Catholic Academicians and Capital Punishment

, Michael P. Tremoglie, Leave a comment

The United States bishops issued a statement, in November 1980, calling for the abolition of capital punishment. Among the reasons they furnished for doing so was, “….we believe that the actual carrying out of the death penalty brings with it great and avoidable anguish for the criminal, for his family and loved ones, and for those who are called to perform or to witness the execution.” [1] One must ask why the anguish of the criminal and his relatives is granted more significance by American Catholic bishops than the closure execution provides to the victim’s family.

Despite their proposal for the abolition of capital punishment, the bishops did acknowledge that Catholic doctrine did not prohibit it. The bishops wrote, “We recognize that many citizens may believe that capital punishment should be maintained as an integral part of our society’s response to ..crime, nor is this …incompatible with Catholic tradition.”[2]

They were quite correct. The Catholic religion does not prohibit capital punishment.

The April 2001 edition of First Things, a monthly religious journal, published an article about capital punishment and the church, which was adapted from a lecture by Cardinal Avery Dulles of Fordham University. Dulles said, “The Catholic magisterium does not, and never has, advocated unqualified abolition of the death penalty. …Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, in his famous speech on the “Consistent Ethic of Life,” in 1983, stated his concurrence …that the State has the right to inflict capital punishment.”

Jesuit priest Kenneth Overberg, an Xavier University theology professor, wrote in the American Catholic, “Augustine recognized the death penalty as a means of deterring the wicked and protecting the innocent. …Thomas Aquinas reaffirmed this position….The new Catechism of the Catholic Church reflects this tradition, stating that the death penalty is possible in cases of extreme gravity.”

Paragraph 56 of Pope John Paul II’s 1995 Encyclical “ Evangelium Vitae,” states, “…. ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: …when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.”

However, despite Church teaching, Catholic academicians have embarked on a crusade to abolish capital punishment in the United States. They are adhering more to the call of the United States Catholic bishops than to the teachings of the church. Although not improper, this is deleterious to the students. Academic institutions are supposed to provoke debate. Instead, they are only presenting the arguments against it not for it.

The crusade has adopted the dogmatism of those who want to eradicate capital punishment. An excellent example of how this anti-capital punishment campaign is being implemented by the nation’s Catholic universities is at Chicago’s Loyola University. They are presenting a play, written by actor and anti-capital punishment activist Tim Robbins, titled, Dead Man Walking, adapted from the book of the same title by Sister Helen Prejean. According to Loyola’s student newspaper, The Phoenix, “Robbins offered the draft version of his play, Dead Man Walking, to the willing theater departments of Jesuit schools across the country. This is done to provoke discussion and debate of the death penalty at schools where social justice is a primary focus.”

Yet, the only perspective presented is that of the abolitionist. Indeed Loyola is conducting a study about capital punishment, which, according to Dudley Sharpe a pro-capital punishment authority, is solely using anti-capital punishment reference sources.

Similar campaigns are occurring at the University of Notre Dame. While the Notre Dame faculty lecture frequently about capital punishment, yet only anti-capital punishment perspectives are presented.

Philadelphia’s Jesuit university, Saint Joseph’s, recently conducted a symposium about capital punishment. Only one of the several speakers favored capital punishment.

Sharpe has recommended that while staging Robbins’ anti-capital punishment play will stimulate thought about the subject only real debate can be begin if the college assigns the book The Victims of Dead Man Walking by Michael L. Varnado. This 2003 book was written by the investigating officer for the case from which Prejean wrote her book and Robbins his play.

Unfortunately, Sharpe’s recommendation has been ignored.

The debate about capital punishment on the nation’s campuses is much like the debate about abortion. Only one viewpoint is presented—the politically correct one. It is indicative of the type of tendentious scholarship that is all too common in academia. This ill serves the students. It is merely indoctrination not education.

The purpose of the university is to engage the marketplace of ideas and to provide the students and faculty with a learning environment. Being an advocacy group does not serve that purpose. If the Jesuits were concerned about teaching they will include more pro-capital punishment books and speakers in their presentations about this controversial topic.

[1] Ret fm w/s 3-2-05 (LINK)
[2] Ibid.

A life-long Catholic, Mr. Tremoglie is also a veteran of the Philadelphia, PA police force.