Does the Catholic Church share Scalia's views on the death penalty? Lisa Miller talks religion

Oct 28, 2011

Lisa Miller was online Friday, Oct. 28 to discuss her column on Antonin Scalia and his public support of the death penalty.

Is Justice Antonin Scalia a pick-and-choose Catholic? In this week's column, Lisa Miller writes that Scalia has implied that the Catholic Church is in favor of the death penalty, despite "overwhelming" evidence to the contrary.

"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," Miller writes. "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."

Join religion columnist Lisa Miller on Thursdays at noon as she chats about how religion impacts the news.

If the Pope really wants to stop capital punishment here, why wouldn't he call Scalia and tell him that it violates church doctrine? "All it Takes for Evil to Triumph Is for Good Men to Do Nothing."

Serious answer? He'd also have to call Roberts, Thomas, Alito, Sotomayor, Kennedy, etc., because they are all Roman Catholic, too.   And of course, capital punishment -- like it or not -- is legal in most states of the nation. hen they take their jobs the Justices vow to uphold the Constitution and not to answer to any other authority. So  no, not such a great idea.  

...of Catholic school. 11 of those years were in a very conservative parish in which some priests had a tendency to bring politics into the pulpit. And not once was the death penalty treated with anything other than abhorrence. I would say that JPII's words in Evangelium Vitae are pretty clear on the subject.

many, many people agree with you. one of the fine points in Evangelium Vitae as well as in the Catechism is that the church wants to continue to give the state authority in meting out punishment.

Does anyone else find it ironic that a religion based upon the most famous wrongly use of the death penalty has so many followers who support the death penalty?

I was surprised to find that most American Catholics do support the death penalty, according to a poll released earlier this week. Look at the National CAtholic Reporter online, research by William D'Antonio. It's something like 60-odd percent. Still lower thant he population at large, but very interesting given the very cohesive position of the hierarchy.

I have a question for death penalty followers: why do you support the death penalty? It is not an effective deterrent. Many societies with the death penalty have hired homicide rates than some without the death penalty (and some psychologists have offered explanations, i.e. death penalty contributes to a more violent society, or some people are more prone to homicide because they really want "suicide by society"). Is it revenge? That one I personally would believe and understand, yet doesn't much of Christianity teach against the evils of revenge?

Actually, one of Scalia's arguments for the death penalty -- if you read that Chicago speech in full, and also a subsequent piece he wrote in First Things -- is this argument for vengeance. That it is sometimes moral.

Look also at Avery Dulles's analysis of Evangelium Vitae and his gentle refutation of Scalia here.


Just wanted to say that I thought your column was dead on. Being raised Catholic (and suffering...err, attending Catholic school from pre-school through high school), the most conservative and deeply religious of my peers are also the most opposed to the death penalty. So Bravo!

Thanks. One of the things I like best about Catholic theology these days is its consistency on "life." It seems to me the church has worked very hard to make its position on abortion consistent with its position on the death penalty and that (in my mind) strengthens both. Scalia has also argued against this consistency, saying the Church's opposition to abortion is traditional, but its opposition to capital punishment is not.

Re Scalia: read the Cathecism of the Catholic Church: It is NOT totally opposed to Capital punishment. Scalia is a judge: he does not make the law. However does Pelosi support the Catholic Church teachings on abortion?. She is a lawmaker,

I make this point at the end of the column. People of all faiths, even people who are "orthodox" bend the rules to suit their lives. I actually don't think there's anything too much wrong with this, if the bending is done thoughtfully and in good conscience. There are Jews who eat pork, and Jews who only eat pork out of the house, and Jews who never eat pork. There are Catholics who support abortion rights (about half) and Catholics who oppose them. In Biblical times, there were Hebrews who prayed to One God and also participated in ancestor worship. Total consistency is not possible or even desireable. Thoughtful inconsistency is (in my opinon) the way to go.

Plenty of American Catholics don't follow the teachings of the church. But unlike most of his fellow church members, Scalia insists that his position doesn't conflict with those teachings. Do you see that as the relevant distinction?

Yes. He's pretending he's being consistent with his church's teaching, but he's not. He's being consistent with his view of his church's teaching. Again, fine with me to stand apart from religious authority, but he's not coloring inside the lines on this.

I pose these questions as a former Catholic alter boy who is now an Episcopal. Why aren't there more Episcopals in the pool of Federalist Society, right wing conservative acceptable Supreme Court Justices? Is there something more rigid and dogmatic about being Catholic/getting a Jesuit education that appeals more to hard core conservatives versus the more laid-back, tolerant Episcopal flock? What about born again Christians/Baptists? How can you explain the Catholic tilt on this court?

well, it's a Catholic tilt to be sure, but not all the Catholics on the Court are conservative, right? Sotomayor is not, and Kennedy is often a swing vote.   Catholics today are just as likely to be conservative as they are liberal (which wasn't true when JFK was elected President -- most Catholics were democrats) and that's evident on this Court as it is in America.

