Articles of Faith: Is the Death Penalty in Keeping with Catholic Doctrine (and Should Scalia Resign)?

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Mike Haskey / Columbus Ledger-Enquirer / MCT / Landov

Supporters of Troy Davis gather across the road from a prison in Jackson, Georgia, Sept. 21, 2011.

Updated, 10:36 a.m.

September has been execution season in the United States. In the past month, Texas executed two prisoners, Florida and Alabama each sent an inmate to the death chamber, and in Georgia, the controversial lethal injection of Troy Davis went forward despite last-minute consideration of his case by the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices did halt the scheduled executions of two other Texas inmates, and Republican Governor John Kasich commuted the death sentence of an Ohio prisoner.

The issue has even reentered the realm of presidential politics, after all but disappearing for several decades. In his first debate with fellow GOP contenders, Texas Rick Perry fielded a question about the record number of executions over which he has presided as governor (234 at the time of the debate, 236 now). “Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?” asked moderator Brian Williams. “I’ve never struggled with that at all,” was Perry’s response, delivered to an approving audience of conservatives who applauded the number of Texas executions.

But if Perry hasn’t struggled with the application of the death penalty, what about the Catholic justices who hold the power to stop a man’s execution or allow the state to kill him? Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia addressed that question earlier this week in a speech at a Catholic law school in Pittsburgh. “If I thought that Catholic doctrine held the death penalty to be immoral,” said Scalia, “I would resign. I could not be a part of a system that imposes it.”

Of course, Scalia has not given up his seat on the high court. But his defense of capital punishment rests on the teeniest of loopholes in modern Catholic teaching about the practice.

In recent decades, conservative Catholics–and particularly Catholic Republican politicians–have argued that the theological imperative to oppose abortion is stronger than any teaching against the death penalty. And they’re right that the longstanding position of the Church has been that a state should have the right to use capital punishment in order to protect society. However, in the 1990s, the Church took the extremely rare step of revising the catechism to reflect the view, put forth most forcefully by Pope John Paul II, that modern states have so many other ways of protecting their citizens that “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity” are, in John Paul’s words, “very rare, if not practically non-existent.

So Scalia’s insistence that the Catholic Church does not consider capital punishment immoral rests on the word “practically” in the Church’s catechism. The writings and speeches of John Paul left no doubt that the Pope viewed the death penalty as immoral and unjustified, especially in the United States. He specifically implored American Catholics to work to end the use of the death penalty, calling the punishment “cruel and unnecessary.” In other similarly clear terms, John Paul asserted that “the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.”

The Catholic Church’s advocacy against capital punishment has not waned since John Paul’s death. Catholic bishops in Georgia urged the state to pardon Troy Davis, and an envoy of Pope Benedict XVI sent a letter encouraging officials to commute Davis’ sentence and “recognize the sacredness of all human life.” Nor have Church leaders only spoken out in controversial cases. Catholic bishops have played leading roles in ending the death penalty’s use in Illinois, New Mexico and New Jersey, and continue to call for its abolition in other states. Most recently, more than 275 Catholic theologians and scholars have signed “A Catholic Call to Abolish the Death Penalty” in the United States.

Yet Catholic public opinion on the death penalty varies little from the general public. According to Pew Research Center surveys, 62% of Americans overall support capital punishment, as do 60% of Catholics. When the population is limited to white Catholics, support for the death penalty actually rises above the national average to 68%. And no wonder, with such influential Catholics as Justice Scalia falling into that 68%.

Writing in response to Scalia’s comments this week, John Gehring of the progressive group Faith in Public Life questioned whether Catholic leaders would push back against Scalia‘s portrayal of the Catholic position on capital punishment as they have done when liberal political leaders misstate Church teaching on abortion. “I would like to see at least one bishop stand up and challenge Justice Scalia’s comments in the same way that the chairmen of the U.S. bishops’ pro-life and doctrine committees pounced on then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a few years ago when she played armchair theologian and flubbed Church teaching on abortion during a nationally televised interview,” wrote Gehring.

Indeed, U.S. Catholic leaders have placed special emphasis on the responsibility of high-profile Catholics to accurately represent Church teachings. Particularly when it comes to abortion, they call it a “scandal” when such Catholics fail in this regard and thus risk misleading their co-religionists. But as an increasing number of death row inmates are exonerated and questions swirl about the possibility that states have executed innocent individuals, there’s no reason abortion should receive more attention in this regard than abolition of the death penalty. After all, if the problem with abortion is the taking of innocent life, than the application–or mis-application–of the death penalty violates the same principle.

As a doctrinal matter, the U.S. bishops don’t disagree. But as a political matter, they continue to give the death penalty the cold shoulder, declining to elevate the issue as a core part of their teaching or advocacy. October is “Respect for Life” Month in Catholic parishes around the country, but the bishops’ official statement makes no mention of lives taken by the death penalty. Not long ago, the newly-appointed Archbishop of Philadelphia Charles Chaput–one of the leading conservatives in the bishops conference–used the occasion of his installation to go after “cafeteria Catholics” who pick and choose with Catholic teachings to follow. “If they don’t believe what the church teaches,” said Chaput, “they’re not really Catholic.” Those are tough words. But Justice Scalia can safely assume they don’t apply to him.

Amy Sullivan is a contributing writer at TIME, and author of the book The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap (Scribner, 2008). Articles of Faith, her column on the intersection of religion and politics, appears on every Friday.