It takes a European to ask this, I know. And I tread gingerly here - at least by my own, largely ginger-free, standards.

Only, whatever happened to the death penalty as a moral priority for Catholics in the US presidential election? Why don’t they challenge their candidates on the issue?

It’s not as if the Church is ambiguous any more. There goes the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Cardinal Renato Martino, in Rome today, looking to the day in which the death penalty is "definitively eliminated" from the earth. He was speaking at a conference in Rome organised by the Catholic community of Sant’Egidio, which has spearheaded the international campaign to abolish the death penalty. Cardinal Martino left American Catholics no wiggle room in his description of the death penalty as "contrary to the great Christian values which sustain the universal rights of man".

It may not be as absolutely definitive as abortion and euthanasia, but the Church’s opposition to capital punishment (except when faced with the breakdown of civil order) remains one of the core elements of its pro-life teaching.

The truth is, "we don’t need to kill people in order to protect ourselves," Cardinal Francis George said after Palm Sunday Mass three years ago. "There are prisons for that, and we should trust them and allow people to live."

So how is it that in this election it barely comes up? Maybe because both McCain and Obama believe in it. McCain says: “I support the death penalty for heinous crimes in which the circumstances warrant capital punishment". Obama thinks the death penalty does not deter crime, and thinks greater efforts should be made not to put the innocent to death. But "I do believe that there are some crimes that are so heinous that they deserve the death penalty.”

When two candidates say something so similar, and using the same adjective ("heinous") you know there’s a dangerous degree of cultural and political collusion which conceals hidden victims. 

The American Catholic Church can claim great success in changing the views of its own members over the years. Most US Catholics used to be pro; now most are anti. Yet when it comes to holding the candidates’ feet to the fire on the issue, they are almost nowhere to be seen.

Frank McNeirney, co-founder and national coordinator of Catholics Against Capital Punishment, says he does not expect the death penalty to be much of an issue for Catholic voters in the 2008 elections. Even in 2004, when the Democratic candidate for president, John Kerry, opposed the death penalty, it was not a big factor in any of the debates.

There is something very chilling about this silence. And the Church colludes in the silence if it fails to make it more of an issue in this election. Abortion divides the parties, and is (rightly) the subject of heated political debate. But capital punishment is not a subject of debate at all.

Call me a European, but I think that’s serious.

