Catholics pining for an end to the death penalty have put almost all eggs in the 'life sentence' basket. That's because we're not prepared to say 'just let the criminal go, and if he kills, we'll try again.' That was common among the liberal attitudes of the 70s, because the idea was that there were not criminals, only victims of cruel and unjust, oppressive societies. And those who were part of those unjust societies? Well, it was never said, but I always got the impression that there was a sort of 'serves them right' attitude whenever an innocent was killed by a released prisoner for whom rehab hadn't taken hold.
The Death Penalty, in the end, is part of the realization the Church had ages ago that we not only live in a fallen world, but are called to be in the fallen world. Unlike the Amish or monastic communities, most are called to be in this fallen world a light to the world. Salt of the earth and all. Because of this, our heavenward focus had to be tempered with concessions to living in light of the way it is.
Hence, Just War. Hence, the Death Penalty. Hence putting an end to that idealized Church of Acts 2, where all share and none are in need. Some Catholics will have millions. Some will starve. And like the Death Penalty and Just War, this was simply a fact of life. We could try to do it in light of endless layers of Christian teaching. But we had to accept the realities.
Now we have the Church, in light of endless assaults by the post-Christian Left, and to be fair, some left over barbs from Protestants and non-Catholic Christians, trying to revise its old teachings to conform to the expectations of the post-modern world. Just War is almost - almost mind you - a thing of the past. Likewise, the Death Penalty has been under assault for decades.
But now Pope Francis throws in the gauntlet against not just executing prisoners, but imprisoning them for life. In fairness, advocates of the Death Penalty have used this very argument. How is imprisoning a person for life, with no hope of escape but death, any different than executing them? For Catholic legalists, of course, there is a world of difference. In that particular branch of the Church, you can indirectly cause the death of millions, as long as you don't directly cause the death of one guilty person to save them.
But for most, that's not the way it should be. Something about throwing someone into prison for life isn't much better than executing them. Assuming the generally implicit universalism in the modern Church, there is no concern for saving the prisoner's soul. So no real reason to execute, and yet how to validate keeping them in prison for life?
Enter Pope Francis. Not just do we ban the Death Penatly, but we ban life sentences, too. Which is, in fairness, consistent. But it opens up a problem. Are we advocating the old liberal notion that if a person kills again, we'll just try again? We have loved Bonnie and Clyde, but have hated Ozzie and Harriet?
And if not, how do we reconcile the radical discipleship that says 'if the innocent be like to die, then so be it, we'll just try again', with a Church that still allows us the creature comforts and luxuries of commercialism and affluence while our fellows starve in the mud around the world. That, to me, is the challenge.
For if the Church builds a radical discipleship on 'by the degree to which I'm willing to let others die so I can live in comfort have I displayed my righteousness', then I can't help but think we're entering into a new period of history destined to once more give Jesus a couple black eyes and take the Gospel, yet again, down a notch or two in the eyes of the world.
The good news is that Pope Francis may be pushing for a completely radical discipleship that will soon challenge the non-Acts 2 approach of living out the faith in addition to such favorites as capital punishment and Just War. Whether Catholics will hear all of it, or just the portions that help them win arguments on the blogosphere, has yet to be seen.