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Correspondence on Capital Punishment

Father Peter R. Scott, Pastor
Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church
458 W. Walnut St.
Nappanee, IN 46550

St. John Fisher Catholic Church
3333 Tillman Road
Fort Wayne, IN 46816

Most Reverend John M. D'Arcy
Bishop of Ft. Wayne-South Bend

September 6, 2000

Your Excellency,

I feel it my duty, as pastor of the two traditional Catholic churches in your diocese, to express my shock and shame at your defense of the video against the death penalty, published in the Michiana Point of View column of the South Bend Tribune of August 23, 2000. For in it you maintain that the Church's teaching has not changed, and then you go on to rightly quote Pope John Paul II as saying the opposite of all the Church's prior teachings.

Futhermore, it is nothing less than a contradiction in itself to say that capital punishment is licit, as is the constant teaching of the Church, and that the conditions for capital punishment are practically non-existent, as unrealistic liberals now maintain in contradiction to the obvious facts about our violent society. Also, to equate the death penalty with the taking of innocent life by abortion and euthanasia is quite simply perposterous. Since when has the murderer or rapist been innocent? Since when has the taking of the life of the guilty been protected by the fifth commandment, 'Thou shalt not kill', when manifestly those who have committed heinous crimes against society lose their right to life?

Since during a time of public debate you have made public your personal, liberal and non-Catholic opinions on this matter, I feel it my duty to remind you of the Church's teaching. Both the Old and New Testaments are very explicit on the question. Pope Pius XII explained on February 5, 1955 that the power of princes to execute by the sword referred to by St. Paul (Romans 13:4) is "of permanent and universal value, because it refers to the essential foundation of penal authority and to its ultimate purpose". (In Amerio, Romano, Iota Unum p. 432). It is the same punishment that is inflicted by St. Peter on Ananias and Saphira (Act 5:1-11).

The Church Fathers, from St. Augustine to St. Thomas Aquinas, have always considered capital punishment as a necessary ultimate penalty, and this not just to defend society from attack and not just to dissuade others from wrongdoing. The much more profound reason is the restoration of the balance of justice, which requires expiation of the crime against society, which is most effectively done by depriving the criminal of his greatest earthly good, his physical life.

The greatest and most irreligious aspect of the overturning of the Catholic Church's traditional acceptation of the necessity of the death penalty is the denial of its expiatory value, by which the criminal cancels out his debt to society. It is under the name of a sentimental all pervasive mercy, exaggerated in such a way as to ultimately destroy the justice and the holiness of God, that the very ideas of guilt, sin and justice are destroyed, and as a consequence also those of freedom, choice, and merit. St. Thomas Aquinas defends very clearly the position that death inflicted as a just punishment comes from God, and that as such it "takes away the whole punishment due for those crimes in the next life, or at least a part of that punishment..." (IIa IIae 25, 6 Ad2).

The traditional concept of the spiritual value of capital punishment of a criminal is directly opposed to the modern, liberal and false application of the inviolable rights of the innocent to life. It is in the very moment that the criminal renders his soul in final acknowledgement of the divine majesty that his crimes attempted to deny, that he is privileged with the most precious graces.

This is why the apostolate of the scaffold was so precious for such saints as St. Joseph Cafasso. They valued this time of grace. They knew that there are no unconditional rights to the goods of this earth, not even life itself, and that our only inviolable right is the right to seek our ultimate goal, eternal happiness in heaven, which right is not only untouched, but greatly helped by the death penalty, when administered justly. This was very aptly summarized by Pope Pius XII in a speech on Semptember 14, 1952 (AAS, 1952, p. 779), when he pointed out that "the state does not dispose of an individual's right to life". but that "it is the task of the public authority to deprive the condemned man of the good of life, in expiation of his fault, after he has already deprived himself of the right to life by his crime".

Your Excellency, please do not say that there has been no attempt to modify the Church's teaching with modern, liberal, humanistic views. If you seem to have accepted that capital punishment is barbarous and unworthy of modern society, it is because you have accepted the modern prejudice that society should be irreligious, that is shut within earthly horizons, without God, without expiation, without justice and without eternity. This is not Catholic.

May God grant you the grace to support those who rightly continue to advocate the death penalty, and oppose those who stand in its way.

Father Peter R. Scott

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