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Will Catholic Bishops Correct Justice Scalia?

September 29, 2011, 1:10 pm | Posted by John Gehring

scalia2.jpgEarlier this week I blogged about Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s offer to resign if he believed Catholic doctrine viewed the death penalty as immoral. I argued that Scalia was out of step with Pope Benedict XVI and bishops around the world who have called for an end to state-sponsored executions. Along with abortion and torture, Catholic teaching views executions as a grave assault on human dignity that undermines a culture of life.

Scalia’s statements at Duquesne University Law School in Pittsburgh came just days after the shameful execution of Troy Davis in Georgia, and at the same time Catholic theologians across the country were releasing A Catholic Call to Abolish the Death Penalty, now signed by 273 Catholic scholars and theologians.

David Gibson of Religion News Service, one of the best on the God beat, now has an in-depth article that puts Scalia’s remarks and the Church’s position on the death penalty in the context of the Catholic hierarchy’s increasingly more limited agenda on life issues. Gibson highlights the message released Monday by the bishops’ Pro-Life Activities Committee for October’s “Respect Life Month” campaign :

Galveston-Houston Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, who wrote the message, focused tightly on the bishops’ increasingly fierce fight with President Obama over mandated contraception coverage, allegations of growing discrimination against believers, concerns about excess embryos from fertility treatments and long-term care of the infirm.

Conspicuously absent from the letter was any mention of the death penalty.

That struck more than a few Catholics as odd, especially in the wake of the controversial execution of Troy Davis in Georgia and because DiNardo’s own governor, Rick Perry, has unapologetically defended his state’s record of leading the nation in executions as he campaigns for the White House.

Vincent Miller, a Catholic theologian at the University of Dayton, called the omission “troubling.” “If contraception is a life issue,” he said, “surely state-sponsored execution is one.”

I would like to see at least one bishop stand up and challenge Justice Scalia’s comments in the same way that the chairmen of the U.S. bishops’ pro-life and doctrine committees pounced on then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a few years ago when she played armchair theologian and flubbed Church teaching on abortion during a nationally televised interview. There are distinctions between Church teaching on abortion and the death penalty, but one of the most influential Catholics in the country has clearly misrepresented Catholic doctrine on a fundamental life issue, and the bishops respond with silence. Will they continue to let Scalia mislead Catholics?

As Gibson notes, the rightward drift of the Catholic hierarchy in recent decades – exemplified by bishops who publicly excoriate pro-choice Catholic politicians and deny them Communion – is a big part of this story. It’s a topic that doesn’t just frustrate Catholic progressives either. Some retired bishops and a few lonely voices in the hierarchy also have cautioned that the Church is too often seen as a cheerleader for a narrow Republican agenda.

Catholic bishops play a vital role in giving voice to the poor and most vulnerable, especially during a time when the ethic of radical individualism is ascendant and compassionate conservatism appears dead. Our public debates are enriched by the depth and breadth of Catholic social teaching. Catholic bishops lose credibility in public debates, however, when they shout against abortion and same-sex marriage, but stay quiet when conservatives bungle Church teaching on other issues.

Photo credit: US Mission Geneva, Flickr

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