August 5, 2018 / 18th Ordinary / Cycle B
Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Washington DC
Find more by William Kelley, SJ here

Readings:

  • Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15                  I will rain down bread from heaven for you.

  • Psalm 78:3-4, 23-24, 25, 54       The Lord gave them bread from heaven.

  • Ephesians 4:17, 20-24                Put on the new self that has been created in God’s way.

  • John 6:24-35                             Whoever comes to me will never hunger or thirst.

Homily:

For a long time, the Catholic Church has prided itself on being pro-life. Unfortunately, many Catholics interpret this pro-life stance rather narrowly. In fact, they have focused, almost exclusively, on strategies to eliminate abortion. While the laudable effort to protect life in the womb is an essential element of the Church’s doctrine regarding the of sacredness of life, it does not exhaust the church’s concern for human life in all its aspects. Other components of the doctrine include the quality of life after birth. Every human being has the right to enjoy the fruits of God’s creation through access to food, housing, and basic medical care. Additionally, the Church’s defense of the sanctity of life demands that we continue to grapple with such complicated issues as human suffering – especially at the end of life, and the proper way to punish people who commit serious crimes. The sacredness of life encompasses these issues too.

The Church continually endeavors to educate us on how our belief in the sanctity of life shapes our understanding of these issues. And, in respectful dialogue with civic leaders, the Church attempts to influence national conversations around them. Some people welcome this thoughtful reflection of the Church. Others – including not a few Catholics – object that, in promoting the values of life in discussions of concrete issues, like homelessness and immigration, the Church oversteps its role and intrudes into politics. It’s important to remind such people that, by our baptism, we do not relinquish our citizenship; neither do we surrender our right to express our opinion about life within our national community.

Last week the Catholic Church took a momentous step in becoming a more credible pro-life Church. I’m sure many of you saw in the news that Pope Francis introduced a significant revision to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Of course, many who already oppose the Pope’s allegedly liberalizing tendencies, and others who insist on the legitimacy of the death penalty, claim that the Pope has damaged the Church by radically and unilaterally altering the traditional and – in their view, unchangeable – teaching of the Church. However, their protestations, while passionate, are neither accurate nor persuasive. In any case, they encourage me to offer some reflections on Pope Francis’s recent revision.

First of all, what is the status of the Catechism? What authority does it hold? Well, in a word, it is the official compendium of what the Church teaches. In 1985, Pope John Paul convened a commission of more than a dozen bishops and cardinals to create a catechism that would bring the traditional teaching of the Church in line with the teachings of Vatican II. Seven years later, when the commission completed its work, John Paul described the Catechism as a “new and authoritative exposition of the faith.” He added that the Catechism serves as a “valid and legitimate instrument” and as a “sure norm for teaching the faith.” [1] So, if you want to know what the Church teaches “officially” about any particular topic, go to the Catechism.

The criticism that Pope Francis unilaterally altered the teaching of the Church is patently false. Rather, the Pope’s revision stands in radical continuity with the teaching about the death penalty as it evolved during the papacies of both his predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XV.

For instance, when Pope John Paul first published the Catechism in 1992, he reiterated the traditional teaching that the State has a right to impose the death penalty, but only on those who had committed certain extremely serious crimes. Here, we already see that the State’s right to execute citizens is not unconditional. It is limited to those cases where extremely serious crimes have been committed.

A mere three years later, the same Pope felt obliged to express the Church’s understanding with greater nuance. He repeated that Church does not absolutely prohibit the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of protecting innocent citizens. But, pointing out that many countries have developed secure detention systems and have issued sentences of “life without the possibility of parole,” he insisted that instances where the death penalty are necessary are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” [2]

Despite the assertion that such cases will be “very rare, if not practically nonexistent,” in the twenty-three years since John Paul made that assertion, 1,166 people have been executed in the United States alone. [3] Very rare, indeed!

If Pope John Paul referred to more secure prisons and sentences of “life without possibility of parole” as reasons for rejecting the death penalty, Pope Francis oriented the Church’s teaching in a different direction. He based his argument on the Church’s perennial affirmation of the sacredness of human life. Rather than grudgingly accepting the death penalty in rare cases, Francis insisted that the death penalty is inadmissible under any circumstance because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the human person.” [4] In referring to the inviolability of the person, the Pope reminds us that only God gives life, and therefore, only God can take life away. In referring to the dignity of the person, he reminds us that every person is created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27). More than in the past, the Pope says, the Church today is aware that the dignity of the person is both inalienable and indelible. In other words, it can never be lost, not even by someone who commits a very serious crime.

So, rather than seeing the Pope Francis’s revision as a radical departure from the Church’s traditional teaching, it should instead be seen as part of our evolving understanding – under the guidance of the Holy Spirit – of how God wants us to be and act in the world.

And so, what should our response be? As disciples of Christ:

  1. We should pray for victims of crime, for those on death row, and for those working in the criminal justice system;

  2. We should reach out to the families of those affected by violent crime by bringing Christ’s love and compassion;

  3. We should learn more about the Church’s teaching on capital punishment and educate others in this vital area of concern;

  4. We should advocate for better public policies to protect society and end the use of the death penalty.

Scripture remind us: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Luke 5:7). As Christians, we are called to oppose the culture of death by witnessing to something greater and more perfect: a gospel of life, hope, and mercy. To help build a culture of life, capital punishment must be abolished. [5]


[1] Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Laetamur Magnopere, found in Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd edition, revised 2000, p. xv.

[2] Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae 56

[3] https://deathpenaltyinfo.org

[4] Pope Francis, Address to Participants in the Meeting organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, October 11, 2017, L’Osservatore Romano, October 13, 2017, p. 5.

[5] Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski, Cardinal Seán O’Malley, USCCB Chairmen Call for Recommitment to Bishop's Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty, July 16, 2015

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