Saturday, September 23, 2006

Catholic Bishop Aquila Opposes Death Sentence for Alfonso Rodriguez Jr.

US Bishop Samuel Aquila of the diocese of Fargo in North Dakota has come out in opposition to the death sentence levied against Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. for killing a University of North Dakota student.

This is the same Bishop who warned Catholic pro-abortion politicians that they risked the possibility of hell for their support of abortion. I commend this courageous Bishop for his stand in defending innocent unborn lives and I pray for the day when every Catholic Bishop would defend historic Church teaching on this matter as he has done.

However, the Bishop’s strong stand against the death penalty ought to generate some debate I believe. As far as I can see, Bishop Aquila is not in harmony with the age old teaching of the Church on the subject of capital punishment.

Since becoming a Catholic I have noticed that there is a strong movement of Catholic Bishops (and Pope John Paul II as well) who wish to ban capital punishment altogether. Their rationale is similar to the one offered by Bishop Aquila who stated:

"The sentence of death which was imposed today upon Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. obscures for all of society the truth of the inherent dignity of human life.”

Furthermore, another component of their argument shows up in the statement this week by Bishop Aquila:

(Capital punishment) “reinforces the false perspective of revenge as justice. In doing so, it diminishes respect for all human life, both the lives of the guilty and the innocent."

These arguments also surface in a column by Archbishop Chaput (whom I greatly respect as a truly authentic Catholic Bishop) entitled What does the Church teach on the death penalty? However, such arguments have not impressed me, perhaps because I am aware of a great number of biblical references which seem to contradict them. The concept of the shedding of innocent blood, starting with Abel, crying out from the earth for justice, not vengeance, seems to be lost on many Bishops of our day. That justice, in the words of God, demands the death of the murderer.

Genesis 9:6 says:

"Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man."

I am not implying that this simple little verse entirely answers the modern controversy over capital punishment but I do believe it’s a good place to start. These are God’s words and they in fact contradict Bishop Aquila who maintains that capital punishment “obscures for all of society the truth of the inherent dignity of human life.”

In the verse above I read that the sacredness of human life, rather than being obscured by the death penalty, in fact demands that a moral society execute its cold blooded killers. Furthermore it seems obvious that if God is serious here (which I do not doubt) then the death penalty is not a matter of reinforcing “the false perspective of revenge as justice” but it is quite simply God’s prescribed form of justice.

I don’t expect every reader to automatically jump on board with me here but I’m going to suggest a couple of the best articles I’ve found to help sort out this matter. To me the big question is:

What has the Church always and infallibly taught both in Sacred Scripture and in Dogma regarding capital punishment?

We rarely need new and novel ways of dealing with societal problems. If the death penalty was just and moral in God’s eyes and in the eyes of the Apostles then shouldn’t it be the proper response for today?

Avery Cardinal Dulles offers a very helpful analysis in his essay Catholicism and Capital Punishment.

He notes that

“the abolition of the death penalty in formerly Christian countries may owe more to secular humanism than to deeper penetration into the gospel,”

and that because the Church feels herself bound by Scripture and tradition,

“it seems inconsistent for Catholics to proclaim a ‘moral revolution’ on the issue of capital punishment.”

Surprisingly, however, the Cardinal ends up by saying that he supports the current position of Pope John Paul II and the American Bishops. He says,

“The Pope and the bishops, using their prudential judgment, have concluded that in contemporary society, at least in countries like our own, the death penalty ought not to be invoked, because, on balance, it does more harm than good. I personally support this position.”

Renown professor of philosophy at the University of Texas, J. Budziszewski, in his article in First Things magazine, entitled Capital Punishment: The Case for Justice, makes a strong case for retaining the death penalty and he also addresses Cardinal Dulles’ reservations. Two of his important statements are:

“Categorical remission of the penalty for all whose crimes deserve death contradicts revealed teaching on the duty of the magistrate and has no warrant in Christian tradition.”


“I do not know whether our society can be brought back to believe in a transcendent order of justice, but of this I am certain: if we who recognize this standard (of “a life for a life”) do not act as though we believe in it, then no one will be brought by us to believe in it.

Budziszewski believes failure in this matter of justice is an abdication of our duty before God.

The Southern Baptist Press has a short article emphasizing and explaining that the death penalty underscores the sanctity of human life.

One further article I found interesting was Robert Bork on Scalia & Capital Punishment, a selection taken from Antonin Scalia and His Critics: The Church, the Courts, and the Death Penalty.

Perhaps you can see more clearly than I what compels Bishops today to take a seemingly contradictory attitude towards the death penalty than all their predecessors.

Comments would certainly be welcome!

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