Did Pope John Paul II overrule Aquinas in Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life)?
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I Was In Prison
Online Prison Ministry Newsletter
February 1, 2012
Dale S. Recinella, Catholic Lay Chaplain, Florida Death Row and Solitary Confinement
Susan M. Recinella, Clinical Psychologist for mentally ill adults, and Catholic Lay Minister to Families of the Executed

Did Pope John Paul II overrule Aquinas in Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life)?

This past weekend I was in Orlando speaking at a tremendous diocesan gathering called a “Day for Life”. In Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), his landmark encyclical on respect life, Pope John Paul II instructed Catholics worldwide to hold such days every year.

“The celebration of this day should be planned and carried out with active participation of all sectors of the local Church [diocesan]. Its primary purpose should be to foster in individual consciences, in families, in the Church and in civil society a recognition of the meaning and value of human life at every stage and in every condition.” [¶85]
In addition to presenting separate workshops for adults and for high-schoolers on Catholic teaching and the death penalty, I was asked to give a keynote address on Evangelium Vitae and capital punishment. How rare such a request is! Perhaps because no one quite knows what to do with Pope John Paul’s emphatic, unnuanced statement in italics in ¶9. After pointing out that the biblical account in Genesis 4:15 reveals that God moved to protect Cain (the murderer) from being killed by those who would avenge the death of his victim (the innocent and righteous man Abel), Pope John Paul makes the following bold assertion:
“Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity.” [Italics in original]
He follows up that absolutely clear, unambiguous statement by quoting St. Ambrose’s (4th c.) commentary on God’s treatment of the murderer Cain:
“…God, who preferred the correction rather than the death of a sinner, did not desire that a homicide be punished by the exaction of another act of homicide.”
Pope John Paul II has thrown this earthquake of a statement into his masterpiece on the value of human life right at the beginning, before he even defines the culture of death (¶12). This brilliant and courageous Supreme Servant of the Catholic Church would not do such a thing by whim or accident. His placement of this statement and his use of italics in the original are all part of his definitive message. And, he is making a dramatic refinement to what eight centuries of Catholics have assumed to be the position of St. Thomas Aquinas, namely:
By sinning man departs from the order of reason, and consequently falls away from the dignity of his manhood…he falls into the slavish state of the beasts, by being disposed of according as he is useful to others. [Citations omitted] Hence, although it be evil in itself to kill a man so long as he preserve his dignity, yet it may be good to kill a man who has sinned, even as it is to kill a beast. [ST IIa IIae q. 64 a. 2]
Has Pope John Paul II overruled Aquinas? For the following reasons, I believe we can say that instead of overruling Aquinas, Pope John Paul II has developed and refined Aquinas, reformulated Aquinas, for our time.

First of all, even when Aquinas was assuming that a murderer loses his human dignity, he did not say that killing the murderer “is” good; rather he said it “may be” good. That leaves open the possibility that in our modern times it may not be good.

Secondly, Aquinas’ Herculean work in the Summa underlies a massive integration of theology and philosophy. The source cited in this subsection for the proposition that human beings lose their human dignity when they commit serious sin is the philosopher Aristotle.
“For a bad man is worse than a beast, and is more harmful, as the Philosopher states (Polit. i, 1 and Ethic. vii, 6).”
I believe we can safely say that Pope John Paul II is overruling Aristotle in Evangelium Vitae by asserting that “Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity.” I believe we can presume that if Aquinas had this teaching in hand in his day, from a source who is one of the greatest leaders of the Catholic Church in all its history, he would have reached a different conclusion. Pope John Paul’s correction of the premise drives the correction of the result.

My experience of Catholic and non-Catholic Christians all over the country bears out that this correction is not just esoteric fodder for theological types. From the halls of death row and legislatures to the main streets and pews of every state in which I have addressed this issue, Christians look at me and say: “The people who commit those crimes are no different than animals. They are monsters.” That premise, of course, always precedes the justification that killing them is not like killing a human being. After eight hundred years of repetition, this mistaken premise is imbedded in our Christian subconscious.

Pope John Paul II in ¶9 of Evangelium Vitae has corrected our assumption and our error. The murderer has done brutal and horrible things, such acts which are more like those of a beast than of a human being. But the murderer himself, sitting in our custody, is still a human being who has not lost his personal dignity.

That changes everything.

©2012 Dale S. Recinella, Tallahassee, Florida U.S.A.
All rights reserved. No reuse or republication without permission.

Upcoming Events:

Now I Walk on Death Row: in Florida:
February 2012

      Catholic Correctional Chaplain for Florida Death Row
      Catholic Volunteer for Ministry to Families of the Executed

Saturday, February 4th
Annual Prison Ministry Conference (Diocesan-wide)
Sponsored by Diocese of West Palm Beach, Office of Prison Ministry

Saturday, February 4th, 2012
10:30am – 12:00 noon Dale Recinella – Ministering to Inmates on Death Row and Long Term Psychiatric Solitary Confinement

1:30 – 2:30pm Susan Recinella – Ministering to the Families of Death Row Inmates and Homicide Victims
(Specific venue in Palm Beach Diocese to be set)

For information, contact:
       Thomas Lawlor, Director
       Ph: 561-775-9553 or E-mail
       Elena Garcia, Administrative Assistant
       Ph: 561-775-9559 or E-mail


Saturday, February 25th
Annual Men's Lenten Conference (Diocesan-wide)
A Day for Men VI

Sponsored by Diocese of St. Augustine, Florida

Morning of Saturday, February 25, 2012
Bishop Felipe Estévez and Dale Recinella will each be speaking between 9 am and 12 noon.

Venue:   Resurrection Catholic Church
               3383 University Blvd. N.
               Jacksonville, Florida 32277

For information, contact:
            The Parish Office: Ph: 904-744-0833 Fax: 904-744-7235 or
            Robert Roldan, Coordinator: E-mail ===========================================================

Now I Walk on Death Row - in Kentucky:
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      Catholic Volunteer for Ministry to Families of the Executed

Thursday, March 29th
Hillenmeyer Lecture Series
Sponsored by: Thomas More College

Evening of Thursday March 29, 2012
(7:00pm on campus)

Thomas More College
333 Thomas More Parkway
Crestview Hills, KY 41017

For Information, contact:
       Joy Nolan, Administrative Assistant
       Office of the Academic Dean   859-341-5800 or E-mail

I Was In Prison
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Dale S. Recinella, Catholic Lay Chaplain, Florida Death Row and Solitary Confinement
Susan M. Recinella, Clinical Psychologist for mentally ill adults, and Catholic Lay Minister to Families of the Executed

If you Like this Monthly Ezine - You will love Dale's Book!
The Poor Clare Sisters
Paperback: 433 pages

Excellent book on the topic!,
June 13, 2005 Nathan Eanes
(Review from Amazon.com)

The Biblical Truth about America's Death Penalty is a must-read. It deals with Biblical standards of Capital Punishment and then compares them to the system used in America today. It is the best-researched, most faithful to scripture, and most evenhanded analysis I have ever read concerning the Death Penalty. Whatever your persuasion on the issue, this book will teach you a great deal. Recinella is a trained lawyer and committed Christian who now volunteers part-time on Florida's death row. He thus understands law, the Bible, and the system of execution in America. I challenge anyone who supports the Death Penalty to read this book.

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