Catholicism and the death penalty
Story by Chris Graham
The death penalty has become the central issue in the 2005 Virginia governor’s race – and by extension, so has the view of the Catholic church toward the death penalty.
Democratic Party gubernatorial candidate Tim Kaine, a Catholic, has been under fire since the outset of his race against Republican Jerry Kilgore for his opposition to the death penalty – which Kaine has said repeatedly is faith-based.
That implies, of course, that those who practice Catholicism are in agreement on the death-penalty issue – which, as it turns out, may or may not be the case.
“The Catholic church is very clear on abortion, much more clear than it is on the death penalty,” said Bill Donohue, the president of the New York City-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.
“Abortion is always to be prohibited, because it ineluctably results in the death of an innocent child. And there are no circumstances where that can be countenanced. The Catholic church today is presumptively opposed to the death penalty, meaning that in most instances it is opposed to the death penalty. But it is a rebuttable presumption,” Donohue told The Augusta Free Press.
The most definitive statement of the church’s position on the death penalty came from the late Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae, published in 1995, in which the pontiff wrote that execution of criminals was only appropriate “in cases of absolute necessity, in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.”
“Today, however, as a result of steady immprovement in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically nonexistent,” John Paul wrote.
“This position has been developing over time,” said Gerald Fogarty, a professor of Catholic theology at the University of Virginia.
“Here you have a situation where there hadn’t been a clear papal statement until then, but gradually, you have seen the American bishops in this country coming out more and more in support of this position,” Fogarty told the AFP.
“Traditionally, capital punishment was acceptable,” Fogarty said. “The reason for it being accepted was that a person convicted was seen as a danger to society. So by an extension of your right to self-defense, the state could take a life.
“John Paul II went on to say that it was extremely difficult to imagine when such circumstances could be fulfilled,” Fogarty said.
“That’s been a development of doctrine within the Catholic church. And many theologians would still argue that this is only an opinion, that it’s not yet doctrine. And it’s true, it’s not defined,” Fogarty said.
This could be why public-opinion surveys show that upwards of 60 percent of Catholics support the death penalty – despite John Paul’s statement on the issue.
“These are good, knowledgeable Catholics. And they understand that it’s absolutely no requirement of their faith to oppose the death penalty. Even Pope John Paul II, in his opposition to the death penalty, made clear that was his own personal prudential judgment,” said Dudley Sharp, the president of the Houston, Texas,-based Justice Matters, a death-penalty advocacy group.
“So Tim Kaine can’t say it’s only because of my faith,” Sharp told the AFP. “I think Kaine’s also opposed to abortion. As a faithful Catholic, he doesn’t have any choice on abortion. It’s church doctrine that that’s always wrong in every circumstance without exception. The death penalty is not remotely in the same category as abortion. And so just as a matter of faith, it’s not a requirement of faith to be opposed to the death penalty.”
Donohue takes another view on the Kaine issue.
“It’s not really inconsistent for a Catholic politician running for office saying that I accept the church’s strictures on the death penalty, and that’s why I’m opposed to the death penalty, provided that he’s honest enough to say that there needs to be a little asterisk there, namely, that if there was some terrorist threat to this country, and we thought that the only way that we could extract information might be to either torture a suspected terrorist, it might be necessary in those kinds of circumstances,” Donohue said.
“The Catholic church does leave the door open, does provide some wiggle room, when it comes to issues involving national security,” Donohue said. “So that while it’s OK to say that the Catholic church is for the most part against the death penalty, it is wrong, as Sister Helen Prejean was wrong when she wrote in The New York Times last year, to say that the Catholic church is as totally opposed to the death penalty as it is abortion. That’s a pure lie.
“The Catholic church to this day does not have an absolute prohibition of the death penalty,” Donohue said. “What John Paul II did do is that he narrowed for Catholics the circumstances in which it could be considered to be appropriate. So that things are moving more in the direction of the anti-death-penalty position, but it is not, nor will it ever be, in my estimation, an absolute prohibition as you do see with abortion.
“So as long as people recognize that the Catholic church does in fact have a moral hierarchy with abortion as the least favorite, and then death penalty second, that would be OK by me,” Donohue said.