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LA bishops can clarify death penalty confusion

The death penalty debate has gotten some recent attention in Louisiana, with both Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards and his spiritual leaders thrust into it.

Edwards found himself subject to criticism on the subject by Republican Atty. Gen. Jeff Landry. The state’s chief prosecutor removed his office from a lawsuit preventing the state from carrying out executions, saying the governor remained insufficiently committed to resolving the case in a way where the state could resume carrying out capital sentences.

Since 2014, the courts effectively have enjoined the state from doing this, citing its inability to conduct lethal injection in a constitutional manner. State law mandates this as the only method for capital punishment, and Landry faults Edwards both for not doing what’s needed to put the state in a posture to carry this out and failure to back changing the law to add methods of execution. For his part, Edwards brushed this aside as political grandstanding.

However, Edwards has refused to acknowledge his personal opinion on capital punishment, a practice a majority of Louisianans back. Yet if his reticence to say comes from opposition, he might find it easier to admit that publicly now that Pope Francis has changed the catechism of Edwards’ faith.

Last week, Francis announced the Catechism, which guides teaching the Catholic faith although other documents produced over the millennia also do so, now would declare the Church in unambiguous opposition to capital punishment. Historically, the present (and previous) Catechism – reflecting the views of the Church’s Fathers, Doctors, and other theologians including past pontiffs – had ordained the death penalty as necessary for legitimate defense in saving innocent lives.

But, according to Francis, the need for it has changed. Modern penal systems can produce a redemptible environment obviating the need for capital punishment and can operate effectively enough to keep the public protected from heinous criminals, so he writes.

That these conclusions are entirely suspect should be obvious. Numerous convicts that could have been executed but eventually released from jail have murdered again. Nor is it uncommon that from prison crime lords can run enterprises that also murder people.

But, most disturbingly, by reversing settled Catholic dogma for the first time in history – and not even invoking (as rarely has occurred) papal infallibility as part of that – Francis negates the Church’s claim that it acts as custodian over eternal truths. By justifying his ahistorical action with the argument that times have changed, he allows critics of the Church’s teaching to use the same rationale to argue the Church must change its views on subjects such as abortion and euthanasia.

Theological flip-flopping leaves Catholics adrift. Now that Francis has declared all verities in reality contingent, he tells Catholics that the Church follows the opinion of the day. The eternal Word of God seems to have little to do with any of this.

Fortunately, Louisiana’s bishops can assist in settling this confusion and guide the faith back onto solid ground. The Catechism serves as a broad framework, but church authorities like bishops may supplement it in their actual propagation of the faith within their dioceses.

Besides preventing offenders from killing again, research shows the deterrent effect from capital punishment also saves lives. Thus, it ratifies Church doctrine of the permissibility of taking a life to preserve innocent ones, placing two parts of the revised Catechism into conflict. This is not unique: for example, what is the moral action when telling a lie saves an innocent life, despite the Eight Commandment?

In these cases, Catholics may have to resort to moral conscience, also a feature described in the Catechism. While conscience doesn’t give license to disregard doctrine, it can help to sort out doctrinal conflicts. In this instance, it provides Catholics an opportunity in deciding whether to support the death penalty as a public policy option.

The state’s bishops, plus the new one to be installed for the Diocese of Shreveport (with its current occupant the Most Rev. Michael Duca to take the helm of the Diocese of Baton Rouge), would do well to remind the faithful of how political support or opposition to capital punishment relates to their faith. In doing so, they can compensate for the questionable theology behind the recent change in the Catechism.

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