These days it can be difficult to find good news associated with Catholicism in the public square. Sure, the experience of pastoral care and concern on the personal, local and individual level continues to reflect God’s love and mercy in the lives of many, but events and decisions that garner much more public attention tend to be of the negative variety (so much for “no such thing as bad publicity.” On the contrary, there is such a thing and it is indeed bad). However, this week, perhaps overshadowed by other news items, some good news for Right-to-Life and Social-Justice advocates has come out of the State of Connecticut. Governor Dan Malloy signed a bill into law that abolishes the death penalty in Connecticut. This is, without a doubt, a laudable move, the only reservation on my own celebratory mood is that the law is not retroactive, so the dozen or so prisoners currently on death row will still be executed. Nevertheless, no death penalty in the future is still something to celebrate.
While this might seem like some politically neutral or wholly ‘secular’ affair, Lisa Miller of the Washington Post wrote a short piece in the paper last week, prior to the signing of the bill into law, that picked up on the possible influence of the Roman Catholic Church and its (in my opinion, entirely laudable) effort to lobby against capital punishment in each of the half-dozen or so states that have abolished this form of punishment. Miller observed that of the five most recent states to abolish the death penalty, three of those states governors were raised Roman Catholic. Gov. Malloy, it turns out, is a Boston College alum and someone who, while a prosecutor in Brooklyn, came to change his view from support of the death penalty to having very serious legal and moral reservations about it.
“I don’t want to overemphasize my Catholicism here,” the governor, who grew up in a family of eight children and went to Jesuit-run Boston College, told me. “But I know my religion. I know religions in general. In the New Testament, the one place where Jesus talks about the death penalty, he says, ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’ When I’ve reflected on the death penalty, the reality is I frequently ponder that passage.”
Miller does an excellent job highlighting the true complexity that is actually reflected in Catholic moral teaching — something that those who remain so-called “one-issue voters” in the Church should as keenly observe.
Powerful, vocal Roman Catholics have been much in the news of late, mostly for their hard-line positions on abortion and birth control, and their self-serving rhetoric on the subject of religious rights in the health-care debate. But Catholic activists are playing another political role, too — under the radar — on an issue that hasn’t made the same sorts of headlines.
They are helping to turn the tide of public opinion in the United States against the death penalty. (According to a Pew poll earlier this year, about a third of Americans now oppose capital punishment, up from 18 percent in the mid-1990s.) And they are appealing to the consciences of Roman Catholic politicians to do it.
The sanctity of human life is central to Catholic theology, and for death penalty opponents, this sanctity extends as much to living men and women convicted of capital crimes as it does to embryos and fetuses. Malloy’s change of heart is reflected in the opinion of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, for 30 years ago, popes and bishops were not so clearly emphasizing their opposition to capital punishment.
Regardless of the personal, confessional faith of individual governors, my hope is that other states in the US will continue to follow the lead of Illinois, Connecticut and others that have made this important move. And, that a Catholic Governor had something to do with this in Connecticut might indeed be something to celebrate amid troubling and challenging times about the public face of the Church and its involvement in things such as American politics.
Gov. Malloy even has a little bit of additional wisdom for us people of faith: “on the morality of death as punishment for crimes, Malloy believes the Gospels contain something like the first word. ‘Jesus Christ — he laid out what the standard was.’”