Rome and the death penalty, again

execution tableSome of you will recall that we recently had a lively thread here at GetReligion on "cafeteria Catholicism" and Rome's teachings on the death penalty. The key point: Many journalists have asked why the Vatican keeps flirting with Eucharistic discipline for Catholic politicians who have openly rejected the church's teachings on abortion, but has not threatened to take action against those who favor -- to one degree or another -- the death penalty.

The question looming behind the headlines is this: Why is Rome leaning toward the GOP, by ranking abortion above the death penalty?

Now, please understand that one of my goals as a journalist is to find liberal religious voices who make liberals sweat and conservatives who do the same for those in their own camp. I am prejudiced in favor of candor, as well.

In that spirit, let me point readers toward a column by a conservative Catholic leader, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, titled "What does the Church teach on the death penalty?"

I realize that this archbishop's pro-Vatican stance will turn some readers off.

But Chaput has been saluted in some camps on the Catholic left because he has openly supported the stance taken by the late Pope John Paul II (as opposed to the stance that many insist the pope took on this issue). Thus, reporters have often quoted this statement from another Chaput column in the Denver Catholic Register last March.

... (The) deeper problem -- the death penalty itself -- remains with us. Here's a simple fact: If the defendant in a murder trial is financially well off and white, he has a much lower chance of receiving the death penalty than if he's poor or a person of color. In some states, the inability to hire a private attorney can amount to a death sentence. ...

Experience shows that, quite apart from the serious flaws built into the death penalty in too many states, capital punishment simply doesn't work as a deterrent. Nor does it heal or redress any wounds, because only forgiveness can do that. It does succeed though in answering violence with violence -- a violence wrapped in the piety of state approval, which implicates all of us as citizens in the taking of more lives.

Having read that column, those who favor and oppose the death penalty are ready to read what Chaput has to say in his current column. Neither side will cheer. Hopefully, those on both sides will read carefully. By the way, it does not appear that this Chaput column has drawn any coverage in the Colorado media. It should.13 1 Electric chair

People really need to read the whole thing, whether they agree with Chaput (and Rome) or not. Nevertheless, here is a key passage:

Catholic teaching on euthanasia, the death penalty, war, genocide and abortion are rooted in the same concern for the sanctity of the human person. But these different issues do not all have the same gravity or moral content. They are not equivalent.

War can sometimes be legitimate as a form of self-defense. The same can apply, in extraordinary circumstances, to the death penalty. But euthanasia is always an inexcusable attack on the weak. Genocide is always the premeditated murder of entire groups of people. And abortion is always a deliberate assault on a defenseless and innocent unborn child. It can never be justified. It is always -- and intrinsically -- gravely wrong.

What Catholic teaching on the death penalty does involve is this: a call to set aside unnecessary violence, including violence by the state, in the name of human dignity and building a culture of life.

Yes, there are no quote marks around the phrase "culture of life."

Yes, the archbishop ends by calling for the United States to end the death penalty.

But reporters must read the Catholic documents on these various issues -- especially the teachings on abortion and public life -- before we head into the next round of news coverage of Catholics, Communion and the ballot box. The goal is to cover the debates -- inside the church and outside -- as accurately as possible.

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