Pope John Paul II, Vatican II, and Capital Punishment
I am very pleased to be participating in this conference on the legacy of Pope John Paul II. Although I am speaking on John Paul II’s profound impact on the Church’s teaching on the morality of capital punishment, I would like to begin with a few comments about John Patti II’s larger legacy and, in particular, the role of the Second Vatican Council (“Council,” “Vatican II”) in his papacy. I mention this because it is essential for an appreciation of his legacy, but even more because I think it provides the critical lens through which to view John Paul’s approach to capital punishment.
I hope it is not controversial to say that perhaps Pope John Paul II’s greatest legacy is that his papacy represented the embodiment of–and drew its fruitfulness from–the Second Vatican Council. Of course his name is providentially linked to the two popes of the Council: John XXIII who convoked it and Paul VI who concluded and promulgated it. In fact, of the names I believe the Church and posterity will accord him, some of which I have already heard at this conference– St. John Paul, John Paul the Great, John Paul Doctor of the Church–I think the one most descriptive of his pontificate would be “Apostle of Vatican II.” From the first to the last, John Paul II truly saw his pontificate as the expression of that Council, which he would often refer to as “this great gift of the Spirit to the Church at the end of the second millennium.”
The apostolic constitutions, encyclicals, homilies, pronouncements, and other documents he issued constitute a comprehensive catechesis drawn explicitly from the documents of the Council. He wrote that “Vatican II has always been, and especially during these years of my Pontificate, the constant reference point of my every pastoral action, in the conscious commitment to implement its directives concretely and faithfully at the level of each church and the whole church.”
Pope John Paul II was tireless in preaching the Council as an inexhaustible richness of reflection on the Church’s own mystery, the connection between this mystery and man’s vocation in Christ, dialogue with non-believers, and the universal call to holiness. Following the mandate of the Council, he promulgated a new Code of Canon Law and the new Catechism of the Catholic Church (“Catechism”) (in which his distinctive teaching on capital punishment is set forth), and he convened the episcopal synods and conferences foundational to so much of his preaching and writing–including his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, the other chief source of his teaching on capital punishment. As the pope who ushered in the twenty-first century, he wrote, “[t]he best preparation for the new millennium, therefore, can only be expressed in a renewed commitment to apply, as faithfully as possible, the teachings of Vatican II to the life of every individual and of the whole Church.”
Only by understanding John Paul II’s pontificate as an expression of the mandate of Vatican II can we understand his teaching on capital punishment. He was determined to proclaim the essence of the Church’s teaching on this question of life and death, born of the Gospel and free of the ancillary and contingent additions of subsequent centuries. He understood that this teaching had to be faithful to Tradition but also needed to find a fresh formulation–even synthesis–for the modern age. To this end, he wrote: “In the history of the Church, the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ are always closely interwoven. The ‘new’ grows out of the ‘old,’ and the ‘old’ finds a fuller expression in the ‘new.'”
Pope John Paul II understood the Second Vatican Council to be the evangelical response to the “profoundly disturbing experiences of the Twentieth Century, a century scarred by the First and Second World Wars, by the experience of concentration camps and by horrendous massacres.” John Paul’s teaching on capital punishment is a direct response to the horrors of the Twentieth Century, with the degradation of law and the loss of life as represented by the culture of death and the millions of “legal” executions performed by modern governments.
Pope John Paul II’s teaching on capital punishment is almost certain to become one of the most important, dramatic, and attractive components of his great legacy. Although his entire pontificate represents a profound synthesis and application of Catholic truths, the problem of punishment by death is one of the few questions of morality where John Paul II found the opportunity and the need to reformulate the Tradition of the Church. By portraying capital punishment in a purely negative light, as a sentence only to be executed when unavoidable, John Paul II evangelized for life in fidelity to the Gospel. He faced a dilemma of how to reconcile the history of the infliction of capital punishment in Christian society with the historic Christian witness against death–and solved it with one concise stroke. By distinguishing the legitimate use of capital punishment to protect society from direct aggression from its illegitimate use for other purposes, such as a supposed retribution or deterrence, we are able to understand fully, in some ways for the first time, the Church’s Tradition as it has unfolded in history.
Nevertheless, Pope John Paul II’s teaching on capital punishment has not been everywhere well- received. In particular, many Catholics who have otherwise championed John Paul II’s stalwart defense of orthodoxy have questioned the fidelity and soundness of this teaching. Some of these Catholics have found it puzzling, poorly reasoned, or contradictory. Finally, it has been dismissed as merely the personal opinion of the Pope, a “prudential” judgment easily rejected by those who prefer their own expertise.
This is a mistake, which not only misreads the moral and doctrinal component of John Paul II’s teaching but also misses the sign of the times and a bright jewel of Catholic thought. The Pope’s teaching is what it claims to be in the Catechism: an authentic rendition of Catholic Tradition. Like all authentic Christian doctrine, it was complete with the apostolic teaching, but is capable of deeper understanding by the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Part I of this Article describes Pope John Paul II’s teaching on capital punishment as based on the Scriptures and expressed in Evangelium Vitae and the Catechism. Part II examines the authority with which this doctrine was issued. Part III suggests that this teaching represents the “traditional teaching of the Church,” although a “more perfect expression” of that teaching than has heretofore been recognized. Parts W and V indicate why the papacy of John Paul II– “this time, in which God in His hidden design has entrusted to me … very close to the year 2000” –was ripe for this explicit articulation of the Church’s position. Part W shows that the teaching corresponds with the Catholic understanding of the dignity of man and the nature of the state. Part V demonstrates that the teaching relies on the modern social fact of life imprisonment, made possible for the first time by technological and jurisprudential developments, as a non-lethal means to defend society.