A deathly silence
It takes a European to ask this, I know. And I tread gingerly here - at least by my own, largely ginger-free, standards.
Only, whatever happened to the death penalty as a moral priority for Catholics in the US presidential election? Why don’t they challenge their candidates on the issue?
It’s not as if the Church is ambiguous any more. There goes the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Cardinal Renato Martino, in Rome today, looking to the day in which the death penalty is "definitively eliminated" from the earth. He was speaking at a conference in Rome organised by the Catholic community of Sant’Egidio, which has spearheaded the international campaign to abolish the death penalty. Cardinal Martino left American Catholics no wiggle room in his description of the death penalty as "contrary to the great Christian values which sustain the universal rights of man".
It may not be as absolutely definitive as abortion and euthanasia, but the Church’s opposition to capital punishment (except when faced with the breakdown of civil order) remains one of the core elements of its pro-life teaching.
The truth is, "we don’t need to kill people in order to protect ourselves," Cardinal Francis George said after Palm Sunday Mass three years ago. "There are prisons for that, and we should trust them and allow people to live."
So how is it that in this election it barely comes up? Maybe because both McCain and Obama believe in it. McCain says: “I support the death penalty for heinous crimes in which the circumstances warrant capital punishment". Obama thinks the death penalty does not deter crime, and thinks greater efforts should be made not to put the innocent to death. But "I do believe that there are some crimes that are so heinous that they deserve the death penalty.”
When two candidates say something so similar, and using the same adjective ("heinous") you know there’s a dangerous degree of cultural and political collusion which conceals hidden victims.
The American Catholic Church can claim great success in changing the views of its own members over the years. Most US Catholics used to be pro; now most are anti. Yet when it comes to holding the candidates’ feet to the fire on the issue, they are almost nowhere to be seen.
Frank McNeirney, co-founder and national coordinator of Catholics Against Capital Punishment, says he does not expect the death penalty to be much of an issue for Catholic voters in the 2008 elections. Even in 2004, when the Democratic candidate for president, John Kerry, opposed the death penalty, it was not a big factor in any of the debates.
There is something very chilling about this silence. And the Church colludes in the silence if it fails to make it more of an issue in this election. Abortion divides the parties, and is (rightly) the subject of heated political debate. But capital punishment is not a subject of debate at all.
Call me a European, but I think that’s serious.