Precinct 333

Monday, March 21, 2005

Bishops To Campaign Against Death Penalty

One of the issues raised during the 2004 presidential race was John Kerry’s support for legal abortion in the face of unwavering Catholic opposition to the taking of unborn life. One criticism made by Kerry supporters was that they did not apply the same standard to President Bush on the death penalty. Well, now the bishops are going to take a much more active stand on the death penalty.

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, who played a leading role in developing the new campaign, said the bishops sense that public opinion is shifting against capital punishment, partly because genetic testing has proved that scores of death-row inmates were wrongfully convicted.

"I think the DNA evidence has really shaken up people," McCarrick said. "I think this is a moment, a very special moment, where we can talk about this and people are ready to listen."

The campaign will be formally announced today in Washington and then will move to the state and local level, using all the tools of persuasion at the church's disposal, said John Carr, a staff member of the bishops' conference who will play a coordinating role.

"We'll be filing briefs in court cases, talking with the people who publish textbooks in Catholic schools, using church bulletins, encouraging homilies and addressing legislation through state Catholic conferences," he said. "The death penalty will end in this country in several ways -- legislation, judges' decisions and decisions by individual prosecutors and jurors -- and we'll be seeking all of those."

There will be opposition to this from different quarters. Evangelicals tend to support the death penalty, as do many conservative Catholics. Even many of those in the prolife movement who oppose the death penalty consider it to be an issue that needs to take a backseat to the protection of innocent life.

Oh, and one more minor detail for those who chastised the bishops for not attacking Bush on the death penalty.

McCarrick, like Hahn, noted that Article 2267 of the Catholic catechism, an authoritative compendium of church teaching, says the church "does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives" against a criminal. But the catechism also quotes John Paul II as saying that today, cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent."

Because of the nuance in the church's teaching, McCarrick said, the bishops will not argue that capital punishment is inherently immoral. "Our job is to try to persuade our Catholic people and everybody of good will that the death penalty in America at this time is not necessary, it's not useful and it's not good," he said.

In other words, the teaching on the death penalty is not of a kind with that on abortion, and people of good faith can differ on whether or not it is justified today in America without going against the teaching of the Church. In short, disagreement with the bishops on this point cannot be seen as morally equivalent to support for abortion.


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