On the Catholic Press Statement Against Capital Punishment


March 10, 2015

Four Catholic publications—two liberal and two conservative—issued a joint statement last week calling for the abolition of the death penalty. Even though the statement generated much unproductive controversy in the Catholic blogosphere, it also presents an opportunity for all sides to unite against a growing threat to innocent human life.

Shea and Fisher React to Statement Critics
Orthodox-but-not-conservative Catholic bloggers Mark Shea and Simcha Fisher are having their usual rip-roaring good time mocking the “True Catholic” misfits who post disagreeable comments in their comboxes.

Yes, these Catholic bloggers may be right about their combox critics. There are goofballs out there who falsely claim to speak for the faith who attack Shea and Fisher uncharitably. But do these columnists really think the right response is to speak for the faith by attacking them uncharitably in return? And “they had it coming” isn’t the right answer. At the risk of bringing their wrath down on me too, may I ever so gently suggest that these bloggers are slumming? Like those critics they criticize, Shea and Fisher drive up traffic by stirring up their own Amen corner. And in their case, they do so by taking aim at ridiculously easy targets in the comboxes, while they unfairly use them to attack conservative Catholics in general.

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Believe it or not, there are conservative Catholics who know that loyalty to God comes first, that “politics is penultimate”—that is, it is not the final, or most important, thing. And not just Catholics. In fact, when I was moving from Left to Right as a twenty-something in the 1990s, one of the things that hastened me along was an openness to Church teachings among political conservatives that I never saw among liberals. National Review ran a cover article against the death penalty in the wake of St. John Paul II’s last visit to the U.S.; George Will ran a similar column; Cardinal Dulles in First Things laid out the evidence for the death penalty and then explained why contemporary Church teaching should be followed anyway; and conservative opinion-makers openly questioned George W. Bush’s support for it during the 2000 campaign. (Can you imagine The Nation or The New Yorker doing something similar on abortion? Not a chance.)

Now, I understand that a lot has happened since then. These bloggers now contend with what they call “The Thing That Used to Be Conservatism.” And I may or may not agree with them about that on other issues. But on the death penalty, they are mistaken to assume that the misfits in their comboxes speak for every conservative Catholic.

The Conservative Catholic Response
Conservatives Catholics who support the death penalty are scoffing at the joint statement and are asking when Our Sunday Visitor and National Catholic Register will get America Magazine and National Catholic Reporter to sign on to a statement against abortion or same-sex “marriage.”

I sympathize with them. I oppose the death penalty myself, but if I understand the teaching correctly, the Church’s current position against it is based on historical conditions: that it is supposedly not needed in the modern era because violent criminals can be safely kept from the public. This means it is not required in every case and Catholics are not technically in dissent by supporting the death penalty in principle.

But the rhetorical call for a joint statement on abortion or same-sex “marriage” is almost as snarky as the Catholic bloggers’ digs at their combox trolls. I understand that it is never going to happen, that critics know this and that they are just pointing out that two of the publications are not faithfully Catholic and that joint statements of this kind are only possible when they benefit the Left. But may I recommend that critics instead use this opportunity to call for a joint statement from Catholic publications on an issue that would not benefit the political Left?

I am talking about assisted suicide. It is the next great fight, barreling down the runway of cultural decline and both the conservative movement and the Catholic commentariat seem barely aware of it. Bills to legalize assisted suicide have been introduced in dozens of states; Canada’s Supreme Court has legalized it and opened the door for euthanasia; and in some European countries involuntary euthanasia is now a common practice. Recently in Connecticut our local ACLU tweeted its support for a Canadian case that, as Wesley Smith wrote, “sought to force a nursing home to starve an Alzheimer’s patient to death–even though she willingly took nourishment.” The case was dismissed but these are the sort of things we are now fighting.

Assisted suicide is not a Left vs. Right issue. Most of the opposition to it comes from disability rights activists and advocates against elder abuse who are otherwise politically liberal. National Catholic Reporter and America Magazine ought to be able to sign a joint statement against it with minimum pushback from their dissident and Democrat-voting subscribers—and Our Sunday Visitor and the National Catholic Register ought to push them to do it. OSV and the Register took a risk by joining with dissident publications to support Church teaching on an issue that may upset some of their right-leaning readers. They should tell America and the NCR that they should take a stand against assisted suicide even if some of their readers might disapprove.  And EVERYONE in the Catholic universe—dissenters and orthodox, snarky Catholic bloggers and the conservatives they love to hate—should join them.


  • Peter Wolfgang

    Peter Wolfgang is president of Family Institute of Connecticut, a Hartford-based advocacy organization whose mission is to encourage and strengthen the family as the foundation of society. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of FIC Action.

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