The papal interlocutor was Joseph Estrada, best known for his roles as an avenging hero on behalf of the poor. He is now President of the Philippines, in which capacity he recently authorised the death by lethal injection of a house painter convicted of repeatedly raping his 10-year-old stepdaughter. Leo Echegaray this month became the first man to be executed in the country for 23 years.
The President, who came to office last year after a popular campaign to get tough on criminals, rejected a papal appeal for clemency. In riposte he quoted Aquinas: "Although it be evil to kill a man so long as he preserves his dignity, yet it may be good to kill a man who has sinned, even as it is to kill a beast." To underscore his resolve, Estrada announced that he "felt good" about his decision, adding, "future rapists need to know we mean business".
In a display of disapproval at the decision, the Church ordered that every bell in the land should toll at the hour of execution. The death of Echegaray would not sound a knell over the Vatican's new crusade against the death penalty.
At the end of the longest pontificate this century Pope John Paul II may be failing in health, but he has been moving with renewed energy against capital punishment (which has been making a bit of a comeback after half a century of decline in both the developed and developing worlds). It is a campaign which we can expect to see stepped up, for John Paul II has set himself the target of a worldwide moratorium on state executions by the end of the millennium.
With some success. It was top of his list of concerns on his recent visit to the United States - the only Western democracy that still endorses judicial killing. He raised it in private with Bill Clinton, knowing that publicly the President is a lost cause. Clinton is the man who, in the midst of the 1992 election, rushed back to Arkansas to sign the death warrant of a mentally retarded felon.
But John Paul II has had more influence on others. Since the papal visit, three state governors - in Missouri, Illinois and Arkansas - have commuted death sentences after, as one of them put it, "careful consideration of his direct and personal appeal and because of a deep and abiding respect for the Pontiff and all he represents".
The Church has not always been so robust on the subject. The Old Testament sanctions the death penalty for murder, striking or cursing one's parents, kidnapping, bestiality, sorcery and sacrificing to alien gods. And leading theologians, from St Augustine through Aquinas and the reformers Luther and Calvin, up until the popes of the 20th century, have regarded it as an unpleasant necessity.
As with so many modern advances - such as democracy and the emancipation of women - secular impulses led the way. Liberal philosophers and sociologists raised doubts about whether the death penalty really deterred murderers or preserved public order, and exposed the inevitability of sometimes executing innocent prisoners.
The movement to abolish capital punishment is historically a recent phenomenon. Venezuela was, in 1863, the first country permanently to abolish the death penalty for all crimes. Today more than half of all the countries in the world have followed suit, while another 25 states have not executed anyone in the past 10 years.
If anything, the Church has dragged its feet on the process. As recently as 1994 Rome issued a new Catechism which endorsed its centuries-old view of execution as morally legitimate "in cases of extreme gravity".
But something significant occurred in the drafting of the Church's new moral. Though a majority of the commission which drew it up voted not to outlaw the death penalty, an additional caveat was added - at the personal insistence, according to one Vatican insider, of Pope John Paul himself. It condemns "the unnecessary recourse to the death penalty, when other bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of the person".
Two years later, in his 1996 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, the Pope pronounced that "today, as a result of steady improvement in the organisation of the penal system" the number of cases in which the death penalty was permissible were "very rare, if not practically non-existent". By July last year, when the United Nations convened a conference on how to establish a permanent International Criminal Court, the Pope was instructing the Vatican delegation to call for the death penalty to be excluded from its statutes.
Then in November he gave backing to an Amnesty International proposal for a worldwide moratorium on the use of the death penalty after the year 2000. In the same month, using diplomatic channels, he sent his private appeal to President Estrada in the Philippines. Finally, in his Urbi et Orbi message at Christmas, he made an explicit call for the global abolition of the capital penalty.
What lay behind his creeping conversion? Some commentators spoke of his experience living in Communist eastern Europe where state-sanctioned death was a chilling commonplace. But more significant was his uncompromising opposition to abortion which, he became steadily convinced, could not be divided from a comprehensive sense of the inviolability of life. His logic led him to agree with the analysis of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. The Chicago cardinal - faced with a US church split between Catholics who were viscerally opposed to abortion but in favour of the death penalty, and vice versa - insisted that the Church's moral stance in defence of human life must be like "a seamless robe".
The black-and-white Augustinian logic of the Polish Pope, much criticised by liberal intellectuals, came into play here. This is the theological temperament which has led him to denounce the Western world as in the grip of a "culture of death" - a culture that is not a chance occurrence, but is "actively fostered by powerful cultural, economic and political currents which encourage an idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency".
But here it led him, to the delight of those same liberals, increasingly to see a contradiction between defending human life "from conception to natural death" and supporting death by execution.
It is not surprising therefore that all this came to a head with the papal visit to the United States last month. There are four countries which, between them, were in 1997 responsible for 84 per cent of executions: China (which killed 1,876 people), Iran (143), Saudi Arabia (122) and the US (74). The United States has executed 500 people since it reintroduced the death penalty in 1976; today it has 3,517 prisoners on Death Row.
In such places, he said in Mexico, on the eve of his arrival in Missouri, "a model of society appears to be emerging in which the powerful predominate, setting aside and even eliminating the powerless" through abortion, euthanasia and a death penalty that is applied disproportionately to those who are poor and black.
The United States, he said fiercely, "bears the stamp of the culture of death, and is therefore in opposition to the Gospel message". The dignity of human life "must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil". The death penalty, he said on landing in St Louis was "both cruel and unnecessary" and must be ended.
The opinion polls - even among Catholics - in the United States and the Philippines may not agree. But then morality by majority vote has never been something Pope John Paul II has had much time for. It is both his weakness, and his strength.Reuse content