In 1845, Charles Dickens witnessed a public execution in Rome. A man had been found guilty of beating a Bavarian noblewoman to death with her pilgrim’s staff and, on the day of the culprit’s beheading, the “pope’s dragoons” were deployed to keep the crowds in check. Dickens observed “fierce-looking Romans of the lowest class”, artists “in inconceivable hats”, and even a pastry merchant who “divided his attention between the scaffold and his customers”.

Dickens was appalled that “there was no manifestation of disgust, or pity, or indignation, or sorrow.” Rome was apparently accustomed to this kind of “ugly, filthy, careless, sickening spectacle”, so “nobody cared, or was at all affected”. According to Dickens, the nonchalance extended to the city’s priests and monks, who “elbowed a passage for themselves among the people, and stood on tiptoe for a sight of the knife”.

Even if we dispense with Dickens’s partial perspective, we can concede that times have changed. These days, the clerics of Rome, and in many places around the globe, are in the noble vanguard of opposition to the death penalty. We have seen them at work from the Philippines to Nebraska and, beyond the activism of the ecclesiastical estate, there is a burgeoning assumption that Catholic politicians will land on the abolitionist side of the argument. When Governor Pat Quinn led the charge to end the death penalty in Illinois in 2011 his passion was fuelled by his faith. When Governor Bill Richardson did something similar in New Mexico in 2009 he was positioned as a long-standing supporter of the death penalty whose stance had been softened and shaped by the tides that were rolling through the Church.

Whither, though, the revolution? It can now seem almost unthinkable that, as recently as 1969, laws were still operative in Vatican City that mandated capital punishment for anyone who attempted to assassinate a pope. It can seem like the most natural thing in the world to raise an eyebrow whenever a Catholic politician supports the concept of a death penalty: just cast your mind back to Governor Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania or Pete Ricketts of Nebraska.

We should be wary of neat and tidy trajectories, however. The sea change in the Church’s attitude is of relatively recent vintage and, given Catholicism’s limited role in the earlier history of opposition to the death penalty, we can’t be too surprised that some Catholics are a little befuddled by the pace of change.

This does not invalidate the prevailing stance: I, for one, applaud it. But it is always worth remembering that even some of those who have most desired an end to the death penalty in practice have accepted the notion that, in theory and in only the most extreme circumstances, the magistrate is entitled to wield the sword. The cause of total abolition has, as Cardinal Avery Dulles put it, a “tempting simplicity” but it involves a radical step and, given the theological hinterland, it is a potentially thorny proposition.

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