture” they are bound to uphold are the constitutions of the
nation and their state.
As a candidate for president in 1960, John F. Kennedy faced considerable
opposition from Protestants who feared that if he were elected, he would
take orders from the Vatican. In a landmark speech before the Greater
Houston Ministerial Association, he addressed those fears head on:
“I believe in an America,” said JFK,
that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish; where no public
official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the
Pope, the National Council of Churches, or any other ecclesiastical source;
where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon
the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where
religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is
treated as an act against all.
And should the time ever come, he added, that religious conviction forced
him to choose between violating his conscience or violating the national
interest, “then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious
public servant would do the same.”
To my mind, the pope’s blanket opposition to the death penalty is morally
indefensible. The death penalty is grim and unpleasant, but it is a tool of
justice that no decent society should unequivocally renounce. When murderers
know that they face no greater risk than prison, more innocent victims die.
Conversely, the pope’s blanket opposition to assisted suicide is, in my
opinion, quite correct. It is the opposite of true compassion to encourage
people to end their lives, or to make it easier for them to do so. Life does
not cease to be precious when it fills with pain or depression, and the law
should not authorize doctors to snuff it out.
Americans have long debated such issues, and those debates will go on,
regardless of any papal proclamations. Politicians may play up the pope’s
views when it matches their own, but that’s just for show. Religious leaders
don’t make the rules in this country. We the People do, thank God.
Incident at Smith
Oumou Kanoute is a black student at Smith College with a summer job on
campus as a teaching assistant. This is what happened as she was eating
lunch in an mostly empty dining hall one day last week:
A college employee saw her “laying on the couch” alone, mistook her for an
unfamiliar male who “seem[ed] to be out of place,” and phoned the campus
police dispatcher to say so. An unarmed officer was sent to check things
out. He spoke politely to Kanoute, recognized at once that nothing was
wrong, and left her in peace.
Here’s what didn’t happen:
Kanoute wasn’t threatened, attacked, restrained, or touched. No weapon was
brandished. No voices were raised. No racial slur was uttered — in fact,
according to the transcript of the police call , there was no racial
reference of any kind. No one picked a fight with Kanoute, accused her of
wrongdoing, or denied her right to be on campus or in the common room. A
minor misunderstanding by a cautious employee was quickly resolved, and at
no point threatened to escalate into anything dangerous, violent, menacing,
Smith College sophomore Oumou Kanoute: “I did nothing wrong. I wasn't making
any noise or bothering anyone. All I did was be black.”
That might have been the end of it — except that Kanoute, by her own
description, “had a complete meltdown after this incident.” Offended and
upset, she took to Facebook to denounce the unknown “racist punk who called
the police on me.” In a follow-up post the next day, she urged followers “to
put pressure on the [Smith College] administration” to name the employee who
called the campus police, in order to “confront and acknowledge the harm
done to me.” On Day 3, she was demanding that Smith address not only “this
racist incident” but also the “systemic racism on campus,” and raising the
issue of “punishment for this outrageous and racist act.”
By that point, Kanoute’s story had turned into the latest racial uproar, a
caldron of angry outrage and mistrust, complete with intense media coverage,
an elaborate apology from Smith’s president, and the hiring of a civil
rights law firm to conduct an investigation. Meanwhile, the worker who
called the police is off the job: He or she has been suspended “pending the
outcome of the external investigation.”
It’s not hard to empathize with Kanoute’s bitterness that the police were
summoned by a worker who thought she looked out of place. “I did nothing
wrong,” she wrote. “I wasn't making any noise or bothering anyone. All I did
was be black.” Her indignation is completely understandable — especially
given the wave of recent stories about white employees or neighbors calling
the police to report black people who were doing nothing wrong.
But Kanoute’s emotional response doesn’t justify the over-the-top media
attention, or the rush to treat this incident as if it exemplifies naked
On the record so far, there is no evidence that Kanoute’s color was what
precipitated the employee’s call. Kanoute herself claims that she was
mistaken for a “suspicious black male,” and the transcript of the police
call has the employee referring to Kanoute as a man: “He seems to be out of
place . . . umm, I don’t see anybody in the building at this point and, uh,
I don’t know what he’s doing in there, just laying on the couch.” (My
italics.) At Smith, where all undergraduate students are women, the sight of
what appeared to be an unfamiliar young man sprawled on a couch in a room
where men normally aren’t present might well make a staff member uneasy.
It’s easy to castigate the concerned college employee for not approaching
Kanoute before calling the police. A few seconds of conversation is all
Kanoute would have needed to reassure the staff member that she was a Smith
woman and not a young male interloper. But that’s wisdom after the fact. In
the moment, wasn’t it at least as reasonable for the Smith employee to avoid
a confrontation with a person who seemed out of place, and instead let
campus security check it out?
