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You have to be of a certain age, of course, to get the title of this piece, dating back to the very early TV comedy "Car 54, Where Are You?" about two policemen and their adventures. It starred Fred Gwynne (pre-Munsters) as Francis Muldoon, and Joe E. Ross as Gunther Toody. Toody would often call his partner by saying "Ooh, ooh, Francis ..." in his raspy voice.
So that has nothing to do with today's week-ending topic, outside of the name of the current pope, which like Muldoon, is "Francis." Neither actor was Catholic either, if it matters, which trust me, it doesn't.
This week, the pope, named Francis, approved a change to the official Catholic teaching, declaring that capital punishment constitutes an "attack" on the dignity of human beings. Now, previously the church had been oh, just fine with executing murderers (and, in its own sordid past, people who didn't agree with other church teachings).
However, all of a sudden the church has decided that the previous policy is outdated, that there are other ways to protect the common good, and that the church should instead commit itself to working to end capital punishment.
"Recourse to the death penalty" they wrote, "on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme means of safeguarding the common good ... there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes."
"Consequently", it added, "the church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person, and [it will work] with determination for its abolition worldwide."
So I imagine that there are a lot of priests out there who are having a bit of a hard time processing the infallibility of this particular pope. I'm not Catholic, of course, and we Southern Baptists can't even imagine our faith investing inviolability on a fallible (in our view) human being as Catholicism does, but they do. So how, we have to ask, is it possible that previous, equally infallible popes have been just fine with a practice that the church itself has carried out, but this one, equally infallible, can say "Not so fast"?
But now, I guess, there is "increasing awareness" (their term) that criminals don't lose their "dignity" after committing (in this case) premeditated murder. Huh? What does their "dignity" have to do with getting punished for murdering another human, and with their dignity, which is now of no moment since they are, you know, dead.
I've sat on the jury of a murder trial, and I can assure you that the dignity of the ultimately-convicted murderer was never in our thoughts as we contemplated a verdict and a punishment. But I digress.
In the Book of Mark, Jesus said "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, and render unto God that which is God's." Although the immediate topic was taxes, the message was certainly clear -- the rules of man on earth are for man to adjudicate and punish, and God's laws are adjudicated in Heaven.
That's where I have a theological disagreement with Pope Francis. If God's Son comes and tells us that eternal justice is in His hands and not ours, we ought to feel comfortable passing and enforcing the laws and punishments that we determine carry out our earthly legal obligations, including the death penalty for premeditated murderers. It is not for the pope to decide what is right and wrong for man to carry out, in the course of creating the laws of earth and fitting them sufficiently into the laws of God.
Well, maybe it is, at least for Catholicism, but we are a non-sectarian, not a Catholic country, and I would hardly want to see the pope quoted by anti-capital punishment types in a debate in some state house. Besides, his moral authority is granted by the same people who voted in the previous popes, all of whom were just fine with capital punishment the way it was. If Pope Benedict, who preceded Francis and is still alive, had succeeded him instead, and reversed that edict (as he might have), whom would we believe?
I would be very happy if religious leaders would stay in their lane a good bit more. I don't need for them to declare their teachings and beliefs on political topics (and this one is) and then pretend to cloak them in "awareness of dignity" arguments that have zero clarity.
Ooh, ooh, Francis ... render unto Caesar the laws of man, thanks.
Copyright 2018 by Robert Sutton
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