Though he surely had other things on his mind, Pope Francis just intervened in the United States’ midterm elections and, I suspect, in the 2020 presidential contest, as well.
One of the fundamental building blocks of Donald Trump’s we’ll-support-him-no-matter-how-offensive-venal-or-wrong-headed-he-is constituency is the anti-reproductive rights alignment. So long as the con-man-in-chief continues to verbally oppose abortion and appoint judges whose record indicates a willingness to overturn Roe v Wade, this group of single-issue voters is willing to give him a pass on coarse expressions of moral depravity, affronts to tolerant decency and assaults on social justice.
What ranks this particular constituency ahead even of the NRA’s Second Amendment fantasists is that the so-called pro-life faction combines evangelical Protestants in an improbable but politically potent alliance with right-wing Catholics. These Catholics, moreover, historically exercise outsized sway in the rust belt’s white, working-class parishes whose members helped hand Trump his Electoral College victory. More than few of those parish priests all but ordered their congregations to vote for Trump because, they thundered, no other issue can be put ahead of “protecting innocent life.”
Thursday, Francis formally put the abolition of capital punishment on the same plane as the church opposition to abortion and euthanasia, embracing what the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and politically liberal Catholics long have espoused as “the consistent life ethic.” Right-wing Catholics no longer can claim that they fully embrace the church’s teachings, if they remain allied to evangelicals who approve capital punishment.
Francis has been a life-long opponent of the death penalty and Thursday he had Cardinal Luis Ladera, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—the guys who guard Rome’s moral crown jewels—announce that the church’s official catechism has been revised to make that opposition the official teaching of the world’s 1.5 billion Catholics: “Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good,” the catechism now reads.
“Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.
“Consequently, the church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”
Ladera also recalled a letter Francis wrote in 2015 to the International Commission Against the Death Penalty. In it, the pontiff called capital punishment “cruel, inhumane and degrading” and said it “does not bring justice to the victims, but only foments revenge.” Furthermore, he argued, in a modern “state of law, the death penalty represents a failure” because it obliges the state to kill in the name of justice, and is frequently used by “totalitarian regimes and fanatical groups” to do away with “political dissidents, minorities.”
Finally, Francis noted that “human justice is imperfect” and wrote that the death penalty loses all legitimacy in penal systems where judicial error is possible.
Right-wing Catholics no longer can claim that they fully embrace the church’s teachings, if they remain allied to evangelicals who approve capital punishment.
To gauge just how seismic a shift Francis has wrought in the moral geography of American Catholicism, one need only recall that as recently as 2004 the then-Cardinal Josef Ratzinger wrote to the American bishops that, “Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”
Prominent Catholic conservatives like Robert George, George Wiegel and Deal Hudson—not to mention the lacey fringe that adheres to polemical online organs like Lifesite News, which Thursday denounced Francis as a “heretic”—have long taken refuge in the notion that capital punishment and war were not “intrinsically evil” like abortion and euthanasia and, therefore, could be morally licit, depending on the circumstances. Individual Catholics, acting in the common good, were free to make “prudential judgments” about such circumstances. Supporting a pro-choice candidate, on the other hand—even if he or she is personally opposed to abortion—constitutes a “remote cooperation in evil” and is, therefore, illicit in all instances. (This may strike the more pragmatic reader as so much dithering over angels prancing on the head of a pin, but believe me, in these circles such distinctions matter—and we’re about to find out just how much.)
A conservative darling, Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput, for example, has written that the death penalty is not intrinsically evil. “Both Scripture and long Christian tradition acknowledge the legitimacy of capital punishment under certain circumstances,” the archbishop claims. “The Church cannot repudiate that without repudiating her own identity. Catholic teaching on euthanasia, the death penalty, war, genocide and abortion,” the archbishop said, “are rooted in the same concern for the sanctity of the human person. But these different issues do not all have the same gravity or moral content. They are not equivalent.”
With a stroke of his magisterial pen, Pope Francis has rendered that position irrelevant in Catholic terms. If right-wing Catholics persist in their pro-Trump alliance with their evangelical confreres, they will have to acknowledge they are acting in contradiction to what the church now officially recognizes as the legitimate “pro-life” position.
Doing so will rob them of the moral authority they have used to influence the white working class voters among their coreligionists.
With the electorate balanced on a knife-edge in so many swing constituencies, that is likely to be a matter of real consequence.