Pope Francis does not always speak clearly about the moral issues of the day. Catholics are still trying to figure out what he meant when he said, "Who am I to judge?" when he was asked about his views on homosexuality. But we will know in good time what he believes on that issue, and I am prepared to follow his lead no matter where he takes us.
But on capital punishment, Pope Francis is absolutely clear. The death penalty "contradicts God's plan for man and society," the Pope wrote to the International Commission against the Death Penalty. "Today the death penalty is inadmissible, now matter how serious the crime committed."
Pope Francis also condemned life sentences, which are are "a hidden death penalty" that should be abolished along with capital punishment.
Finally, the Pope spoke out against solitary confinement in prisons, which he described as a form of torture.
Some prominent Catholics criticized the Pope's position. Patrick Callahan, a respected professor emeritus at DePaul University, said that Pope Francis had not sufficiently acknowledged the reasons in favor of the death penalty.
Philip Lawler, editor of Catholic World News, was of the same view. "It is distressing," Lawler wrote, "that a prepared statement by the Roman Pontiff--which would inevitably be interpreted rightly or wrongly, as an expression of the teaching magisterium--would make such unconvincing arguments."
I greatly admire Philip Lawler. The Faithful Departed, Lawler's book on the collapse of Catholicism in Boston, is a profound book-length examination of Catholicism's fading vitality in the Northeast. It is on my top-ten list of influential books on contemporary Catholicism.
But I think Mr. Lawler is wrong to criticize the Pope's position on the death penalty. Surely, Pope Francis is right. The death penalty demeans American society and it dehumanizes everyone who helps maintain it in our justice system--lawyers, judges, prison officials, the executioners, and the crime victims. I can't imagine that victims gain any sense of peace from the execution of someone who murdered a loved one. Speaking for myself, I have never felt anything but increased bitterness from my own vengeful emotions.
I do not always know where Pope Francis is taking us. I am puzzled by some of his remarks. But I have decided to follow his direction on all spiritual matters and to acknowledge that it is a lack of faith on my part when when I want to reject his teachings.
So let us as Catholics recognize capital punishment as another manifestation of our culture of death and let us oppose it as fiercely as we oppose abortion.
We are after all the people of life or at least we are striving to be.