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Mercy, Rather Than Guilt, Is the Real Question Here

Religion: The pardon of the pope's would-be assassin raises the issue of the status of punishment in Catholic thought.

June 14, 2000|RICHARD JOHN NEUHAUS | Father Richard John Neuhaus is editor in chief of First Things, a monthly journal of religion and public life published in New York City

Now we'll probably never know if Mehmet Ali Agca acted on his own when he attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II, or whether he was an agent of the then-communist secret police of Bulgaria, acting on behalf of the Soviet Union. Yet, as we shall see, that is hardly the most important question raised.

Agca has given conflicting accounts of the May 13, 1981, attack, and, as the Italian prosecutor said, "You can't keep people in prison just to make them talk." After serving 19 years of his life sentence, Agca has been pardoned by Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi and will now be returned to Turkey to complete 9 1/2 years of a jail sentence for killing a newspaper editor there. Agca, 42, might prefer his Italian jail to the one from which he escaped in Turkey, but everyone else seems pleased enough with the pardon.

Clearly the decision has the approval of the pope. In 1983, John Paul visited Agca, and one remembers the widely publicized picture of the two of them sitting in Agca's cell, looking as though the pope were hearing his confession. Afterward, the pope said he had forgiven him, but of course we know nothing of what was said between them.

The pope's forgiveness and approval of the pardon fit into a long series of incidents in which he has been trying to teach the world about the meaning of mercy. It seems that hardly a week goes by without the pope pleading for clemency--which is but another word for mercy--for a condemned criminal in the U.S. or elsewhere.

In his 1995 encyclical, "Evangelium Vitae" (the gospel of life), John Paul came out strongly against capital punishment, contending that in modern systems of criminal justice it is rarely, if ever, needed to protect society. While Agca was not condemned to death, his pardon inevitably raises the question of the status of punishment in Catholic thought.

Many Catholics and others who greatly admire this pope are not, or not yet, convinced by his position on capital punishment. And it is true that, in that encyclical, he did not condemn capital punishment with the same weight of authority that he condemned the killing of innocent children by abortion or the euthanizing of the aged and unwanted.

In condemning those crimes against human dignity, the pope invoked the full teaching authority of his office, making them, in the view of most theologians, infallible pronouncements that require the assent of all the faithful. Yet his criticism of capital punishment was certainly more than the expression of a personal opinion. The encyclical's words on the death penalty have been included in the official catechism of the Catholic Church, signaling that they are to be taken very seriously indeed.

Some Catholics, arguing for "a consistent ethic of life," have put opposition to the death penalty on a par with opposition to abortion and euthanasia. Many others, including bishops and theologians, are uneasy about that. They point out a significant moral difference between taking the lives of the innocent and taking the lives of the guilty.

In addition, they note that the church has for centuries taught that capital punishment is permissible under some circumstances. Changes in doctrinal tradition, they say, must be undertaken slowly and with great care.

Yet all agree that on the question of capital punishment, John Paul II may have initiated what Catholics call a "development of doctrine." Only time will tell, but there is no doubt that Catholic proponents of the death penalty, who once had the church's teaching clearly on their side, are now on the defensive.

Behind the question of capital punishment is the question of punishment itself. It is not the case, as some would have it, that the pope has gone soft and sentimental when it comes to the evil that people do. On the contrary. In his thought and writing, the harsh reality of punishment has been attended to by the cross of Christ, when the perfectly innocent died for a guilty humanity. On the cross, Christ cried out, "It is finished." Among the things that are finished is the regime of punishment as vengeance and retribution.

Punishment may still have a "medicinal" effect in contributing to the moral correction of the wrongdoer, and of course society has both the right and obligation to protect itself from wrongdoers. But clemency, the pope contends, is the way of "the culture of life" in its ongoing conflict with "the culture of death." It is, he would persuade us, the only way for those who daily pray, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us."

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