CHICAGO, Jan 28, 2002 (UPI) -- While the Roman Catholic Church teaches both capital punishment and abortion are wrong because they violate a view that all life is sacred, many U.S. Catholics oppose abortion but approve of the death penalty.

Take Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Scalia, a member of the high court since 1986 who is considered a solid member of the court's conservative faction, is an abortion opponent, which puts him in good standing with the Catholic church.

But on capital punishment, Scalia thinks his religion is misguided.

"I do not agree with the very new, latest version of the Catechism," Scalia said. "I read it, I considered it, and I decided that I disagree with it, so I am disregarding it."

Scalia said during a recent forum at the University of Chicago that he thinks recent attempts to make the church and its teachings "more relevant" to contemporary society have distorted what should be a viewpoint favoring execution of criminals (read the forum transcript).

In fact, he sees the church as naturally giving government a "moral authority" to administer the death penalty against criminals because the only alternative would be for people to take it upon themselves to seek vengeance -- an alternative he would not favor.

"Those people who would say the death penalty is wrong because it is giving the state a moral action above that of the individual are predictable in their opposition, but also erroneous and irrational," Scalia said.

Citing U.S. government traditions with religious ties--including the annual Thanksgiving proclamation by the president and the chaplains who open sessions of Congress and the state legislatures with prayers--Scalia said, "It is easy to see the hand of God behind our rulers.

"It may be more difficult to see a higher moral authority in the 'fools with robes' whom we tend to elect, but it is still there," Scalia said.

In recent decades, the Catholic church has modified its stance on capital punishment as an effective way to protect citizens from dangerous people.

The church routinely protests all executions in the United States by having cardinals issue statements that seek clemency for the condemned inmate.

In higher-profile cases, the pope himself will make an appeal for clemency.

Modern church officials take the view that a life prison term -- especially one that ensures no possibility of parole -- is a more appropriate penalty for violent crimes.

Scalia disagrees, saying he does not believe a life prison term is the worst penalty a person could receive, in large part because of advances made in recent decades in the quality of life for inmates in U.S. prisons.

"The better penal system that we develop, the less an alternative it is to me to the death penalty," Scalia said. "Devil's Island might be as bad to a person as having one's head cut off, but not the modern facility where each inmate is with his own television set."

Scalia's death penalty views may put him at odds with the Catholic church but not with many Catholics.

Church officials themselves will concede a majority of Catholics have personal views that differ with the church teachings on specific issues. Particularly older Catholics tend to disagree with the new interpretation of the death penalty issue.

Many socially conservative people who are Catholic feel as Scalia does -- that abortion is wrong because it results in the loss of life of an innocent unborn child. They justify capital punishment on the grounds the people who receive it are criminals who did something to deserve such a harsh penalty.

More liberal Catholics favor the church's teachings on capital punishment because they do not like the idea of fellow human beings issuing death sentences, fearing that a death sentence could be imposed against an innocent person.

They also cite a compassion for the life of the mother who is giving up a child, saying her already-existing life is more important than the potential life that could develop from a human fetus.

For his part, Scalia said he does not see the two issues as being related in any way.

He said he believes the termination of a pregnancy is wrong, but says he thinks the issue is one that should be left up to individual state legislatures, and that he could support it if a state were to decide abortion rights should not be restricted for its citizens.

"What is at the top of any consensus (on the death penalty) would differ from what is important in considering abortion or assisted suicide," Scalia said, adding of the latter two issues, "society has an obligation to restrain" those actions.

But for the death penalty, Scalia said, "It is clear that the founding fathers who wrote our Constitution approved of a death penalty. They did not have a problem with it."

He describes Evangelium vitae--cited by modern church officials to oppose the death penalty--as primarily concerned with the issue of euthanasia, with merely a few sentences that he thinks can vaguely be interpreted as related to capital punishment.

"It (capital punishment opposition) is not a moral position that is consistent with the rest of the church," Scalia said.

Scalia, who believes judges who "find the death penalty to be immoral should resign, rather than try to sabotage the legal system," said he does not think the Catholic church would want to strictly enforce death penalty opposition among its members.

That would remove Roman Catholics from serving in elective or judicial offices in government.

"I am judicially and judiciously neutral on the death penalty. I do not find it immoral," Scalia said. "That is good, because I do not want to lose my job.

"Is it prudent to require public retirement of Catholics from public life?" Scalia said. "I doubt that's what the church has in mind."

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad