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Priest uses papal history to argue for capital punishment

In these extracts from a much longer article, the reverend points out that executions have been enthusiastically endorsed by Popes in the past and capital punishment is not expressly described as evil by the Catechism.

  • Rev George W. Rutler
  • International
  • February 11, 2013
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Capital punishment does not inspire roaring humor in healthy minds, so wit on the subject tends to be sardonic.  Two of the most famous examples, of course, are: “In this country it is wise to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others,”  and “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

The first, “pour encourager les autres,”  is in “Candide” where Voltaire alludes to the death by firing squad of Admiral John Byng in 1757 for having let Mincorca fall to the French.  The second was Samuel Johnson’s response to the hanging of an Anglican clergyman and royal chaplain William Dodd for a loan scam.  Byng’s death was the last instance of shooting an officer for incompetence, while Dodd’s was the last hanging at Tyburn for forgery. Dodd’s unsuccessful appeal for clemency was ghostwritten by Dr. Johnson.

It is not my concern here to take a position on capital punishment which the Catechism (# 2266) acknowledges is not an intrinsic evil and is rightly part of the state’s authority. This is nuanced by the same Catechism’s proposition that its use  today would be “rare, if not practically non-existent. (#2267)”  As a highly unusual insertion of a prudential opinion in a catechetical formula, this would seem to be more mercurial in application than the doctrine of the legitimacy of the death penalty.  What is oddly lacking, however, is reference to capital punishment as medicinal as well as punitive.... 

….In Rome in 1817, Pius VII reigning, Lord Byron saw three robbers beheaded in the Piazza del Popolo, and he  also noted the priests attending those about to die, with banners and prayers in procession. The swift fall of the guillotine was preferable to the “vulgar and ungentlemanly” gallows in England.  Although Dr. Joseph Ignace Guillotin had promoted the use of the “Guillotine,” first called the “Louisson,” for its relative painlessness, a precursor was in use in Edinburgh in the mid sixteenth century. Regarded as a humane improvement, it was common in many European countries and was used in the Papal States for 369 executions from 1814 to 1870….

….The nickname of the papal executioner Bugatti was Mastro Titta,  a slang for Master of Justice (Maestro di Giustizia.)  He wore a red cloak and showed ceremonial deference to his victims. Pope Pius IX let him retire at the age of 85 with a considerable pension. This pope, beatified by John Paul II in 2000, was unflinching in the importance with which he invested public executions as an “encouragement” to others….

….On June 12, 1855 a deranged hat maker and political subversive  named Anotonio De Felici chased the Cardinal Secretary of State with a large fork. Cardinal Antonelli escaped unscathed and appealed to the Pope to commute the sentence from beheading to life imprisonment on the grounds of the man’s mental imbalance but was refused….

….Agatino Bellomo was the last to be executed in the Papal States, in Palestrina, on July 9, 1870.  When Blessed Pius IX was asked to grant a stay of execution for those condemned in 1868, the Pope firmly replied, “I cannot, and I do not want to.”  He certainly could have by law, which he embodied as state sovereign with ”plenitudo potestatis,”  but by enigmatically saying that he could not, he probably was declaring this a high matter of conscience in the interest of Augustinian tranquility of order as explained by such as Bellarmine, Liguori, Thomas More and Suarez….

….The grandson of St. Elizabeth Anne Seton,  Archbishop Robert Seton, long-lived but less loved, wrote that during the course of a holiday in France as a boy, the ceremonious spectacle of a man being beheaded inspired him greatly to think of the dignity of life.  He was especially close to Leo XIII and St. Pius X who in 1905 reiterated the Roman Catechism of St. Pius V with reference to capital punishment:  “Far from being guilty of breaking this commandment (to do no murder) such an execution of justice is precisely an act of obedience to it. For the purpose of the law is to protect and foster human life.”

Full Story: Hanging Concentrates the Mind 

Source: Crisis Magazine

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