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Death penalty decree could be quandary for US politicians

In this Aug. 5, 2018, file photo, Pope Francis delivers a blessing from his studio window overlooking St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. Pope Francis' decree that the death penalty is "inadmissible" in all cases could pose a dilemma for Roman Catholic politicians and judges in the United States. Some Catholic leaders in death penalty states have said they'll continue to support capital punishment, despite the change in church teaching. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia File)

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Pope Francis’ decree that the death penalty is “inadmissible” in all cases could pose a dilemma for Roman Catholic politicians and judges in the United States who are faced with whether to strictly follow the tenets of their faith or the rule of law.

Some Catholic leaders in death penalty states have said they’ll continue to support capital punishment. But experts say Francis’ change could shift political debates, loom over Supreme Court confirmation hearings and make it difficult for devout Catholic judges to uphold the law as written.

The question of whether or not Catholic political and judicial leaders would be sinning if they continue to support the death penalty is up for interpretation.

“It’s going to be a matter of conscience,” said the Rev. Peter Clark, director of the Institute of Clinical Bioethics at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “Judges may have to recuse themselves from many cases, if they truly think it’s in conflict with their conscience.”


RELATED: Pope Francis changes catechism to declare death penalty ‘inadmissible’


As with abortion, many Catholic political leaders and judges have been grappling with the death penalty for some time.

Previous church teachings said capital punishment was allowed in some cases if it was the “only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” That gave politicians a way to honor their faith and the law.

But on Thursday (Aug. 2), the Vatican said Francis changed church teaching to say capital punishment can never be sanctioned because it constitutes an “attack” on human dignity.

“In the past, it was acceptable to say that the Catholic Church had a position that the death penalty was acceptable in some circumstances. That’s no longer true now,” said Marci Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Program for Research on Religion. “I think it’s going to make it difficult for Catholic jurists to uphold the law as written.”


RELATED: Francis kills the death penalty for Roman Catholicism (COMMENTARY)


Thirty-one states in the U.S. allow the death penalty, including Nebraska, where the issue could soon become front-and-center: The state is scheduled to carry out an execution on Aug. 14, its first in more than two decades.

Sister Helen Prejean, the anti-death penalty campaigner whose ministry to a death row inmate inspired the book and film “Dead Man Walking,” asked on Twitter if Gov. Pete Ricketts, who she said has “pro-life values,” would heed the pope’s direction.

“If we say we are for dignity of all life, that includes innocent and guilty as well,” she told The Associated Press.

Ricketts, a Republican and Catholic, worked to reinstate capital punishment in his state after lawmakers abolished it in 2015. He said the pope’s decree doesn’t change his stance.

“While I respect the Pope’s perspective, capital punishment remains the will of the people and the law of the State of Nebraska,” Ricketts said in a statement. “It is an important tool to protect our corrections officers and public safety.”

The decree is also unlikely to slow the nation’s busiest death chamber in Texas, where Republican Gov. Greg Abbott — a Catholic — has previously said there was no conflict between his faith and support for the death penalty. His spokeswoman did not return messages about whether the pope’s statement might shift Abbott’s view. The next execution in Texas is set for Sept. 12.


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The church’s new teaching will likely feature prominently in the confirmation process for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who, if confirmed, would bring the number of Catholics on the bench to five. One former Catholic justice, the late Justice Antonin Scalia, famously said that he didn’t find the death penalty immoral and that any judge who did should resign.

Hamilton, the University of Pennsylvania professor, said the pope’s decree could be difficult for the devout — especially in a climate where evangelicals and Catholics are increasingly arguing that their faith controls everything they do.

“The difficulty in that kind of reasoning by a judge should be obvious in that they are supposed to interpret the law as given to them,” said Hamilton, who clerked for former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

There might be more leeway for politicians, who craft public policy according to what they think is right. Still, Hamilton said, it would be inappropriate for a governor to block all death row penalty cases based on his or her faith.


RELATED: Pope Francis pushes Catholics to actively oppose the death penalty (COMMENTARY)


Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Catholic and a Republican, said his support for the death penalty hasn’t wavered. He criticized the pope’s leadership, saying Francis has a “socialist bent” and his statement doesn’t change church doctrine.

“He wants to comment on the United States’ judicial system, a system that is by far the best, while ignoring the problems of all the other judicial systems around the world,” Landry said.

A spokesman for Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards did not return messages seeking comment. Edwards is also Catholic, and Landry has speculated that the governor has deliberately dragged his feet on executions: A judge recently barred Louisiana from carrying out any death sentences until mid-2019, at Edwards’ request, after the governor cited trouble obtaining lethal drugs.

The issue could also create interesting political shifts. Robert Vischer, dean of the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, noted that Republicans almost uniformly support the death penalty and Democrats almost uniformly support the legal right to abortion.

“Previously more conservative leaders have been able to call out Catholic politicians for not abiding by their own church’s teaching,” he said. “Now it’s going to go in both directions.”

(Associated Press writers Nicole Winfield in Rome; Paul J. Weber in Houston; Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, La.; and Grant Schulte in Lincoln, Neb., contributed to this report.)

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Amy Forliti

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  • This is not going to be an issue for conservative politicians. The reason being that conservative Catholic bishops aren’t going to raise a huge stink and publicly withhold communion from politicians who support capital punishment the way they did with politicians who support abortion. They just aren’t. So there will be no pressure emanating from the Catholic Right to tow the new party line as directed by the “liberal” pope whom they despise, so the pressure’s off. Besides which, capital punishment is hardly going to become a political wedge issue for conservatives the way gay marriage and abortion have been. There are simply too many other pressing issues at hand demanding attention for upcoming elections. Sad to say, but conservative religious people just don’t have the same “pro-life” sentiments for hardened criminals that they do for fetuses. Their “pro-life” sentiments vary depending on the “worthiness” of the person involved. Therefore, this is going nowhere.

