where credit is due

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles ) | Nov 16, 2005

The US bishops' conference has called for an end to the use of the death penalty in America.

You may agree with the bishops on this issue, or you may disagree.

And that's just the point.

Many liberal politicians have used the bishops' position on capital punishment for leverage, saying that although they disagree with the Church on some issues (abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia), they agree on others (execution, welfare spending). That's predictable; you can always expect politicians to try to justify their stands. What's shameful is that bishops have sometimes promoted the same sort of thinking, with election-year statements that provide an undifferentiated checklist of issues-- some vitally important, some mundane-- on which candidates should be judged, and issuing statements to the effect that no candidate is "with the Church" on every issue.

The truth-- which every intelligent Catholic should know, and every conscientious bishop should proclaim-- is that not all issues are equally important. Some are matters of life and death; others are matters of convenience and taste. Some (like abortion) are issues of moral principle, on which the Church teaches authoritatively; others (like capital punishment) are issues of prudential judgment, on which thoughtful Catholics may disagree.

This week, at least, USCCB representatives were preserving that distinction. Brooklyn's Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio led the charge for the statement against capital punishment, but told reporters that reasonable Catholics might disagree.

The Boston Globe invariably sides with Catholic politicians who support legal abortion and oppose capital punishment; the paper has done its editorial utmost to blur the distinction between the levels of Church teaching authority on the two issues. Yet a Globe reporter went into a press conference with Bishop DiMarzio yesterday, and came out to write:

The bishops drew a strong distinction between the church's stance on capital punishment and its absolute opposition to abortion and euthanasia, stating that the death penalty was an issue on which 'people of good will can disagree."
At a news conference following the passage of the statement, DiMarzio said 'there would not even be a question of refusing Communion" to Catholic politicians who advocate or enforce the death penalty.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: John J Plick - Nov. 19, 2005 8:34 AM ET USA

    I am so glad that the Bishops, who often display blatant cowardice with regard to the abortion issue, have given the rest of us "the right" to dissent on the death penalty.

  • Posted by: - Nov. 17, 2005 5:42 PM ET USA

    Is it OK to be against Capital Punishment AND abortion?

  • Posted by: - Nov. 16, 2005 5:39 PM ET USA

    Thank you Didymus. I do remember that case in Texas. If a TEXAS prison cant hold them, what can? One other point- for you sincere opponents of the death penalty, I know how you can win on this issue politically- Get on the side of stricter sentencing and life without possibility of parole sentences. When sentences get tough, support for the death penalty goes down. So tell me, why are all the death penalty activists always against strict sentencing?

  • Posted by: Sterling - Nov. 16, 2005 5:09 PM ET USA

    Back in fifth grade, if I had received an exam asking if the Catholic faith said the death penalty was permissable in the right circumstances and answered, "Yes," I would have gotten that answer right. Can anyone think of anything in our faith - in history - that has changed like this? Instead of clarifying our pro-life arguments, the bishops' harping on the death penalty is used as "evidence" of hypocricy.

  • Posted by: - Nov. 16, 2005 11:48 AM ET USA

    There is a vast, moral distinction between the state (which is, after all, the people in our republic) executing a John Wayne Gacy after giving him more than sufficient time to appeal his case as well as to engage himself in his oil paintings...and the Roe Versus Wade execution of 40 million innocent pre-born infants none of whom has even a breath of appeal given to them. The latter case is a disgusting, hellish abomination.

  • Posted by: - Nov. 16, 2005 11:20 AM ET USA

    From adjudication to execution in this country runs between 8 & 10 years. More than enough time, I would think, to redeem oneself. I have read and thoughtfully/prayerfully considered the CCC on this issue. Until such time, however, as it must be "firmly believed", I must respectfully demur. (BTW, does anyone remember the Texas case a few years ago when some death row guys broke out and killed a cop before they were caught?)

  • Posted by: R. Spanier (Catholic Canadian) - Nov. 16, 2005 10:16 AM ET USA

    If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means.....Today….the possibilities which the state has… by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically non-existent.’ (CCC2267)

  • Posted by: - Nov. 16, 2005 9:56 AM ET USA

    This is really a question of emphasis. Was the statement issued for political reasons -- to assuage liberal Democratic politicos who have been stung by the Church's opposition to abortion? Or was it based on true adherence to the Gospel of life? If the latter, why have the bishops not unanimously pronounced that a politician cannot support abortion "rights" and remain a Catholic in good standing? Or is their statement a prelude to a tougher stand on abortion? Time will tell.