Death penalty and Catholics; Seminarians and Roman collar



Q. My home state recently made national news with the federeal government's decision to go forward with the executions of several inmates housed on death row here. As a Catholic, I do not understand the idea of returning death for death, and I see executions as being more about revenge than any kind of justice.
Surely life in prison would suffice, and perhaps the inmate might be rehabilitated at some point and even ask forgiveness from the victim's family. As Catholics, I believe that we are called to more than this -- called to be advocates for peace, love and life. Can you comment? (southern Indiana)
A. You make the case against the death penalty with cogency and eloquence. I agree with you completely -- and more important, Pope Francis does, too. In fact, in August 2018, the pope directed that the wording of the Catechism of the Catholic Church be changed to reflect the fact that, in the church's view, the death penalty is now no longer admissible under any circumstances.
Previous to that, the catechism did not exclude use of the death penalty in "very rare, if not practically nonexistent" cases (No. 2267). That earlier text said this: "Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor."
But in the new wording, at Pope Francis' direction, the catechism now universally opposes the use of capital punishment. Explaining the change, the new text states:
"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."
Q. We are blessed to have a seminarian assigned to our parish for the summer to assist and to learn. He is not yet an ordained priest, yet he wears the Roman collar at Mass and at meetings. This has led to some confusion, with many parishioners addressing him as "Father." Is it appropriate for him to be wearing the collar? (upstate New York)
A. So the question is: When, in the course of his study, is it permissible for a Catholic seminarian to begin to wear clerical garb, including a Roman collar? And the answer -- perhaps unfortunately -- is this: There is no universal norm. The practice varies from diocese to diocese and from seminary to seminary.
In my own time in the seminary, we didn't wear the collar until our final year of study (the same year we were ordained as deacons.) Until then, our "dress-up" clothes consisted of a black suit, white shirt and black tie. Today the practice is different, and seminarians seem to begin wearing the collar at an earlier point -- in many cases, as they begin their studies in theology (the final four or five years before ordination to the priesthood).
In some seminaries, the collar is worn even sooner, especially when the seminarian is engaged in a ministerial function (such as teaching religion or visiting a hospital). In the situation you mention, I don't see it as a major problem that some parishioners call the young man "Father"; he should be acting like a priest anyway, getting used to the behavior people expect from one called to a religious vocation.
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Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at [email protected] and 30 Columbia Circle Dr., Albany, New York 12203.