The Scandal Of William Barr

The Scandal Of William Barr August 7, 2020

DonkeyHotey: Caricature of William Barr / Flickr

“Say to them, As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezek. 33:11 RSV). God tells us, he does not desire death. He is, after all, the God of life. In the incarnation, we see the significance of this: God not only gives us life, but he seeks to give us abundant life. It is offered to all. No matter the sin, God does not desire death. He desires to grant us life.

Life is good. We should cherish it and preserve it when we can. Of course, we must also recognize, as temporal beings, our temporal life will come to an end. We must preserve the good of temporal life while recognizing that it is indeed temporal. This is true for all life. Sinners, no matter what they have done, so long as they possess life, posses a good which is to be cherished and preserved. It should not be prematurely taken from anyone. We must not kill sinners; rather, we must seek their reformation. Even if they will not reform, we must not engage evil and take their life from them. For life is good, and destroying life, therefore, is evil, and those who would engage evil by embracing evil only affirm that evil. It would be a scandal to call such evil, good. God does not want us to embrace evil; he does not want us to engage vengeance. Scripture, through the story of Cain, warns us that we risk suffering a worse fate if we take up the path of killing in response to any sin, even that of murder:

Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is greater than I can bear.  Behold, thou hast driven me this day away from the ground; and from thy face I shall be hidden; and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will slay me.” Then the LORD said to him, “Not so! If any one slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him (Gen. 4:13-15 RSV).

Promoting the dignity of all life means we promote and respect the good in all, even in those who have done great evil in their lives. For where there is life, there is still some good, and where there is such good, there is hope for reform. God does not want us to take lives. God does not want us to snuff out anyone else’s life. He wants us to affirm life, to affirm the dignity of life. If we only affirm the good of the life of those who we classify as “innocent,” we do not affirm the dignity and value of life. It is not our response to the so-called innocent, but to those who are not so innocent which demonstrate our true stand towards life. Do we truly believe life is an inviolable good? If we promote excuses for executions, the answer is no, and once we demonstrate life is not an inviolable good, we start down the path towards nihilism.

Pope Francis, following the direction of his predecessors in recognizing the value and dignity of all life, therefore affirmed that Catholics must not promote the death penalty. Thus, he introduced a change in the Catechism to indicate this:

2267. Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.

Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.[1]

Either Catholics affirms the value of life, and so deny the death penalty, or they turn their backs on the dignity of life. Recognizing this, the Catholic Church has concluded it must reject the use of the death penalty and seek its use to be stopped. Catholics, following the teaching of the church, must work for this end, and not subvert the church’s moral principles by trying to find loopholes to justify more bloodshed in the world. It would be a scandal to try to justify death in the name of life. The affirmation of life, therefore, preserves the principle of mercy, as it is extended even to those who have killed others. If we did not embrace mercy, if we do not embrace life, we will face that same lack of mercy ourselves when we come to be judged by the eternal judge in the eschatological judgment.

Catholics who embrace death, who embrace it as a good, risk losing everything. They do not embrace life. They want to become like a god, but in doing so, they ignore God’s stand on life. Obviously, their subjective disposition is impossible for us to read, and so the culpability they hold for their stand is not up to us but for God to judge. We can only express the objective evil involved by those who embrace the death penalty.

We can, and should, point out the great scandal which occurs when Catholics in position of political leadership promote the death penalty. It is an even greater scandal when a Catholic, in a position of authority, does what they can to reestablish the use of the death penalty when its use had been abandoned. Such scandal must be acknowledged by competent ecclesiastical authorities and given its proper response. The Catholic Church must speak boldly on its principles, especially when it finds those who claim to hold them are acting contrary to those same principles, for in its silence, it allows the faithful to believe such evil is acceptable.  Thus, when William Barr, a Catholic, as the Attorney General, not only promotes, but reestablishes and fast tracks the use of the death penalty, ecclesial authorities, especially his own bishop, should respond to such actions, warning him of his breach of Catholic moral teaching and the possible effects it might have on his eternal soul. Since there had been no federal executions in place for over 17 years, it cannot be said he was just doing his job (even though the banality of such a response should be enough to indicate how and why it is so wrong). Barr clearly is seeking to put into practice what had been stopped, showing it was not necessary for him to employ its use as Attorney General (as his predecessors did their job without having such executions taking place).

What should be done about the scandal of William Barr? Who will speak out about the scandal? What proposal, if any, will be made to deal with it? Will any bishops suggest he should not take communion, or will Barr’s flagrant rejection of Catholic moral teaching go without a pastoral response? The longer it takes for American bishops to give as strong a rebuke to him as they do with many other politicians will only strengthen the case of the partisan nature of their exhortations to politicians. The church needs better than that. The church needs the bishops to take their prophetic office seriously, lest they risk following Balaam, who, though also a prophet, found himself rebuked by an ass.


[1] Holy See Press Office, Summary of the Bulletin: New Revision Of Number 2267 Of The Catechism Of The Catholic Church On The Death Penalty – Rescriptum ‘ex Audentia SS.mi.’”  (8-2-2018).


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