Is there a death penalty-sized hole in Catholicism's `seamless garment'?

September 29, 2011

(RNS) Is Catholic opposition to the death penalty losing traction as
opposition to abortion, gay marriage, contraception and other causes
become the defining "pro-life" issues for the American hierarchy?


That's what some Catholics are asking after the bishops' Pro-Life
Activities Committee on Monday (Sept. 26) released its message for
October's "Respect Life Month" campaign, which kicks off in thousands of
U.S. parishes on Oct. 2.


Galveston-Houston Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, who wrote the message,
focused tightly on the bishops' increasingly fierce fight with President
Obama over mandated contraception coverage, allegations of growing
discrimination against believers, concerns about excess embryos from
fertility treatments and long-term care of the infirm.


Conspicuously absent from the letter was any mention of the death
penalty.


That struck more than a few Catholics as odd, especially in the wake
of the controversial execution of Troy Davis in Georgia and because
DiNardo's own governor, Rick Perry, has unapologetically defended his
state's record of leading the nation in executions as he campaigns for
the White House.


Vincent Miller, a Catholic theologian at the University of Dayton,
called the omission "troubling."


"If contraception is a life issue," he said, "surely state-sponsored
execution is one."


Miller was one of 256 -- and counting -- Catholic scholars and
activists who have signed a petition calling for the abolition of the
death penalty in the wake of the Sept. 21 executions of Davis and Texas
white supremacist Lawrence Brewer. The petition cites church teaching,
as well as legal authorities and the latest research, to argue the
capital punishment is racially unjust as well as immoral.


Gerald J. Beyer, an associate professor of Christian social ethics
at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia and one of the authors of
the petition, said DiNardo's failure to mention the death penalty even
in passing was "a missed opportunity" at a critical moment.


Beyer said many signatories were "either angry or confused" by the
decision since the bishops -- and DiNardo in particular -- have spoken
out strongly in the past against the death penalty.


In fact, the petition cites statements from the bishops and the late
Pope John Paul II, who amended the church's catechism to virtually rule
out any justification for capital punishment. The current pope, Benedict
XVI, also asked Georgia officials not to execute Davis.


So why did the death penalty go missing from this year's "Respect
Life" statement?


One answer is politics. The membership of the U.S. Conference of
Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has grown increasingly conservative, both
culturally and theologically, in recent years (while theologians have
remained more liberal). At the same time, opposing abortion and gay
marriage have become such priorities for the bishops that they can
overshadow other aspects of Catholic teaching.


That conservative shift coincided with the election of Obama, who
generally supports abortion rights, and with a dramatic shift in public
opinion -- especially among rank-and-file Catholics -- toward approval
of gay relationships. The bishops feel under siege on both fronts, and
many prelates say the hierarchy would be better off with a Republican in
the White House despite a broad overlap between Democratic policies and
Catholic social teaching.


The bishops' anxiety about Obama was heightened when the
administration proposed regulations mandating that health insurance
plans cover contraception. Even Obama's Catholic allies on health care
reform say the proposed religious exemptions are inadequate; fighting
the proposal has dominated the bishops conference, even as the
exemptions are expected to be broadened significantly in final form.


DiNardo gave "special attention" to the insurance mandate because
"it poses an unprecedented challenge to the religious freedom that
allows the church to participate fully in public life on all these
issues," said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the USCCB.


Walsh noted that other "Respect Life Month" materials deal with the
death penalty, and said bishops not only protested the Davis execution
but also played a major role in campaigns to end the death penalty in
New Mexico, Illinois and New Jersey, as well as ongoing efforts in
Maryland, Connecticut and elsewhere.


But Catholics who oppose the death penalty say that message hasn't
reached everyone.


Just last weekend, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, whose
Catholicism is as prominent as his conservatism, told an audience at
Duquesne University Law School that he found no contradiction between
his religious views and his support of the death penalty.


"If I thought that Catholic doctrine held the death penalty to be
immoral, I would resign," Scalia said. "I could not be a part of a
system that imposes it."


While some might quibble with Scalia's doctrinal interpretation, his
comments point to a theological reason for the bishops to downplay the
death penalty: For most of its 2,000-year history, the Catholic Church
had few objections to capital punishment.


Efforts in recent decades to shift that teaching have been halting
and fraught with concerns that if the church changed its teaching on
this issue, it could be viewed as changing its mind on other doctrines.
As a result, Catholic teaching allows for the theoretical possibility of
a state execution, even as the justifications for the ultimate penalty
are "practically nonexistent."


That qualifier does allow death penalty supporters like Scalia a
loophole that he and others have exploited, while the church has
consistently taught there is no wiggle room on the sinfulness of
procuring or carrying out an abortion.


The other question is whether downplaying opposition to capital
punishment -- which is consistently supported by two-thirds of Americans
-- helps or hinders the larger pro-life cause, including opposition to
abortion.


For 30 years, there has been a lively debate in the Catholic Church
over emphasizing a "consistent ethic of life" (often referred to as the
"seamless garment" argument, articulated by the late Cardinal Joseph
Bernardin of Chicago) that refers to the responsibility to view
embryonic stem cell research, abortion, capital punishment and assisted
suicide as all interconnected threats to life.


When Bernardin popularized the concept in the 1980s, it sparked
controversy as some saw it as putting abortion on par with lesser
concerns. Others said the consistency helped shore up the church's
credibility against criticism that the bishops had become a single-issue
advocacy group.


Clearly that argument has not been settled, and the political and
cultural winds don't bode well for a resolution anytime soon.