  • “The question of whether or not Catholic political and judicial leaders
    would be sinning if they continue to support the death penalty is up for
    interpretation.”

    No, Amy, it is not.

    “But on Thursday (Aug. 2), the Vatican said Francis changed church teaching to say capital punishment can never be sanctioned because it constitutes an ‘attack’ on human dignity.”

    No, Amy, he did not change “church teaching”. Catholic teaching on the death penalty is settled, just like its teaching on abortion and euthanasia, and has been for nearly 2,000 years.

    What Francis offered was HIS prudential judgment on whether the conditions under which the death penalty can be levied to protect society exist. But the final decisions rests with the legitimate civil authority, which he cannot usurp.

    It bears the same force as advice or a consideration its predecessor explained in 2004:

    https://www.ewtn.com/library/curia/cdfworthycom.htm

    “Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”

    That abortion and euthanasia are intrinsically immoral is a teaching.

    The Pontiff’s personal opinion on whether the death penalty should not be imposed is not.

    it should, however, be given careful due consideration.

  • The bishops can’t withhold communion from politicians who support capital punishment they way they should but haven’t from politicians who support abortion.

    The reason why is opinion is NOT a teaching:

    https://www.ewtn.com/library/curia/cdfworthycom.htm

    “Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”

    That abortion and euthanasia are intrinsically immoral is a teaching.

    That the death penalty should not be imposed is not.

  • You said that the Pope is the Church’s supreme legislator and that he changed the Catechism. Isn’t the Catechism a compendium of Catholic doctrine? Does it also contain pontifical “opinions”? If so, how do you tell the difference?

  • As these discussions illustrate, you can’t get there unless you have a map.

    No, the Catechism is NOT a compendium of Catholic doctrine.

    It a compendium of doctrine, disciplines, explanatory material, and opinions. That is why it is heavily footnoted – you need to go to the source to determine its authority, e.g.:

    http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/prologue.htm#II

    It is also important to note that the Christian (and the Catholics belief this) position is that there was single revelation which began as described in the Bible with the pre-Covenant such as the Noahide laws, through the Covenant, to the New Covenant, and that this revelation ended with the death of the last Apostle.

    This means that the Catholic Church does not, as does the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints (and apparently the Episcopal Church), believe that new revelation is taking place.

    The “cheat sheet” issued June 29, 1998, by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith “Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio Fidei” is probably the best short summary of what is teaching, but because of the terminology it is tough sledding on a single read, and on multiple reads without some background.

    https://www.ewtn.com/library/curia/cdfadtu.htm

  • Catholic politicians have learned that there is no longer any penalty for supporting policies that conflict with Church teaching. Most of the responsibility for that goes to the American bishops who, first, got in bed with the Evangelical Right to oppose abortion, and then spent the rest of their political capital opposing one losing piece of social legislation after another.

    Whatever clout the Catholic Church once had at the ballot box is long gone, and candidates of both parties know it.

  • Since we’re discussing the Pontiff’s recent revision of the Catechism rather than Church teaching, which btw precludes supporting abortion, your point is not well taken.

    Had the bishops narrowed their focus to actual teaching, and perhaps excommunicated a few politicians who voted for abortion, rather than spreading themselves across a plethora of ill-defined and poorly supported “social issues” such as immigration on which Catholics could in good conscience disagree, you might actually have a point.

    But that’s not what happened, nor did they get “in bed with the Evangelical Right”, whatever that is.

  • “That the death penalty should not be imposed is not [a teaching].”

    Now it is.

    Francis was not giving his “opinion”. He revised official RC doctrine on capital punishment by ordering a revision to CCC-2267. The death penalty, like abortion and euthanasia, is now considered intrinsically, i.e., inherently, evil. It can never be morally justified. (It should be noted that the church’s use of “intrinsically evil” does not address the moral gravity of a matter. Infallible or not, the revised doctrine likely falls into the same category as that for abortion and euthanasia.)

    So the question now becomes, Will Catholics *receive* this change in official teaching? We know that most Catholics, fifty years later, have not received Paul VI’s prohibition of artificial birth control issued in 1968. If a doctrine is not received, it may be the proposal needs more time and/or better articulation for eventual reception, or it may be the proposed teaching was never legitimate (or infallible, as the case may be) in the first place. Ultimately, all doctrine is proposed for ecclesial reception. Canon law and church history both reinforce this observation.

    The previous wording of CCC-2267 allowed for use of the death penalty “when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.” JPII observed at the time that justification for the death penalty was “very rare, if not practically non-existent” (Evangelium vitae 56). His teaching, therefore, applied to countries with prison systems that could reasonably be expected to thwart escape.

    When JPII promulgated his CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH in 1997, he wrote, “The Church now has at her disposal this new, authoritative exposition of the one and perennial apostolic faith, and it will serve as a ‘valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion’ and as a ‘sure norm for teaching the faith,’ as well as a ‘sure and authentic reference text’ for preparing local catechisms (cf. Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum, no. 4).” This is the same catechism that, in CCC-1776 through 1802, affirms supremacy of conscience. Thus, there will be Catholics who, like you, condemn abortion and euthanasia but support use of the death penalty.

  • “No, the Catechism is NOT a compendium of Catholic doctrine.”

    Baloney, it most surely is a compendium of Catholic doctrine.

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