Pope Francis, guided by the Holy Spirit, knows how to shake us up.
And really, isn’t that the job of a spiritual leader? While Pope Francis has only been the pontiff since 2013, the Holy Spirit has been calling us and prodding us ever since the first Pentecost, when Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to boot the Apostles from their hiding place into the streets, inspiring them to evangelize in every language. The Church has grown from a handful of frightened people holed up together in a room to a global institution.
The fiery arrival of the Holy Spirit on that first Pentecost is eventually duplicated in the lives of all Christians. It’s a rite of passage. Sooner or later, we each get a swift kick onto the front lines of faith, often when we least expect it, and usually into a situation that feels less than comfortable.
Pope Francis has given us our latest holy jolt with this month’s release of a revision to the catechism of the Catholic Church. Specifically, in paragraph #2267, the text of the catechism will be modified to oppose the death penalty on the basis of the Church’s moral teaching on the dignity of the person and the sanctity of life. A little background: The modern catechism, which was published in 1992, did not unequivocally teach that the use of the death penalty was always wrong on moral grounds. Then, in 1997, Pope — now Saint — John Paul II made his own revision to point out that, due to the civil state’s ability to incarcerate criminals in such a way as to assure that they could perpetrate no further harm on society, executions should be “very rare, if not practically nonexistent." By allowing an exception for a "rare" case, this pragmatism could be interpreted to afford a bit of wiggle room around the consistent ethic of life.
Now, however, the latest revision states “the church teaches, in light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.’” It further calls for the Church to work actively to abolish the death penalty worldwide.
This update thrusts us back into the controversy over the death penalty. Most developed countries have outlawed its use, but in the United States, different states have different laws. Currently, the death penalty is in effect in 31 states, with 10 states having executed someone since 2014. In recent years, we Californians have come close to eliminating executions via ballot initiative, but our efforts have come up short of the needed percentage of votes. The difference that Pope Francis has made is that we Catholics are to hold that capital punishment is wrong not for the secular reasons of judicial error or injustice or racism in its application, but simply because we are morally obligated to respect life. Building on the Church’s anti-abortion stance, as well as on the teachings of the last several popes, Pope Francis has put to rest any debate over the morality of the death penalty.
The civil debate will continue, though, as we humans seem to be hard-wired to seek revenge for wrongs done to us. We prefer the “eye for an eye” philosophy to Jesus’s radical call to forgiveness and mercy. We argue that taking the life of someone who has taken a life is a lawful act: end of story.
But the Holy Spirit keeps bugging us, to own what we say we believe, to make laws that go beyond our gut reactions and follow our higher ideals, to do good even to our enemies, to respect the right to life of people for whom we have no respect. The Holy Spirit challenges us to examine the religion we belong to: Do we believe in the “inviolability and dignity” of every person? Do we uphold that belief with our lives?
We may try to ignore the Holy Spirit and surrender to our fears. But no matter how hard we try to shake it off, we can be certain that the Holy Spirit, through the person of Pope Francis and other spiritual leaders, will persist in shaking us up. Indeed, it is our sacred calling to be spiritually all shook up.