Catholic Politicians' Capital Punishment Conundrum

By Beyer, Gerald J. | National Catholic Reporter, January 6, 2012 | Go to article overview

Catholic Politicians' Capital Punishment Conundrum


Beyer, Gerald J., National Catholic Reporter


Judging by many Catholic public officials' record on capital punishment, you would think that Catholicism has no problem with injecting lethal chemicals into the veins of human beings. Just this fall, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia erroneously claimed current Catholic teaching does not view the death penalty as "immoral."

During a speech at Duquesne University School of Law in Pittsburgh Sept. 24, Scalia said that he found no contradiction between his Catholic faith and his support of the death penalty. "If I thought that Catholic doctrine held the death penalty to be immoral, I would resign," he said. "I could not be a part of a system that imposes it."

Like Scalia, many Catholics either fail to grasp the church's opposition to the death penalty or they simply disregard it. According to a 2010 Pew study 43 percent of Latino Catholics favor capital punishment, while 45 percent oppose it. Support among white Catholics rises to 68 percent, with only 26 percent opposing it. It is encouraging that one recent poll showed support among Catholics for the death penalty drops to 24 percent when given life without parole as an alternative. Nonetheless, the vast majority of Catholics do not believe the church's teaching on capital punishment is important to them, as sociologist Michele Dillon reported in these pages (Catholics in America survey, NCR, Oct. 28-Nov. 10).

Unfortunately, many Catholic politicians use the power of their offices to promote state-sanctioned killing as a means of punishment. In my home state of Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican and a Roman Catholic, has already signed 10 death warrants since taking office in January 2011. Corbett has said "the pro-life movement has to keep reminding everyone that these are living human beings." His opposition to abortion is commendable. But he is also on record as saying that as a district attorney he has "convinced a jury to seek the death penalty" and that he would never support a moratorium on capital punishment. Pennsylvania now has the fourth-highest amount of inmates on death row--219--more than twice that of Georgia.

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, a convert to Roman Catholicism, has "consistently upheld a pro-life standard" according to his campaign website. However, he sponsored the Drug Importer Death Penalty Act of 1997. He recently reiterated that leaders of drug rings deserve to be exterminated by the state. v

Many Catholic Democrats also fail to embrace the church's consistent ethic of life fully For example, Pennsylvania Sen. Robert Casey Jr. deserves credit for cosponsoring the Pregnant Women Support Act, which aims to reduce the number of abortions in the U.S. by 95 percent over 10 years. But he also believes that death is an appropriate "punishment" for "the most heinous crimes." His father, the late Gov. Bob Casey Sr., admirably took his case to limit abortions in Pennsylvania all the way to the Supreme Court. He may not have been a staunch supporter of capital punishment like his successor Tom Ridge, a Catholic and Republican, who vowed to execute death-row inmates swiftly; nonetheless, Casey Sr. passed legislation making lethal injection the state's modern-day guillotine and signed 21 death warrants.

The list could go on, from both sides of the aisle.

The problem is this position squarely violates Catholic teaching against the death penalty. This past October more than 375 Catholic theologians, scholars and social justice advocates issued "A Catholic Call to Abolish the Death Penalty" The signatories acknowledge that justice must always be served. But they maintain, as Blessed Pope John Paul II put it, that "the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil." The death penalty is "cruel and unnecessary" and must be abolished, the pontiff declared. …

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