“Get involved by becoming more security conscious,” Smith College says in
its online guide to campus safety, “and by reporting all incidents of
suspicious or criminal activity, no matter how insignificant, to Campus
Police immediately.” It goes on to make clear that “suspicious behavior” is
in the eye of the beholder:
Campus Police receive numerous complaints about suspicious activity on our
campuses. Sometimes, callers are unable to identify what is suspicious about
a person, and often the person about whom a concern is filed is perhaps
walking late at night alone on campus, and is here for legitimate purposes
like visiting a friend or attending an event. . . .
While most . . . situations . . . could have innocent explanations, your
campus police department would rather investigate these situations sooner
rather than be called when it is too late.
Unless there is more to this story that hasn’t come out, the college
employee appears to have done just what an uneasy employee in such a
situation is supposed to do: Err on the side of safety, and call the campus
Americans are exhorted repeatedly: If you see something, say something. More
often than not, “something” turns out to be nothing — just a kid having her
lunch, for example. But there have been times as well when the failure to
say something has led to tragedy . It may be obvious in hindsight that a
call to the police was unnecessary. But life isn’t lived in hindsight, and
even at Smith College — which is about as progressive and politically
correct a campus as you can find in America — the official policy is: better
safe than sorry. Smith asks people to call the police on a hunch, “no matter
how insignificant.” It doesn’t ask them to first calculate the potential
political and media fallout, or to worry that their call will later be
deemed racist, even if they don’t say a word about race.
Misunderstandings happen. One aspect of maturity is learning to distinguish
between malice and error. What happened to Kanoute last week was unfair, but
it was a momentary unpleasantness, not a hateful assault on her dignity as a
black woman. If Kanoute can’t tell the difference — well, she’s still just a
teenager. What’s everyone else’s excuse?
Site to see
Amid the internet’s vast ocean of drivel, some websites are alluring islands
of knowledge and discovery. Each week, in “Site to See,” I call attention to
one of these online treasures.
This week’s site, What If? [URL: https://what-if.xkcd.com/ ] supplies
serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions. The questions
can be about anything: What would happen if a nuclear bomb were detonated in
the eye of a hurricane? What if everyone on Earth stood close together and
jumped at the same time? If you lay outside on your back with your mouth
open, how long would it take before a bird pooped in it? What would happen
if lightning struck a bullet in midair? If you call a random phone number
and say “God bless you”, what are the chances that the person who answers
Most of the answers seem to involve calculations involving very large (or
very small) numbers, scientific disciplines ranging from physics to
meteorology, and lots of winsome stick-figure illustrations. A crazy amount
of effort must go into figuring out whether and how the questions can be
answered, let alone into then actually calculating those answers. The
reader-submitted questions alone are often worth the price of admission.
“Rebecca B” posed this query: If you suddenly began rising steadily at one
foot per second, how exactly would you die? Would you freeze or suffocate
Here’s how the answer begins:
A foot per second isn't that fast — it's substantially slower than a typical
elevator. It would take you 5-7 seconds to rise out of arms' reach,
depending how tall your friends are. After 30 seconds, you'd be 30 feet — 9
meters — off the ground. [T]his is getting close to your last chance for a
friend to throw you a sandwich or water bottle or something.
After a minute or two you would be above the trees. You'd still be about as
comfortable as you were on the ground. If it's a breezy day, it will
probably get chillier thanks to the steadier wind above the treeline.
After 10 minutes you would be above all but the tallest skyscrapers, and
after 25 minutes you'd pass the spire of the Empire State Building. The air
at these heights is about 3% thinner than it is at the surface. Fortunately,
your body handles air pressure changes like that all the time. Your ears may
pop, but you wouldn't really notice anything else. . . .
At about two hours and two kilometers, the temperature would drop below
freezing. The wind would also, most likely, be picking up. If you have any
exposed skin, this is where frostbite starts to become a concern.
Read the whole thing yourself, but here’s the bottom line: Assuming you were
wearing warm clothing, you would probably lose consciousness and die from
loss of oxygen at around the seven-hour mark. But if you forgot to bundle up
before you began levitating, you’d likely freeze to death after five hours.
Please recommend a website for this feature! Send me the link and a short
description (***@globe.com), and put “Site to See” in the subject
My last column was about the metaphorical reference to “trade wars,” and why
it is folly to conceive of international trade as conflict. We customarily
speak of nations trading with each other, but the United States doesn’t
actually do business with Canada, China, or the European Union. Rather,
hundreds of individual American companies choose to buy goods from hundreds
or thousands of individual Canadian, Chinese, or European vendors — and vice
versa. Unlike wars, which really are fought by nation against nation,
international trade occurs among countless sellers and buyers, all acting
independently in their own best interest. In so doing, they knit the world
together in a web of mutual interest and make the planet more peaceful.
The last line
“And high above them the great shape circled and wheeled through the
darkening sky, shining and keeping its secret for ever and ever and ever. .
. . — P. L. Travers, Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935)
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