Catholics & Politics Index
By Richard Bruce BA, MA, and PhC in Economics
Former Instructor St. John's University, New York City

A Practical Reason Why Church Teaching on Capital Punishment Maybe Changing

The Catholic Church has become increasingly negative about capital punishment. The Catholic Church historically supported the right of the state to use capital punishment. Under Pope John Paul II the emphasis changed considerably. It was argued that given the security of modern prisons it was no longer necessary to use capital punishment. Criminals could be safely imprisoned for life instead. Pope Francis has been even more insistant about the need to end capital punishment.

In all the discussion about Pope Francis's teaching on capital punishment there is another practical consideration that to my knowledge no one is addressing. We have an enormously important international challenge. How can we convince dictators to step down and turn power over to democratic government. Dictators and often their staff and followers are reluctant to step down because they fear being punished, including capital punishment.

Convincing Dictators to Step Down

To the degree we make capital punishment unacceptable this may help us to convince Kim of North Korea, Putin of Russia, and Xi of China and other authoritarian leaders to step down.

The leadership of Kim is in some ways particularly frightening. It is widely reported that Kim is holding wild parties fueled by alcohol, and that he himself drinks heavily. There have been reports that in past the leaders of France, America, and the Soviet Union talked about using their nukes while under the influence of alcohol.

A Frightening Story

A particularly horrible story was related to me while I was an instructor in the economics department of the College of Business Administration at St. John's University in New York City. The most distinguished professor in the department when I taught there was Vladimir Simunek. He had been a high ranking official in the Czechoslovakian government before, during, and a short time after the Prague Spring, until he fled to the West. In this capacity he attended at least one state dinner at the Kremlin.

The tradition at these dinners was that everyone had to make a toast to the glories of the socialism. Each country had a table for its officials. There were about twenty officials at each country's table and for each toast a very small glass of vodka had to be consumed. These glasses were far smaller than a one oz shot glass but by the time about twenty of them were consumed the dinners were very drunk.

Brezhnev, the leader of the Soviet Union, came to the party at least somewhat drunk and so as the toasts proceeded he became very drunk. He stood up from the dinner and tried to exit the room shouting, I'll show them. The other officials at the Soviet table got up and wrestled him to the floor in the middle of the state dinner. As all the officials there were from satellite nations that were under the Soviet thumb, this probably was not too important.

One of the Czechoslovakian officials got up and asked the Soviets what Brezhnev wanted. A Soviet offical told him, he wants to start the war. I assume this was after Brezhnev took power in 1964 and before the Prague Spring which was in 1968.

Brezhenev died in 1982, and was succeeded by Yuri Andropov, who died after only 14 months in office. Andropov was succeeded by Konstantin Chernenko who died a little more than a year later, and was succeeded by Mikhail Gorbachev.


Gorbachev's background was in agriculture. He apparently did reasonably well at this but it was unclear to me why the Soviet leadership saw him as a good choice for leader. But he had one interesting qualification, he had a physical condition that prevented him from drinking alcohol. Perhaps Gorbachev was the designated driver, or designated keeper of the nuclear button.

From his position as designated keeper of the button he overthrew the system and ended the cold war and more generally the conflict between the Soviets and the West.

We thought our nuclear problems were over but the recent news out of North Korea suggests otherwise. Given the history of alcohol and nuclear weapons the heavy drinking of Kim Jung Un is very disturbing.

An Extremely Inportant Issue

Avoiding a nuclear exchange with Kim, let alone China or Russia dwarfs into utter insignificance any small advantage that capital punishment might have in controlling murder and other crimes.

Many people support capital punishment because they are understandably shocked at the vicious cruelty of serial killers and other murders. We need to consider, however, that the crimes of dictators dwarf those of our serial killers, and yet it is in our interest to offer those dictators solid guarantees of amnesty if we are to convince them to step down peacefully.

The relatives of the victims of our serial killers may demand that we execute the killers who murdered their loved ones, and we are naturally sympathetic. However, the victims of the dictators also have relatives and as the dictators have many more victims their victims have many more relatives. For us to demand that people of former dictatorships simply tolerate the former dictator's luxurious retirement on some South Pacific island and then demand death for serial killers would be hippocritical, in fact it would be monumentally hippocritical. And yet we need to tolerate the luxurious retirement of those dictators because the alternative maybe slaughter on a grand scale, and in worse case senarios the death of intelligent life on our planet, and as far as we know the universe.

Justice, Practicallity, and God's Providence

So perhaps there is a practical logic in the change in Catholic teaching. Perhaps the change is an example of God's providence.

Tell me what you think. Here is my contact information..

Last updated April 10, 2020

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