Casting the First Stone?

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And they said to him: “Teacher, this woman was just now caught in adultery. And in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such a one. Therefore, what do you say?” But they were saying this to test him, so that they might be able to accuse him. Then Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the earth. And then, when they persevered in questioning him, he stood upright and said to them, “Let whoever is without sin among you be the first to cast a stone at her.”

And bending down again, he wrote on the earth.

But upon hearing this, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest. And Jesus alone remained, with the woman standing in front of him. Then Jesus, raising himself up, said to her: “Woman, where are those who accused you? Has no one condemned you?”

And she said, “No one, Lord.”

Then Jesus said: “Neither will I condemn you. Go, and now do not choose to sin anymore.”

-St. John 8:4-11

Last year, I wrote that then-Attorney General Bill Barr was “no less a Catholic for pursuing the death penalty” against four federal prisoners who had been so sentenced. I wrote the piece in response to public-facing Catholics who claimed that Barr had forfeited his pro-life bona fides by signing off on the executions. Abortion, I argued, kills the innocent, while capital punishment kills the guilty. I claimed that the latter could not be compared with the former.

Catholics who comment publicly on moral issues have an obligation to the Magisterium of the Church. Mindful of this obligation, I wish to clarify my position on capital punishment.

The truth is that I am conflicted. I do not like capital punishment. My aversion to it runs deeper than practical concerns about the possibility of executing an innocent man or the capricious nature of its application in our time. I think it is barbaric.

Man becomes vengeful when he refuses to see himself as he is – degenerate, worthy of condemnation, sinful in ways he will never fully understand. Those in the grip of vengeance see nothing of themselves in those they condemn. They gather stones like the Pharisees but refuse to put them down when confronted with their own depravity. They are eager to hurl.

Their zeal is often understandable. Many crimes cry out to Heaven for vengeance. Those who take the lives of the innocent, who kill for sport, who torture and degrade their victims stir in us an intense loathing that seems to demand the worst fate society has to offer.

Yet it is precisely these worst offenders who try our sense of mercy. Kevin Williamson of National Review argues that the most straightforward case against capital punishment is

that, on balance, it adds more violence and horror to our society than it is worth, that it does not bring out the best in us or in our institutions, that in our necessary pursuit of justice we need not see to it that the bitter cup is drained to the dregs in every instance, that we are better off showing mercy in this matter, and that what mercy entails is forbearance toward those who in fact deserve the worst that we might hand down.

A society that feels justified in picking up stones against a particular offender proves itself most civilized when it drops them.

Yet the opponents of this view are legion in number and impressive in stature. The God of the Old Testament, for example, prescribed the death penalty to Moses. No less than Augustine and Aquinas affirm the state’s recourse to capital punishment as a means not only of societal protection but retributive justice. More than 1,950 years of Catholic teaching speaks with one voice against the idea that the death penalty is illegitimate. This last point is particularly challenging.

I am attracted to the Catholic Church in large measure because of its stability. The world is constantly changing; fads come and go, political movements take hold and die off, friends love and betray, cherished memories fade with age. The deposit of faith never changes because it cannot change. What was true yesterday is true today and will be true forever (Heb 13:8). The truth is not up to me, but neither is it up to the discretion of an individual Pope. As the First Vatican Council declared,

For the Holy Spirit was not promised to the Successors of Peter that by His revelation they might disclose new doctrine, but that by His help they might guard the revelation transmitted through the apostles and the deposit of faith, and might faithfully set it forth.

I was scandalized by Pope Francis’s decision to deem the death penalty "inadmissible" in the Catechism. While the language was carefully chosen as to avoid implying that the death penalty was intrinsically evil, the change sent a clear message to those eager to change Church teaching on other matters. If the Church can declare a practice inadmissible that it once deemed salutary, what else is subject to change?

Yet on the level of emotion, I found myself agreeing with Pope Francis. Our faith offers the "scandalous" possibility of mercy and forgiveness to those who appear to least merit it. Christ calls us to welcome those whom society deems beneath contempt – the felon who cannot find a job, the sex offender exiled from the community, the inmate separated from his family, the boy caught up in gang activity, the multiple murderer who well deserves the electric chair. That none of them “deserve” our mercy is precisely the point. We do not deserve the mercy of Christ. 

The truth is I am conflicted on the death penalty. I revere the Catholic tradition and worry what might become of a Church that appears to reverse itself on a question of faith and morals. I do not feel the Magisterium is ours to play with. And yet I find myself reading Christ’s words in the sand, dropping my stone, and hanging my head for having picked it up in the first place.


John Hirschauer is the interim editor of RealClearReligion and a former William F. Buckley, Jr. Fellow at National Review.

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