Antonin Scalia's Selective Catholicism On Death Penalty

Many of you knew I grew up a Catholic. Being Italian with ancestors from Sicily, I had no choice. I'm not hostile to religion per se, but as I've grown older I'm able to make my own mind up on many issues like choice, poverty and the death penalty. Obviously the rise of the religious right in this country has had a huge negative impact overall in American society.

Many of you knew I grew up a Catholic. Being Italian with ancestors from Sicily, I had no choice. I'm not hostile to religion per se, but as I've grown older I'm able to make my own mind up on many issues like choice, poverty and the death penalty. Obviously the rise of the religious right in this country has had a huge negative impact overall in American society. The televangelists made billions of dollars off our teevees and turned con men, liars, hypocrites and circus performers into mega millionaires. PFAW was Norman Lear's response after he saw some of these charlatan's become beltway darlings. Antonin Scalia is one of these religious frauds. He espouses that he is a devout Catholic, but when faced with a true tenet of Church doctrine, which is against the death penalty, he shrivels up into a typical movement conservative player:

That Justice Antonin Scalia believes in execution as a moral form of punishment is a well-known fact. That he is an observant, traditional Roman Catholic is, similarly, well-known. That he appears to believe his church supports the death penalty and that he’s willing to stake his job on that conviction is nothing short of astonishing. But there it is: “If I thought that Catholic doctrine held the death penalty to be immoral, I would resign,” he told an audience at Duquesne University Law School last month. “I could not be part of a system that imposes it.”

Let’s start with Scalia’s implication that the Roman Catholic Church supports the death penalty. The evidence to the contrary is overwhelming. In 2005, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement saying that “ending the death penalty would be one important step away from a culture of death and toward building a culture of life.” In 2007, the Vatican said that capital punishment is “an affront to human dignity.” Both Pope Benedict XVI and his predecessor, John Paul II, have consistently voiced their opposition to the death penalty and praised governments and leaders who abolished it.

In 2007, Benedict sent a letter through an emissary pleading for clemency in the Georgia capital case of Troy Davis. On Sept. 21, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Davis’s petition for a stay of execution and Davis was killed by injection. One doesn't know how Scalia voted. But in any case, that justice’s professional and democratic obligations overrode the express wishes of his pope that night.

I don't pretend to speak for Catholicism at all or claim to be an expert on it either. I do know that it did help me in my own way, but I like to keep what religious or spiritual beliefs I have to myself. I know atheists who have more common decency in their pinkie finger than many supposedly devout Christians. When I was fifteen I made a conscious decision that the death penalty was nothing more than revenge. If one person was executed unjustly then the whole ball of wax comes crashing down. When I started really dating I began to think about what would happen if I got a a woman pregnant. I decided that I would be a stand up guy and do the right thing no matter what, but I made a decision that a woman should have the right to choose what happens to her own body. I was still going to church on Sunday's with my first girlfriend at the time. If I were to have become a devout Catholic, there would be no room for my feelings about the death penalty. I don't think an average working class Catholic living in America was trying to find loopholes in how the church felt about the death penalty even back then.

On the question of doctrine, though, Scalia is out on a limb, and like a cartoon bunny, he’s sawing it off behind him. In 1995, Pope John Paul II issued an encyclical — an official document of the utmost importance — called “Evangelium Vitae,” in which he weighed in on the death penalty.

“The nature and extent of the punishment,” he wrote, “ought not to go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible to defend society.” In today’s societies, the pope said, “such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

Death penalty opponents celebrated, saying that “Evangelium Vitae” voiced the church’s near total opposition to capital punishment. Although important theologians disagreed, saying the encyclical falls short of calling the death penalty immoral, Scalia was not one of them.

In a 2002 speech at the University of Chicago, Scalia said “Evangelium Vitae” reversed centuries of Catholic tradition by making capital punishment — his word — “wrong.”

“I do not agree with ‘Evangelium Vitae,’ ” he said, “that the death penalty can only be imposed to protect rather than avenge, and that since it is, in most modern societies, not necessary for the former purpose, it is wrong.”

And so, after consultation with canonical experts, who advised him that the doctrine was nonbinding, Scalia — his words, again — “rejected it.”

At least I'm not a hypocrite about my beliefs or pretend otherwise. I rarely go to church anymore and can't stand listening to many that appear in the media who say they represent Catholicism since the money, greed and spot light of the media has corrupted their views.

To recap: The U.S. bishops oppose capital punishment. So do this pope, the last pope and documents from the Vatican press office. Catholic doctrine isn’t crystal clear, but Scalia himself believes “Evangelium Vitae” fails to support capital punishment. And so, in the tradition of millions of Catholics for thousands of years, he has rejected official teaching in favor of his own view, which he believes (to be presumptuous for a minute) to be more traditional and more moral than the established one.

That’s fine with me. I don’t want a justice sitting on the Supreme Court who submits blindly to religious authority or who holds his religion above the laws of the land. So keep your job, Justice Scalia. Just don’t pretend your church approves of the death penalty. Or that you aren’t like most people of faith, cherry-picking the teachings of your church that suit you best.

I too do not want a Justice to blindly side with their religious beliefs on matters before them, but don't try to sell us on something you're not afterwards.

About John Amato

Comments

We welcome relevant, respectful comments. Please refer to our Terms of Service for information on our posting policy.