Justice Scalia’s Catholic Dissent on the Death Penalty
Over 100 Catholic theologians and scholars who just released a statement laying out clear moral arguments for opposing the death penalty should set up a meeting with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
Just days after the unconscionable execution of Troy Davis, the justice delivered a speech at Duquesne University School of Law in which he offered to resign if he ever decides that his unyielding support for the death penalty conflicts with Catholic teaching. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports:
The justice’s appearance, however, was not without its controversy as nine people outside the Palumbo Center carried signs and handed out material opposed to the death penalty. The Rev. Gregory C. Swiderski, who organized the group, said he did not expect to influence Justice Scalia; he hoped to reach some of those who came to hear him. But Justice Scalia said he did see them and told the audience that he was aware of their position. Still, he said, he found no contradiction between his religious views and his support of the death penalty. “If I thought that Catholic doctrine held the death penalty to be immoral, I would resign,” he said. “I could not be a part of a system that imposes it.”
Really? Scalia clearly needs some religious education as it relates to Church teaching about a consistent ethic of life and human dignity. Earlier this month, the Catholic bishops in Georgia joined other religious and human rights leaders including Pope Benedict XVI to urge the state of Georgia to pardon Davis. This didn’t stop Catholics on the high court (Antonin Scalia, Chief Justice John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy and Sonia Sotomayor ) from rejecting last-minute appeals to spare Davis’ life.
The Church has been a longtime and vocal opponent of state-sanctioned executions for similar reasons Catholic moral teaching also rejects abortion and torture as unacceptable assaults on the sanctity of human life (see the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ “Faithful Citizenship” statement). As the Catholic theologians and scholars write:
In calling for the abolition of the “cruel and unnecessary” death penalty, Blessed Pope John Paul II argued that “[t]he new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate, and serve the Gospel of life in every situation. A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil”… Therefore, in concert with our recent popes and bishops, we oppose the death penalty, whether a person on death row is guilty or innocent, on both theological and practical grounds.
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published by the Vatican’s Justice and Peace office, has this to say about the death penalty:
Modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitely denying them the chance to reform. Whereas, presuming the full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the guilty party, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude the death penalty when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor. Bloodless methods of deterrence and punishment are preferred as they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
Justice Scalia and other Catholic members of the Supreme Court frequently attend the Red Mass in Washington held every first Sunday in October at the Cathedral of St. Matthew. This Sunday, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington will again preach to an influential audience. Perhaps his homily could include some helpful reminders for the Justice?