Catholics and the Politics of the Death Penalty

Deal W. Hudson
Published August 12, 2010

On January 29, the Catholic Mobilizing Network to End the Death Penalty (CMN) was launched. According to its executive director, Karen Clifton, the CMN was created “with the encouragement of the USCCB.”

The support of the bishops’ conference is substantial. The Coordinating Committee includes both Kathy Saile, the director of the Office of Domestic Concerns, and John Carr, the executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development. The organization’s Web site carries the logo of the USCCB and contains welcome videos from Archbishop Edwin O’Brien of Baltimore and Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin.

As most Catholics know, Church teaching on the death penalty developed under the leadership of Pope John Paul II. His encyclical Evangelium Vitae did not rule out use of the death penalty altogether, as some people think, but stated it should be used only “in cases of absolute necessity,” adding “such cases are rare, if practically non-existent” (56). For John Paul, the dignity of the human person demanded that Catholics look for “bloodless means” to protect the common good from the threat of those who are guilty of taking innocent human life.

Thus, there’s no avoiding the fact that political arguments about the death penalty are going to play a role in the pro-life debate. Clifton makes this point in her article written for the Catholic Conference for Kentucky:

To have a consistent ethic of life, we need to deliberate and come to understand that all life is precious to God, even those guilty of heinous crimes. As Catholics we are called to be consistently Pro-Life.

The “seamless garment” argument used by Clifton, of course, raises questions about what those connected with the Catholic Mobilizing Network will be saying about the pro-life position of politicians. As everyone knows too well, this version of Catholic social teaching has been used for more than four decades to provide cover for Catholic politicians who do not oppose abortion.

Clifton herself does not seem disposed to raise the bar very high when it comes to describing a politician as pro-life. Her name can be found on a petition on theCatholic Democrats‘ Web site endorsing then-candidate Sen. Barack Obama as “pro-life.”

The statement signed at the time by Clifton says the following:

Looking through the lens of Catholic Social Teaching, Senator Obama has spent his entire career striving for the common good. He supports health care programs that will cover all Americans, a living wage for working families, and solutions that allow distressed families to stay in their homes. And rather than trying to overturn Roe v. Wade, an ineffective strategy for 40 years, Senator Obama will reduce abortions. How? By promoting health care for pregnant women and better infant care, day care and job training. In fact, data has shown that social and education programs actually reduce abortions.

Clifton was quoted on the NETWORK Web site saying she got the idea for the CMN at a conference sponsored by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. (See my article on the conference, “The Catholic Left Meets in Philadelphia.”) Catholics in Alliance predictably supported Obama, having received start-up money from a foundation funded by the pro-abortion, anti-Catholic George Soros.

Clifton reports on NETWORK that CMN has “created one hour workshops for parishes… and is finishing up a 6 week course on the Sanctity of Life.” I sent Clifton an e-mail asking if she still considered Obama pro-life, but had not heard back from her by press time.

The stated purpose of Clifton’s organization is to “end the death penalty” by educating “the lay community through our courses on the Church’s teachings on the death penalty” and facilitating “respectful and informed discourse within the Catholic community and the community at large.”

These are all admirable goals, but the obvious caveat is how the effort of CMN will result in applying the pro-life label to politicians who support abortion but oppose the death penalty. Conversely, will CMN staff argue that members of Congress with a 100 percent pro-life voting record are not really pro-life if they do not want to end the death penalty?

This kind of misapplied moral equivalency was the hallmark of the Catholic effort for Obama during the campaign. It’s implicit in the statement endorsing Obama signed by Clifton herself.

Most of the pseudo-equivalency arguments about a candidate’s pro-life credentials during the 2008 campaign were based upon their support for the Iraq War. With Obama’s escalation of the war in Afghanistan, this kind of argument will no longer work. Let’s hope the work of CMN is not used to supply the missing leverage to bolster the pro-life credentials of abortion supporters or diminish those who oppose it.

Any arguments about the sanctity of life, after all, make no sense if they don’t arise from the obligation of protecting the not-yet-born.

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