By John Norton
On our news blog — www.osvdailytake.com — we recently hosted an interesting (and passionate and civil) exchange regarding Catholic teaching on the death penalty .
The “hook” was the recent appeal by Bishop Paul S.Loverde of Arlington, Va., for commutation of the death sentence of convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad, the accused mastermind of the three-week killing spree in 2002 that terrorized the Washington area and left 10 people dead.
“In the needles of lethal injection, we see the manifestation of despair,” the bishop wrote in a column in his newspaper , the Arlington Catholic Herald. “And in this despair, in advocating the use of the death penalty, our society has moved beyond the legitimate judgment of crimes. Brothers and sisters, we are better than this. We are called to be more than slaves to despair; we are called to be heralds of hope!”
The bishop, of course, referred to the relevant passage in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.
“If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
“Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, 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 nonexistent’” (No. 2267).
So how do Catholics object?
First, they note, along with respected theologians like the late Jesuit Cardinal Avery Dulles, that this teaching doesn’t represent a change in doctrine but a prudential judgment that in our society applying the death penalty does more harm than good. But even Cardinal Dulles concluded a 2000 lecture on the death penalty: “I personally support this position.”
Second, one of our blog commenters said Church opposition to the death penalty was a naive ploy to curry favor with progressives in a ultimately failed attempt to gain support for abortion restrictions.
This analysis strikes me as utterly cynical — but I don’t doubt there was hope that the consistency in the Catholic position would help convert pro-abortion hearts.
“Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good,” Bishop Loverde reminds us.
Where do you stand? Write me at email@example.com.
Please note: Comments left online may be considered for publication in the Letters to the Editor section of OSV Newsweekly.
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