Comments

Anonymous | 10/1/2008 - 12:11pm
Perhaps, the biggest limitation in the death penalty being a non-issue this election is the failure, outside of the religious community, of anti-death penalty advocates to frame their cause as a moral issue. All sorts of legitimate but incomplete reasons are given, including lack of crime deterrence, disproportion use on African Americans and the poor, etc. Whereas the question, I think, we ought to be asking is whether it is ever moral for a person (or in this case, the state) to deliberately kill a human life in a situation that does not constitute immediate self-defense. The Church, especially with the pontificate of JPII, has made it clear that the answer is almost always "no". Crystal, I'm not sure what Puritanism has to do with being pro-life. While there may be differing opinions on the death penalty among those who oppose abortion (though I think the silent majority among them opposes the death penalty), the basic premise of all pro-lifers is at least (but not only) all innocent life should be saved. After all, isn't that the basic argument you are using against war as well-- that so many innocent lives are killed? As to why the focus on abortion in the prolife movement in the U.S. There are a million annual abortions in the U.S., 40 million+ since Roe V. Wade. In comparison, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, the U.S. last year executed about 40 inmates. My answer to you would be that prolifers protest abortion more because they are concerned with the sheer magnitude of it. As a corollary to your statement, then, why aren't more death penalty opponents like yourself also not concerned about the innocent lives lost in abortion?
Anonymous | 10/2/2008 - 3:29am
Anne, You asked ... "Crystal, I'm not sure what Puritanism has to do with being pro-life. While there may be differing opinions on the death penalty among those who oppose abortion (though I think the silent majority among them opposes the death penalty), the basic premise of all pro-lifers is at least (but not only) all innocent life should be saved. After all, isn't that the basic argument you are using against war as well-- that so many innocent lives are killed?" * No, I'm not arguing that all innocent life should be saved. I'm arguing for the sanctity of all life, not just innocent life. The argument against war is not that innocent lives will be lost, but that lives will be lost, that war dehumanizes people, those on both sides, irregardless of their innocence or lack thereof. That's what I meant by Puritanism .... the idea that only the innocent are worth saving, that it's ok to kill people as long as they are "bad" people.
Anonymous | 10/1/2008 - 3:54pm
I think we are missing a very important point here and that is that ALL life is innocent or sacred. How someone lives out that life may in fact not be innocent or sacred, but the life that they have, in and of itself, IS innocent and sacred. It has to be if we truly hold to the notion that life begins at conception and ends with NATURAL death. And the last time I reflected on war and death penalty, neither of them seemed to be very natural to me.
Anonymous | 10/1/2008 - 3:54pm
How scandalous! Can it be that there are American Catholics who doubt the doctrine of the Infallibility of Renato Martino?
Anonymous | 9/30/2008 - 11:31am
Only, whatever happened to the death penalty as a moral priority for Catholics in the US presidential election? Those who call themselves 'pro-life' in the US seem to be mostly anti-abortion. Those who are anti-war and anti-death penalty, like me, are also often pro-choice. Perhaps there is some puritanical reason for this ..... pro-lifers feeling only innocent lives are worth saving?
Anonymous | 9/30/2008 - 10:49am
Thank you Mr. Ivereigh for this sober reminder of what it means to be completely pro-life AND a faithful Catholic.
Anonymous | 9/30/2008 - 10:34am
Incredible. Austen Ivereigh writes:"Abortion divides the parties, and is (rightly) the subject of heated political debate. But capital punishment is not a subject of debate at all." Ivereigh actuall believes that abortion is rightly the subject of debate for Catholics, but capital punishment is a settled debate, with no position but opposition to it. Is Ivereigh completely ignorant of the moral issues within the Catholic Church? Catholics in good standing can support the death penalty and even an increase in executions, if their own prudential judgement calls for it. Abortion is an intrinsic evil, under all circumstances.
Anonymous | 10/2/2008 - 3:41am
Anne, Sorry, forgot to answer your last question .... "As a corollary to your statement, then, why aren't more death penalty opponents like yourself also not concerned about the innocent lives lost in abortion?" * I can only speak for myself - It's not that I'm unconcerned, but I guess I'm not completely convinced that early fetuses are persons in the same way I know that people in wars or people in prisons are persons. Having said that, I'd prefer abortions didn't happen and I'm all for programs and strategies that will deter them, but not to the point of outlawing them.
Anonymous | 9/30/2008 - 10:48am
I don't expect any discussion about pit bulls either. As you may know, pit bulls cause many deaths -more than the death penalty- and mostly they are young children and babies. A pit bull in the neighborhood is virtually a death sentence for some neighborhood child. Maybe not your pit bull, maybe not my kid, but somebody's pit bull and somebody's child. Why isn't this an issue of discussion? In the city where I live there were three pit bull maulings in one week a few weeks ago. In the name of personal freedom and lack of social responsibility, local governments seem to ignore this very present danger.
Anonymous | 9/30/2008 - 9:51am
In 1997, the Church amended the 1992 Catechism to reflect Pope John Paul II's 1995 Evangelium Vitae.. Therein, the Pope finds that executions can be justified only when they are required "to defend society" and that "as a result of steady improvements . . . in the penal system that such cases are very rare if not practically non existent." This position is based upon the the criminal justice system, a secular consideration. Furthermore, the Pope made a rational error within his prudential judgement. That is, he failed to note that the death penalty is a greater defense and, thusly, protects innocents better than incarceration. He overlooked the obvious: living murderers harm and murder, again, executed murderers don't. No knowledgeable and honest party questions that the death penalty has the most extensive due process protections in criminal law. Therefore, actual innocents are more likely to be sentenced to life imprisonment and more likely to die in prison serving under that sentence, that it is that an actual innocent will be executed.   That is. logically, conclusive.   16 recent studies, inclusive of their defenses, find for death penalty deterrence. A surprise? No. Life is preferred over death. Death is feared more than life.   Studies which don't find for deterrence don't say no one is deterred, but that they couldn't measure those deterred. What prospect of a negative outcome doesn't deter some? There isn't one. There are, at least, four basic principles in Catholic teaching regarding punishment. 1.  Defense of society against the criminal. 2.  Rehabilitation of the criminal (including spiritual rehabilitation). 3.  Retribution, which is the reparation of the disorder caused by the criminal's transgression. 4.   Deterrence   The Pope excluded 3 of these elements and wrongly evaluated the fourth. In doing so, we know his review was incomplete and improper.