Last month, a Nazi war criminal went free, on “humanitarian” grounds. Maurice Papon, who worked for the French government from 1940-1944 in the unoccupied (or “Vichy”) zone, in his time arranged for the deportation to murder camps of 1560 innocent people, simply because of their Jewish race.
After the war, Papon hid his background — as many, many Frenchmen had to, including the former collaborator François Mitterand — and went on to a successful career in politics, becoming a cabinet minister. After many years and much agitation, Papon was finally prosecuted and imprisoned in 1998 — only to see his conviction challenged by the European Court of Human Rights, a transnational, unelected bureaucratic institution which sums up all that is wrong with the European Union. On Sept. 18, 2002, Papon was released on the “humanitarian” grounds of his advanced age (92), and walked free. He remains both unrepentant and wealthy, and went off to a family chateau, presumably to live out his years chuckling over having cheated justice. Europe needs capital punishment.
Opinion polls in country after country say that most European citizens feel the same. But that their governmental elites — particularly the oligarchs who control the European Union — have ruled capital punishment out of discussion, declared it taboo. Is this because European opinion is morally more advanced than the U.S., more aware of the sanctity of individual life? Hardly. The abortion issue, still alive in the U.S., is not even debated in Western Europe, excepting Ireland. Stem-cell research, euthanasia, human cloning: In every case where expediency conflicts with traditional religious claims for the inviolability of innocent life in Europe — expediency wins. European elites have rejected the language of justice, the absolute claims of faith and even of reason, in favor of soulless pragmatism most perfectly displayed in the Netherlands — where convicted war criminals cannot be put to death, but cancer patients can. No longer is death meted out by the State to enact justice, after a careful trial attentive to moral and civil law. But busy doctors and impatient heirs are empowered to kill the weak and the sick, as a simple way to limit their suffering. Justice is not important enough to kill for, in Europe. But pain avoidance is.
The Vatican agrees with post-Christian Europe on the issue of capital punishment, albeit for much more honorable reasons. This is ironic, since the Holy See spends vast moral capital each year at the United Nations fighting the efforts of the E.U. to promote legal abortion, sex education and state-imposed population control on Third World recipients of international aid. All these “reforms” are proposed in the name of pain avoidance—at the expense of justice and human dignity. In such fights, the Vatican frequently finds its only allies in Islamic countries and the occasional U.S. Republican administration. But on capital punishment, the Vatican stands against both Republicans and Moslems, and in line with the trend of educated European opinion. Pope John Paul, who witnessed many unjust executions by the Nazis and Communists through the course of his life, has issued encyclicals and revised the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church to remove the fatal prescription from the medicine cabinet of justice, saying that occasions for the rightful use of execution almost never arise in modern society. He is convinced that capital punishment is no longer needed—that secure prisons, rigorous law enforcement, and other measures have made it possible to keep violent men from harming others without resort to execution. But the case of Maurice Papon should lead us to ask, respectfully, if the pope is missing something.
The pope’s position is quite an innovation for a Church which has approved capital punishment for some 6,000 years (speaking retroactively, since Christians accept the Old Testament — which demands the death penalty for a wide variety of offenses). Let’s not even mention how many times Church tribunals handed over religious revolutionaries, practitioners of black magic, and other miscreants “to the secular arm,” that is, to the State for execution. Pope Pius IX, now up for canonization, treasured his friendship with the man he entrusted to carry out executions in the Papal States; Vatican City kept the death penalty on its books until 1969.
Theologians of the stature of St. Thomas Aquinas endorsed the use of capital punishment, both as a means of removing from society those who had violated its most basic laws, and a means of achieving retributive justice — of giving the relatives and friends of a murdered man an orderly means of seeing their wrong requited. The Church condemned dueling and revenge killings during the Middle Ages by pointing to the State, God’s instrument on earth, as the proper executor (and executioner) of justice. Many learned Catholics, including Justice Antonin Scalia, still hew to the older teaching — as is their privilege, since the new papal opinion is not binding on Catholics. It’s a prudential judgment about a political matter—albeit the judgment of a very wise and great man, whose profound insights all should take seriously.
