The Death Penalty, the McCarrick Scandal, and a Grand Jury Report

Cdl. Theodore McCarrick

Cdl. Theodore McCarrick

Some Catholics are pretty worked up over the news about the recent change to paragraph 2267 (the death penalty) in the Catechism. But many more are angered by the McCarrick scandal and the revelations in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report on past sexual abuse in five dioceses in PA.  Catholic Church ‘news,’ any way you look at it, has been pretty depressing the last couple of weeks.

The McCarrick scandal was news to many, even though it sounds like it was not really news to those who knew him. But it’s possible some good may come of it.  According to the National Catholic Register, a statement from Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, said the bishops “will invite the Vatican to conduct an official Apostolic Visitation to the United States to address questions surrounding Archbishop McCarrick, in consultation with the lay members of the National Review Board.” While bishops are answerable only to the Holy See, maybe some additional teeth will get put into the Dallas Accord as a result of the investigation that will hold bishops accountable for any misdeeds.

That McCarrick could become a prince of the Church is disgusting. But so, too, is the information contained in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report.

Scandal and More Scandal

While there were some instances of pedophilia in the Grand Jury Report, and a few instances involving young girls, the overwhelming majority of the cases of sexual abuse (which happened prior to 2002) involved teenaged boys and young men. The report would seem to coincide with the findings of the 2004 John Jay Report which found that 80 percent of sexual abuse involved young boys.  There can be little doubt that there is an active homosexual subculture in the Church that must be rooted out.

As Fr. Roger Landry wrote recently in an article at the National Catholic Register:

“How bad is the problem of same-sex unchastity in the clergy? It varies among different dioceses and religious orders, and no hard numbers exist, but in various places, it’s big enough to do serious damage.”

And as R.R. Reno wrote at First Things:

“The McCarrick revelations and the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report are part of a larger trend: The episcopal establishment has been ineffective for decades. This does not mean that we have no good and holy bishops. But the system is clotted and mediocre, bringing out the worst in our leaders rather than their best.”

I disagree with Reno. The “system” is not “clotted and mediocre,” it is badly broken.  But that does not mean it cannot be fixed.  The question is: are our bishops capable of doing what must be done?

The Death Penalty

In regard to paragraph 2267, some seem to think Pope Francis is trying to change Church doctrine through stealth methods. Whether the revision is a “change” to infallibly taught Catholic Doctrine, or a “development of doctrine” is the question that is causing so much consternation.

“This statement has been understood by many, both inside and outside the Church, to teach that capital punishment is intrinsically immoral and thus is always illicit, even in principle” said an article at First Things. Yet nowhere in the revision do the words “intrinsically immoral” or “always illicit” appear in connection to the death penalty.

Dan Hitchens explained it differently in the Catholic Herald, “. . . the Pope wasn’t talking about the theoretical legitimacy of the death penalty; he was just making a statement that today’s political regimes are so universally awful that they can’t be trusted to administer it.”

To be fair, the new wording does muddy the waters. But also to be fair, they were already muddied a little bit in 1997, when 2267 was first changed to conform to Pope St. John Paul II’s teaching in Evangelium Vitae.  Pope St. John Paul II said that the death penalty should only be used in rare and exceptional circumstances. But how are we to define “rare” – is rare one percent, .1 percent, .01 percent, .001 percent, or some other number?  And, to some, the word “rare” means “just about never.”

So maybe Pope Francis is just cranking things up a notch. Maybe he is just saying that even though we are allowed to, we sinful, imperfect human beings should not be throwing stones at all since there are other alternatives available.

Church Teaching

The Church has always taught that legitimate authority is justified in its use of the death penalty. But history has also taught us that some authorities are a lot more legitimate than others, and some ‘legitimate authorities’ are not legitimate at all. The Church also recognizes this (CCC Part 3 Section 1 Chapter 2 Article 2).

There are some pretty awful dictatorships, fake democracies, and communist governments in existence in which the concept of justice is a farce. But even in the very best of countries there can never be a criminal justice system that is perfect because man is not perfect. So maybe it’s really not such a bad idea to err on the side of caution when a human life is at stake.

Of course, I am not a mind reader, so I don’t know what Pope Francis’ thinking is on this. I could be all wrong.  At the same time, all those who are reading something more into the change, that may just not be there, could also be wrong.

Lost Moral Authority?

Cynics may say the paragraph 2267 change is much ado about nothing – that it’s just a poor attempt by the Church to deflect from all the sex abuse scandal news and regain some of its prestige as a mover and shaker when it comes to shaping public opinion. And some might point out that because of the sex abuse scandal that first came to light in 2002, reenergized by the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, and now the scandalous behavior of ex-Cardinal McCarrick and the sexual improprieties reportedly taking place in Honduras and Chile, the Catholic Church has lost a lot of its moral authority.  As such, Catholic Teaching on the death penalty and other moral issues no longer carries much weight.

But the cynics and detractors would be wrong. Catholic teaching on moral issues is God’s teaching.  It comes to us through the Bible and from Jesus Christ – the Word of God Made Flesh – and from His Apostles. So the Catholic Church and her teachings are as authoritative as ever.  The real problem is the same problem that has been with us since Adam and Eve – the devil and his influence on weak, sinful human beings.

What to do?

So while the canon lawyers and theologians debate the revision to the Catechism, (and continue to debate footnote 351 in Amoris Laetitia), and while everyone weighs in on trying to figure out how to handle the problems of active homosexual clerics and bishop accountability, what are we, the laity, to do?

The answer to this question is pray, fast, and do penance. Strive to lead virtuous lives and become saints.  And above all continue going to Mass, at least on Saturday or Sunday.

As Catholics we should know that the Catholic Church is Jesus’ Church, and that through the Sacrament of the Eucharist we are privileged to be able to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and become one with Him. As Catholics, we also should know that going to Mass and receiving the Eucharist is the most important thing we do each week.

And we should also remember that we are the Mystical Body of Christ, not the institutional Catholic Church, and that we should not put all of our “trust in princes, in children of Adam powerless to save” (Psalms 146:3). We should continue to put our trust in Jesus Christ who is the Way and the Truth and the Life.

Pray for the Church, the Pope, and all the clergy, as well as those who have been victimized by sinful clerics. And do not let the scandals or the theological disputes weaken your faith or keep you from going to Mass or, worse still, entice you to leave the Catholic Church.  We should not let anger, disgust, or despair cloud our judgment.  This is exactly what the devil wants.

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