Mimesis Law
18 June 2019

Earworms, The Donald, The Justice, and the Pope

Feb. 24, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — It’s not a song, but still stuck in my head, inspired by the contretemps between the Pope and Donald Trump.  The former who said that the latter wasn’t Christian because he favored — And the latter who denounced the former before he changed his tune and declared him a “wonderful guy.”  (If I were speculating, I might hazard a guess that nobody before Trump ever offered that description of any Pope, but I’m not a speculator.)

Anyhow, my quasi-earworm was neither Donald nor Francis but Robert Frost.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.

And then, catching also the last line.

Good fences make good neighbors.

The Fantasticks, too.

Remember – You must always leave the wall.

In fact, that’s a not quite irrelevant digression before I even get started, though this post proper does begin with the Pope.  But it’s not the Pope on walls.  It’s his clarifying Sunday morning, as if there were any ambiguity, his position on the death penalty.

The commandment “You shall not kill,” has absolute value and applies to both the innocent and the guilty.

. . .

All Christians and men of good will are called on to work not only for the abolition of the death penalty, but also to improve prison conditions so that they respect the human dignity of people who have been deprived of their freedom.

Popes have been heading this way for a while now.  Since Evangelium Vitae and John Paul II, really. And that led to a disagreement not by Trump* but by the late hyper-Catholic dead-Justice Antonin Scalia.  Who lectured the Pontiff on Catholic doctrine.

Christians favor the death penalty, Scalia explained back in 2002 at a Pew Research Center forum on “Religion, Politics and the Death Penalty,” at the University of Chicago (and in “God’s Justice and Ours,” an article for First Things largely taken from his remarks there).  It’s the heathens who adopt democracy (Europeans and some Americans) who oppose it.

In my view, the major impetus behind modern aversion to the death penalty is the equation of private morality with governmental morality. That is a predictable, though I believe erroneous and regrettable, reaction to modern democratic self-government.

. . .

So it is no accident, I think, that the modern view that the death penalty is immoral has centered in the West. That has little to do with the fact that the West has a Christian tradition and everything to do with the fact that the West is the domain of democracy. Indeed, it seems to me that the more Christian a country is, the less likely it is to regard the death penalty as immoral.

The Popes, on the other hand?

Scalia doesn’t quite call them heretics, but he does, through his own Biblical and historical exegesis, suggest that they don’t really understand Catholic doctrine.

Sister Helen Prejean took a different tack in an article for CNN she updated after Scalia died.  Citing his remarks at Pew including his citations to a passage in Romans suggesting that governments have not just a right but a duty to inflict God’s wrath on evildoers (he described it as “the consensus of Western thought until quite recent times” when democracy took hold), she offered a rejoinder.

Democracy, indeed. Do our elected leaders derive the authority to govern from the people or by direct divine infusion? That’s theocracy, not democracy.

Where was Jesus in the Justice’s stance of faith? Where is his moral challenge to rise above seeking “an eye for an eye,” to pray for and forgive our enemies?

In Chicago, Scalia justified his interpretation of Scripture by making a distinction: individual Christians must follow Jesus’ call to forgive, but not the state.

In this distorted reading, state governments as God’s ministers have God’s blessing to inflict wrath on evildoers and those they deem “enemy.”

Donald Trump, yeah, we’re back to him, observed that the Vatican is surrounded by a wall, and that, therefore, Francis is a hypocrite.  He also said that for the Pope to say someone wasn’t a Christian is “disgraceful.” (That was before he lauded Francis as a “wonderful guy.”)

Last week I quoted a talk Justice Brennan gave addressing originalism.  He described “its most doctrinaire incarnation” as “little more than arrogance cloaked as humility.”

In Scalia’s catechism, as in Trump’s vituperation, there’s no cloak of humility to be found.  But arrogance abounds.


* OK by Trump, too.  He believes in the death penalty.  Spent $85,000 for ads urging it for the Central Park Five at a time when (as now) New York didn’t have a death penalty.  And of course the Central Park Five were innocent, but this was back when they’d just been charged – before they were convicted and then, decades later, exonerated.

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