Of course, many Catholics — including the pope — believe that modern society has progressed beyond the need for such retributive justice, that Christian morality infusing the modern world has brought us to a time of a mercy, surpassing justice. But is this really the case? Is it really mercy that’s at work in the “humanitarian” release of an unrepentant Maurice Papon? Or the failure of moral intelligence, the same collapse of moral standards that puts to death the cancer patient in Amsterdam, the unborn child in Paris or Los Angeles? If the only purpose of imprisoning mass murderers is to keep them from killing again— to protect society, and not to enforce justice — then it only makes sense to release them when they are too old and feeble to do such harm again. Obviously, Maurice Papon will never again sign death warrants for thousands of Jews — unless he gets a job with an Islamist government, planning terrorist acts. Given this fact, it only makes “humanitarian” sense to turn him loose. In a continent whose sense of justice is numbed, whose summum bonum has become the avoidance of pain, there is no cell set aside for the likes of Maurice Papon. Once age and political impotence have rendered him harmless, the very logic that forbids his execution demands his release. The same goes true for every murderer who becomes old and feeble — whether or not he repents.
The French Background
It’s true that the French have a poor record when it comes to capital punishment. Their most famous execution was of the innocent King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette — along with thousands of others— an event still celebrated officially, not mourned. It’s a very good thing that the innocent patriot Albert Dreyfus was not guillotined, when bigots falsely convicted him of treason; it allowed time to vindicate him, and Dreyfus’s triumphant return from Devil’s Island. And few Frenchmen of age have a pristine conscience when it comes to the Vichy period.
But back to Papon. Most of his victims were Jews of foreign nationality, who’d fled Germany or Austria, or other Nazi-controlled territory, before the war, to find safe refuge in France. They could not foresee — who could? — the speedy collapse of French defenses in May 1940. For that matter, who could imagine that the legitimately constituted government of unoccupied France, led by the patriot and World War I hero Marshal Philippe Petain—he once had the stature Gen. Eisenhower would attain—might deport to certain death over 70,000 civilians? The French Right, exhausted and defeated, persecuted by the corrupt and anti-religious Third Republic, was seduced into serving as the henchmen of the occupiers; the moral taint it acquired has still not faded. The heritage of Vichy helps explain the astonishing hostility provoked by the National Front — and indeed, by any attempts to restrict the flow of anti-Western immigrants into France.
French Communists have a tainted record, too. Since Stalin was allied to Hitler at the time of the German victory, the French Communist Party collaborated eagerly with the invaders. As the London Daily Telegraph recently noted, “In June 1940 l'Humanité, the party newspaper, welcomed the arrival of German troops in Paris and called on French workers to fraternise with them.” Indeed, French Communists spent 1939-1941 “sabotaging the French war effort, denouncing the war against Hitler as ‘an imperialist-capitalist conspiracy.’” Sartre’s books were published with German approval, his plays put on in Nazi-occupied Paris. Before Hitler committed his fatal blunder, and invaded the Soviet Union, the only serious “Resistance” German troops encountered in France came from a handful of Gaullist holdouts, scattered throughout the country and frequently betrayed by Communist informers. (Likewise, in the U.S., the Communist Party was militantly pacifist from the day the ink dried on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, until June 21, 1941—when they turned on a dime into “patriotic” supporters of the Allies.)
Throughout the war, the Resistance was bitterly divided between de Gaulle’s loyalists and the newly mobilized Communist units, who fought not for France but for Stalin. Each side betrayed the others’ partisans to the Germans; at war’s end, the Communists organized kangaroo courts and firing squads, executing thousands of supposed collaborators, in a slaughter they labeled l’epuration, or “the purification.” According to one eyewitness, the political scientist Prof. Thomas Molnar, himself a survivor of a German camp: “The Communists lined up all their political enemies: Catholics, monarchists, conservatives, trade union leaders, along with the real collaborators, and shot them all. It was a blood purge, pure and simple.” (Interview with the author, Aug. 1999).
So perhaps the Pope is right in saying that post-Christian Westerners lack the moral discernment needed to wield the supreme weapon of justice, the sword of the state, to execute criminals. Nevertheless, the sight of Maurice Papon toddling off to his family estate, to trade appreciative notes with neo-Nazis and (I expect) give lectures at Holocaust revisionist conferences — even as euthanasia spreads across the Continent once poisoned by him and his ilk — raises in my Catholic, American soul a searing question: Is the decline of capital punishment just one more symptom of the rising “culture of death”? Is it true, as Flannery O’Connor once wrote, that “tenderness leads to the gas chamber”?