Death Penalty Condemned; HHS Under Catholic Review

A couple of CNS stories are worth reading today before we close out for the week. In the first, Tommaso Di Ruzza, desk officer at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (OK, I'm not sure what that means either; I'm picturing someone in a naval uniform), attempts to dispel the continuing confusion—at least in the U.S.—over whether or not the church could be said to in any way to support the death penalty: "it is not a message that is immediately understood—that there is no room for supporting the death penalty in today's world," said Di Ruzza, the Vatican's expert on capital punishment and arms control.

Confusion lingers, he suggests, because the church has only in the past few decades begun closing the window—if not shutting it completely—on the permissibility of the death penalty, people who give just a partial reading of the church's teachings may still think the death penalty is acceptable today, said Di Ruzza.


The CNS report tracks the evolution on the church's attitude on capital punishment

The 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church recognized "as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty." At the same time, it said, "bloodless means" that could protect human life should be used when possible.

The "extreme gravity" loophole was tightened with changes made in 1997, which reflected the pope's 1995 encyclical, "Evangelium Vitae." It specifies that the use of the death penalty is allowed only when the identity and responsibility of the condemned is certain and if capital punishment "is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor."

However, given the resources and possibilities available to governments today for restraining criminals, "cases of the absolute necessity of the suppression of the offender 'are very rare, if not practically nonexistent,'" it says.

Pope Benedict, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, had a major role in drafting the 1992 Catechism and, especially, its 1997 revised passages. When he told journalists about the changes in 1997, he said while the principles do not absolutely exclude capital punishment, they do give "very severe or limited criteria for its moral use."

"It seems to me it would be very difficult to meet the conditions today," he had said.

When a journalist said the majority of Catholics in the United States favor use of the death penalty, Cardinal Ratzinger said, "While it is important to know the thoughts of the faithful, doctrine is not made according to statistics, but according to objective criteria taking into account progress made in the church's thought on the issue."

Another CNS report notes a stampede of submissions from Catholic institutions as the public comment period expires today on the controversial "interim" revisions proposed by the Department of Health and Human Services on mandatory services for women in future health insurance plans:

Eighteen Catholic colleges have asked the Obama administration to exempt all religious individuals and institutions from being forced to participate in the federal mandate that health insurance plans cover contraceptives and sterilization.

The 13-page appeal was sent to the White House Sept. 29 and called the Department of Health and Human Services' exemptions for religious employers as "potentially so narrow as to be not only nearly inconsequential but insulting to religious entities, in particular to Catholic colleges and universities."... Msgr. Stuart Swetland, vice president of mission at Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg, Md., told Catholic News Service the proposed mandates under the health care law threaten the operation of Catholic colleges and universities.

"It's unprecedented in federal law. Religious exemptions were always written to accommodate sincere religious beliefs. This is written so narrowly," said Msgr. Swetland, who also is executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Catholic Higher Education, a division of the Cardinal Newman Society, which helped organize the colleges' appeal.

The letter said the mandates violated several federal laws, including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First and 14th amendments to the Constitution. It pointed to the possibility that the mandate could be used to require future insurance coverage of abortifacients as long as the Food and Drug Administration classifies them as contraceptive in nature.

"No federal rule has defined being 'religious' as narrowly and discriminatorily as the mandate appears to do, and no regulation has ever so directly proposed to violate plain statutory and constitutional religious freedoms," the appeal said.

The colleges maintained that they have a "legal right not to be required to offer or pay for health insurance coverage that includes practices to which they have a religious or moral objection, and not to be forced to choose between offering such coverage, paying a fine or offering no coverage at all."

The comment from the schools follows the offical statement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the proposed revisions and a scorching from health care reform supporter Sister Carol Keehan representing the Catholic Health Association, who called the proposed religious exemption in the new guidelines "wholly inadequate to protect the conscience rights of Catholic hospital and health care organizations."

Another notable Obama-phile likewise weighed in on the HHS guidelines this week. in a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Notre Dame President Father John Jenkins, C.S.C., urged a broadening of language for the religious exemption. Jenkins said the current guidelines may force Catholic institutions into the "impossible position" of paying for contraception, sterilization or abortaficients or depriving students and employees of health insurance plans:


Surely you know that we welcome the Administration’s decision to require health plans to cover women’s preventive services, such as critical screenings that will make preventive care more widely available and affordable. However, I’m sure you also understand that the inclusion in that mandate of contraceptive services that the Catholic Church finds morally objectionable makes it imperative that the Final Rule include broader conscience protections. In their current form, these regulations would require us to offer our students sterilization procedures and prescription contraceptives, including pills that act after fertilization to induce abortions, and to offer such services in our employee health plans. This would compel Notre Dame to either pay for contraception and sterilization in violation of the Church’s moral teaching, or to discontinue our employee and student health care plans in violation of the Church’s social teaching. It is an impossible position.

While the Interim Final Rule acknowledges the need for conscience protections, the proposed religious exception falls far short of fulfilling this need. It allows that a “religious employer” is exempt from providing coverage of contraceptive services that are against its religious teaching, but it proposes a definition of a religious employer that is narrower than any conscience clause ever enacted in federal law. Indeed, the definition is not drawn from current federal law but instead is taken from the narrowest state definition of a religious employer – found only in three states in the nation. Consequently, Notre Dame and nearly all Catholic colleges and universities would not be considered religious employers.

May I suggest that this is not the kind of “sensible” approach the president had in mind when he spoke here. It runs contrary to a 40-year history of federal conscience statutes that have been in effect to protect individuals and organizations like ours from being required to participate in, pay for, or provide coverage for certain services that are contrary to our religious beliefs or moral convictions.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Cody Serra
7 years 3 months ago
David Smith:

The Church does not need Obama to foster anti-Catholic sentiments. It does it well by istself.
Turbulent times maybe ahead: true. But perhaps, is may help to look inside the Church before blaming others for its own sins.


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