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Dulles and the Death Penalty

Upholding the classical Catholic tradition about capital punishment.

11:00 PM, Dec 30, 2008 • By MARK TOOLEY
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Seemingly none of the recent obituaries of Avery Dulles, a renowned theologian and Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, has mentioned his crisp, theoretical defense of capital punishment. The Cardinal's careful explanation of his church's teaching responded to the popular impression of blanket Catholic opposition to the death penalty. Liberal Catholic politicians, even when opposing their church's stance on abortion, have sometimes boasted of their supposed conformity with Catholic teaching on capital punishment.

"Self-defense of society continues to justify the death penalty," Dulles told a symposium in 2002. "One could conceive of a situation where if justice were not done by executing an offender it would throw society into moral confusion," he said. "I don't know whether that requires any more than that it remain on the books, symbolically, that it be there for society to have recourse to."

Dulles emphasized that Pope John Paul II and the bishops in recent years have upheld the classical Catholic tradition about capital punishment, affirming its theoretical validity, while warning against its potential for "miscarriages of justice, the increase of vindictiveness, or disrespect for the value of innocent human life."

Although ignoring his stance on capital punishment, Dulles' obituaries have rightly described his distinguished family heritage. He was the great grandson, nephew and son of U.S. Secretaries of State. His father, John Foster Dulles, as Eisenhower's chief diplomat, was often caricatured as a Christian anti-communist warrior. The elder Dulles, a New York lawyer, was indeed anti-Soviet. And he had had an extensive ecclesial lay career within Presbyterianism and the old Federal Council of Churches, predecessor to the current National Council of Churches.

Although Puritanical in demeanor, John Foster Dulles was hardly a devout, orthodox Calvinist. The son of a liberal Presbyterian seminary professor, he was a theological modernist. The elder Dulles dismissed "fundamentalism" as intellectually untenable. He famously served as legal counsel to liberal pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick in his 1923 Presbyterian heresy trial. To avoid probable censure, Fosdick left Presbyterianism to serve as virtual chaplain to John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Himself a liberal Baptist, the multimillionaire constructed New York's Riverside Church to become America's most prestigious progressive pulpit, to be filled by Fosdick.

John Foster Dulles' liberal Presbyterianism, focused more on statecraft and ethics than personal devotion, evidently did not appeal to the young Avery Dulles, who became an agnostic. While a student at Harvard in the 1930s, the younger Dulles became a believer in God after examining the intricate beauty of a blossoming tree. By 1940, he was converted to the "sublimity" of Catholic doctrine, almost certainly displeasing his ardently WASP father. After Avery Dulles' World War II service in the U.S. Navy, he became a Jesuit and was ordained into the priesthood in 1956. His nearly half century of teaching concluded with two decades at Fordham University. Pope John Paul II appointed him a Cardinal in 2001, in recognition of his vast theological and academic accomplishments, though Dulles had never served as a bishop, and was well past age 80.

The intellectual and spiritual range of Avery Dulles' writings, which continued well into his final year, at age 90, after he had lost his ability to speak, was enormous. He strove to conform to and explain Catholic teachings in a manner approachable by academics and novices alike. The then new Cardinal's 2001 explanation of Catholic teaching on capital punishment for First Things magazine was among his most notable.

Dulles observed that Scriptural support for the death penalty was consistent, starting with God's covenant with Noah: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in His own image." The Mosaic code, obviously, ordained it for numerous offenses beyond murder. In the New Testament, he wrote, "the right of the State to put criminals to death seems to be taken for granted," including by Jesus. St. Paul, in Romans, apparently referenced the death penalty when he wrote that the magistrate who holds authority "does not bear the sword in vain; for he is the servant of God to execute His wrath on the wrongdoer."