“Use your brain” is a maxim often heard, but often resented.

Such was the case when our Lord confronted professional debaters. At the age of 12, his rhetorical skill astonished the rabbis, who presumably thought He was just a child prodigy.

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But later on, the legal experts were not amused when He challenged their logical fallacies; yet He came into the world to win souls and not to win debates.

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Those experts did not think their souls needed saving, so they cynically used syllogisms to “entrap him in speech” (Matthew 22:15). They posed a trick question about paying taxes, to which Christ responded that they should use their brains: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).

Using the brain to figure out things of Caesar and of God does not easily answer the question, but it does establish some solid principles. Take, for instance, the knee-jerk challenges to capital punishment. Well-used brains have understood that the death penalty belongs to the just domain of the government. The Catechism affirms this (CCC #2267).

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This principle belongs to natural law, which, in classical philosophy, is “the universal, practical obligatory judgments of reason, knowable by all men as binding them to do good and avoid evil.” Saint Paul appealed to natural law: “Ever since the creation of the world, [God’s] invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made” (Romans 1:20).

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Governments exist to maintain “the tranquility of order.” When popes governed the papal states, they measured out punishments including death. One papal executioner, Giovanni Battista Bugatti, served six popes including Blessed Pius IX, and personally executed 516 felons.

That was the civil side of ruling; the spiritual side did everything possible to bring the guilty to confession and a state of grace before meeting God. That’s because happiness is the realization of the purpose of life and is not mere pleasure; and unhappiness is the contradiction of that purpose, and not mere pain.

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Without that perspective, the death penalty seems an arrogant violation of life, and that is why today opposition to the death penalty increases as religious faith decreases.

That dangerous alchemy substitutes emotion for truth and platitudes for reason. Such lax use of the brain is to theology what Barney the Dinosaur is to paleontology.

Two professors, Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette, have published an excellent book, “By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed.” Such right use of the brain explains that abuses of punishment are intolerable, and the application of mercy is a permissible use of prudential opinion. But to posit the death penalty as intrinsically evil contradicts laws natural and divine, and no authorities, be they of the state or the church, have the right to deny what is right by asserting that.

Fr. George William Rutler is a Catholic priest and the pastor of the Church of St. Michael in Manhattan. This article from his parish church bulletin is used by permission.