“No one is pro-life if they support the death penalty. No one.”
So said the com-box warrior under my most recent pro-life article here at CatholicVote.
This assertion has become all too common among some Catholics, and we know why: They don’t really care about the child in the womb or the inmate on death row. To cite Rene Girard, they are victimists—using feigned concern for victims to gain political or economic power.
There are two types of people who do this: Those who don’t know the teaching of the Church; and those who share some lesser priority with politicians who do not support legal protection from violence for the child in the womb, and want to justify voting for them.
In my last piece I cited Catholic teaching in support of my stance against abortion. Here, with a nod to the com-box warrior, I will explain my stance in support of a moratorium on the death penalty.
The Church’s Teaching
When it comes to violence against the child in the womb, the teaching of the Church could not be clearer. According to Paragraph 2271 of the Catechism,
Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law.
On the other hand, Paragraph 2267 is equally clear about the death penalty:
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. [Emphasis added]
The Church lays out two criteria for reasoning on this issue: The common good, and the dignity of the human person. The Church even acknowledges that in modern circumstances, the death penalty is rarely an “absolute necessity.” That’s why the Catechism prefaces this comment with an important word: “Today.” [Emphasis added]
This makes perfect sense. Today, here and now, because of our wealth, technology, and ability to imprison people for extended periods of time (and thus offer them the chance of repentance), it is more possible than ever to forgo the death penalty for the sake of the common good and the dignity of the human person.
This is a prudent argument. But it isn’t absolute, and it assumes a wealthy, developed, modern society that, even today, not all countries enjoy.
But imagine if you lived in ancient, medieval, or any other pre-modern time, when neither the technology nor the wealth needed to provide long term accommodations for violent prisoners existed. The common good and the dignity of the human persons (i.e. actual and would-be victims of violent crime) required the elimination of such violent men.
Therefore, the Church recognizes a crucial distinction: Whereas violence against the innocent unborn child is always an intrinsic moral evil, regardless of time, circumstance, and context, the death penalty, by contrast, is subject to the prudential judgment of governing authorities.
Governments that impose the death penalty are sometimes in the right, and sometimes in the wrong. Governments that recognize a “right” to abortion are always in the wrong, because it is always a violation of both the common good, and the dignity of the human person.
But many Catholics who favor or profit from the social welfare state equate what the Church says is not equal in order to justify their vote for politicians who work to expand the welfare state, but abandon the child in the womb to violence. The child in the womb is an obstacle to be cleared on the backs of death row inmates in support of the perceived economic benefit of these victimists.
I support legal protection from violence for the child in the womb and also support a moratorium on capital punishment in the United States. While capital punishment is theoretically acceptable, I’ve called for clemency from governing authorities on multiple occasions.
I personally lobbied former Texas Governor Rick Perry to limit the use of the death penalty, and brought several inmates to his attention. I understand, and affirm, that there are many instances when the death penalty is against the common good, as well as the dignity of the human person.
I’ve been in the trenches, and have labored for a moratorium on the death penalty—but I don’t distort Church teaching to do so. I don’t pretend that the death penalty, which is wrong on some occasions, is the same as abortion, which is wrong on all occasions.
Faithful to Church Teaching
But we are still faced with a few brute facts:
As of now, only 31 states have the death penalty. All 50 have legalized violence against the unborn child.
As of July 2017, approximately 1,500 Americans have been executed since 1976. Since 1973, when the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, there has never been a single year where the number of children killed in the womb was less than hundreds of thousands.
Until 1995, it was over one million children per year. As recently as 2014, there were nearly 700,000 abortions.
Even if inflicting lethal violence on the innocent unborn and the death penalty were equally evil, it is crystal clear which is the greater of those two evils.
Those are the facts. The numbers are clear. So is Church teaching. Distorting that teaching puts Catholics in a no-win situation, namely, arguing that violence against the unborn and the death penalty are both intrinsic moral evils.
That is an argument we will always lose, and it distracts us from the argument we can actually win—that a moratorium on the death penalty is both rational and compatible with Church teaching.
At the end of the day, this is about protecting the most vulnerable members of the human family. The Church that has withstood 2,000 years of pagan emperors, tyrannical kings, Führers, and Big Brothers is deserving of our trust.