TWIL (The Word Is Life): Humility and The Death Penalty

Author: Kevin Dowd ~ October 24, 2017

Sunday, November 5, 2017
31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Here is a link to this week’s readings.

There is an insightful Peanuts comic strip in which Charlie Brown says to Snoopy, “I hear you’re writing a book on theology. I hope you have a good title.” Snoopy thinks to himself, “I have the perfect title…” and then begins typing, “Has It Ever Occurred to You That You Might Be Wrong?” It is an important reminder that a fundamental virtue, in imitation of Christ, is humility. Theology, because it dares to make claims of an ultimate nature, is particularly susceptible to the dangers of pride. We do well to make the words of the Psalmist our own: “O LORD, my heart is not proud, nor are my eyes haughty; I busy not myself with great things, nor with things too sublime for me.” God will always be more than our theology, our doctrine, and our human understanding can comprehend or express.

The most recent iteration of the dangers of certitude involve the development of doctrine that has taken place concerning the death penalty. Many Christians, including the last number of popes, have come to see capital punishment as incompatible with a consistent ethic of life. A pro-life Church, in other words, simply cannot uphold the death penalty as legitimate. On October 11th, Pope Francis indicated that changes will have to be made to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) to reflect this development of doctrine. Currently the CCC teaches that capital punishment may be employed only as a last resort, when there are no other means to protect human lives—a situation that the CCC also considers to be “very rare, if not practically nonexistent” in today’s world (#2267). Pope Francis has moved us beyond even this carefully delineated construction, saying, “the death penalty is inadmissible because it attacks the inviolability and the dignity of the person”  and that it “…is, of itself, contrary to the Gospel…” The death penalty is morally wrong, in other words, not simply because we have other ways of protecting ourselves, but because it is intrinsically evil: “of itself, contrary to the Gospel.”

To those who like to believe, against all the evidence of history, that Church teaching never changes, this change comes as a challenge. It is clearly a 180° turn from the position the Church once held when it, in fact, employed the death penalty. It takes humility to acknowledge that, as Snoopy said, we “might be wrong,” and to allow the Spirit to lead us to a more authentic Christian place. In this particular case, the rub is especially strong because the theological case for the death penalty makes perfect sense within a Thomistic philosophical system. Our philosophical systems, though, are not the Word of God. They are human constructs, and are susceptible to fallibility. St. Thomas, as brilliant as he was, made mistakes (consider, for example, his understanding of women as deficient human persons and therefore lesser than men).

The overwhelming sense of the faithful, it seems, as well as the papal magisterium have been moved by the Spirit to a deeper understanding of the implications of the Gospel. It makes sense that a Church which follows a man who was unjustly executed by Roman authorities should have problems with the death penalty. A Gospel of Life, as Pope St. John Paul II called it, simply cannot make room for executions. While this may upset those who cling to the logic of a particular philosophical system, we must remember that the Gospel is “not a human word but… the word of God.”

Pride in our own logical and philosophical systems could harden our hearts and make us hold on with certainty to things that the Spirit is moving us to let go. Doctrine is always at the service of Truth; but it must never be seen as synonymous with Truth. Humility is the prevailing virtue here. Only in humility can we let go of human formulations that no longer serve Christ, or which never served Christ, who alone is the Truth, and against whose Gospel all doctrine must be measured. Doctrine is a servant, not a master: “You have but one master, the Christ.”

Humility is the virtue by which we remain docile to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, as Mary was at the Annunciation and throughout her life. Without this humility, we risk doing what Pope Francis warns against: “One cannot conserve the doctrine without making it progress, nor can one bind it to a rigid and immutable reading without humiliating the Holy Spirit.” Humility prevents us from humiliating the Holy Spirit. It is the sure way to be a follower of Christ, and to avoid being followers of our own ideas-made-idols. The Spirit, Christ promised, “will guide you into all the truth (John 16:13). We, on the other hand, with all our highest thinking, philosophizing, and theologizing, might be wrong. I’m with Snoopy on that one.


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