The Catholic Church has excommunicated Catholic politicians who support Choice. Will Justice Sotomayor vote to support Roe if it comes up? If so, will she be excommunicated? How about Kennedy if he doesn't reverse his limited support of Roe in Casey? What do you think the public reaction will be to this foreign and religious manipultation of our contitution?

I saw a funny blog post yesterday or the day before, asking whether Bishops would decline to give Scalia communion on the basis of his death penalty position. I (personally) think this whole declining to give communion thing is political posturing and not at all pastoral.  I don't support it in the case of pro-choice politicians and I wouldn't support it in Scalia's case either.

Didn't the Pope condemn the death penalty?

Yep. This pope doesn't like the death penalty. In 2007, he congratulated an ambassador from Mexico for that government's abolishment of the death penalty and that same year he pleaded for clemency for Troy Davis (who was executed in Georgia last month). Both he and his predecessor JP2 have been quite clear on this.

Catholic theology, as expressed in the CCC, allows for a very limited use of the death penalty. It does not allow any moral use for abortion. Abortion is always gravely wrong--the death penalty is not. Scalia, thus, can believe in and support the death penalty. Nancy Pelosi cannot, if she wishes to be a moral Catholic, support abortion.

Right, I think the catechism contains more wiggle room in the death penalty than it does on abortion. And in the column I say that catholic doctrine isn't crystal clear on the death penalty.  But it's hard to argue that the Church isn't taking a position on the death penalty or that it approves of it in any way.

Somebody I know who leans to the right on politics was bemoaning Occupy Wall Street and loving when the press would interview people involved who really didn't know what they protesting. And then she said, "It doesn't have a clear message like most rallies or protests." I thought about it and wondered if I went to a so-called "Pro-Life" rally and asked "What did the decision in Roe v. Wade actually say" or "How would we overturn Roe v. Wade," would I would get any better answer from protesters than from OWS about financial reform?

I'm guessing you would. A pro-life rally is usually very clear: the folks there want to overturn Roe. At Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, you see signs for every kind of lefty cause -- environmental causes, social justice causes, poverty, student loans, etc. The Occupy Wall Street protests really are pretty wide-ranging.


However, you should look at my column from last week -- I think there's a message in the protests if you look closely.



I think you're mischaracterizing "Evangelium vitae," in which JP the Great states: "It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent." While this does stand for the proposition that the death penalty should be avoided except in those circumstances where it is necessary to protect society, it does not stand for the proposition you suggest, which is that the Church teaches that the death penalty is never, under any circumstances, permissible.

Sorry, that's not what the column says. The column says that important theologians do see  room for the death penalty in Evangelium Vitae and that doctrine is not crystal clear. However, as I said in a previous answer, it's very hard to argue the doctrine at this point is in supports, approves of, or upholds the inherent morality of capital punishment in any way.



That question about Federalist Episcopalians might make a good On Faith topic -- the political divide between that denomination's extremely liberal clergy and more traditionally conservative laity.

I don't think the numbers back you up here. There are some serious traditionalists among the Episcopalian laity, but many, many liberals, too. Which is why the "split" that was so in the news several years ago hasn't been more of a real rupture.

Why is it that even the online edition of your column does not quote from the relevant authoritative paragraphs of Church teaching? Put the authoritative statements made by the Church up against the paragraphs from Scalia's decisions addressing this issue and let readers see the distinctions. In the current format readers are stuck with relying on your description of Church teaching, which at times can come across like a bad game of "telephone."

There's a full quote in the piece from Evangelium Vitae and a link the the whole document.

I could easily write another translation that says the opposite.

For what it's worth, Scalia doesn't like the catechism's position on capital punishment either.

What bothers me is not Scalia being a pick-and-choose Catholic. It is that his clear distortion of Catholic teaching on the death penalty shows how he distorts authority in order to support his political predelictions. This is typical of how he claims that his opinions are the only ones possible given strict reading of the Constitution or his channeling of the dead founders to descern their original intent on modern issues they never considered.

It's actually weirdly consistent. Scalia points to Augustine, Aquinas, Thos. More as Catholic saints who support punishment by death. But these folks lived in pre-Enlightenment times when people were hung and drowned and burned at the stake and had their heads chopped off -- both for being Catholic and for not being Catholic (or Christian). I'm not sure why we would want look to those eras for guidance on the death penalty.

ok folks, that's it for this week. See you next week. Find me on Facebook or go to my website


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Lisa Miller
Lisa Miller is a contributing editor at New York magazine and the author of "Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife." She was a senior editor at Newsweek, overseeing the magazine's religion coverage, writing the weekly "Belief Watch" column and editing Newsweek's prominent "Spirituality in America" double issue.

Before joining Newsweek, Miller covered religion for The Wall Street Journal. She has also worked with The New Yorker, Self magazine and Harvard Business Review.

An award-winning journalist, she is the recipient of the 2010 Wilbur Award for outstanding magazine column. She is a frequent guest on television and radio, including the Colbert Report, the O'Reilly Factor, MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, NPR and others.
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