A postcard shows portraits of John Paul II, right, and John XXIII, who were recognized as saints last week. Credit Angelo Carconi/European Pressphoto Agency


The Catholic Church’s canonization of two of its recent popes and the grotesquely botched execution of a murderer in Oklahoma last week stood at opposite ends of the moral scale. Yet there was something about the two events — the public affirmation of a religious order in the one and the medieval barbarity of the other — that seemed to challenge the popular image of a linear march of human progress.

All the while, the drumbeat of civil war grew louder in southeastern Ukraine as the caretaker government in Kiev launched a new bid to retake Slovyansk, one of the cities in eastern Ukraine seized by pro-Russian secessionists. Russia, which has tens of thousands of troops massed on the Ukrainian border, warned anew that it reserved the right to intervene to protect Russian residents of eastern Ukraine, who, in Moscow’s propaganda, were being attacked by Ukrainian “ultranationalistic organizations” supported by American “mercenaries.”

Canonizing Two Popes

The canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II by their successor, Pope Francis, with his retired predecessor, Benedict XVI, standing by and a vast throng of cardinals, bishops, priests and more than a million pilgrims and visitors filling St. Peter’s Square and spilling out across Rome, provided an intriguing blend of ancient tradition and modern politics.

The secular press, focused as it is on discernible fact, always has trouble covering religion, with its source in something that is by definition unprovable but held to be absolute. Accordingly, the theology of sainthood, in which the church recognizes select people as worthy of veneration for lives of “heroic virtue,” with its complex rules and requirements of scientifically confirmed miracles — an oxymoron that is definitely tough for the media to grasp — figured less in coverage of the theology than the politics.

And politics there were. The fact that Pope Francis chose to canonize his two predecessors simultaneously — the processes were initiated before he became pope — was perceived by many commentators as yet another wise balancing act by a pontiff who after barely a year in the Vatican has won broad respect for his personal humility and his efforts to reunite the various strands of the Catholic Church.

John XXIII, pope from 1958 to 1963, was an Italian with a common touch and warm humor, for which he came to be called “the Good Pope.” He is revered by liberal Catholics — and frowned upon by traditionalists — for convening the Second Vatican Council, which modernized many aspects of Catholic doctrine. John Paul II, 1978 to 2005, was a charismatic Pole who traveled the world in his nearly 27-year reign and became a symbol of the struggle against Communism. He was lauded by many conservative Catholics, who saw him as an antidote to “the spirit of Vatican II.”

The Execution Debate

The opposition to capital punishment in the United States has generally centered on two issues — the risk of executing an innocent person, and whether execution violates the Constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment. Nobody disputes that Clayton Lockett was not innocent — in 1999 he beat and shot a 19-year-old woman and had accomplices bury her alive so she would not tell the police about how they had gang-raped her friend. It is harder to argue that his execution on Tuesday at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Okla., was neither cruel nor unusual.

The execution was supposed to be the first of two that night — the other of a murderer named Charles Warner. The timeline subsequently reported by Robert Patton, director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, established that after Mr. Lockett was tied down on the execution table, a technician was unable to find a vein for the IV and after a long search, eventually inserted it in the groin area.

The warden then went ahead and released midazolam, a sedative intended to knock Mr. Lockett out, and a doctor declared that he was unconscious. The warden then released vecuronium bromide, which paralyzes the respiratory system, and potassium chloride, which stops the heart. Both would cause excruciating pain if the recipient was conscious. And, as it turned out, they did, since the vein with the IV collapsed, and Mr. Lockett was apparently conscious and in acute pain for over 20 minutes before his heart gave out. Mr. Warner’s execution was put off.

The botched execution raised a chorus of protest from opponents of the death penalty in the United States and in Europe, and it was certain to revive the question of whether execution by lethal injection constitutes “cruel and unusual” punishment. The method was initially introduced precisely because it was supposed to be more humane than the electric chair or the gallows.

Part of the dispute focuses on the fact that Oklahoma and several other states have pulled a cloak of secrecy over their sources of lethal drugs, since American manufacturers have stopped producing those previously used and European pharmaceutical companies have refused to supply these or any other.

Several states have therefore sought out compounding pharmacies to provide the drugs, and have refused to provide any information about them. Oklahoma provided only the names of the chemicals, but no details or information about the supplier.

The Struggle for Slovyansk

The struggle over Ukraine escalated on Friday when the Ukrainian government launched a bid to retake Slovyansk, a rebel-controlled city that has become a flash point in the struggle between Ukrainian authorities in Kiev and Russia-backed secessionists in eastern Ukraine.

The fighting immediately sparked a war of words among Russia, the United States and Europe. The Russian Foreign Ministry said it was “outraged” by the offensive and called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council. As it has throughout the crisis, Russia described the Ukrainian armed forces as “ultranationalistic organizations” and claimed, without evidence, that there were “English-speaking officers” among the attackers.

In Washington, President Barack Obama and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, jointly warned of further and tougher sanctions if Russia failed to “change course.” Mr. Obama said the next round would target unspecified sectors of the Russian economy. Previous sanctions by the United States and the European Union have largely targeted individual Russian officials or separatist leaders.