Cardinal Dulles Counters Portrayal of His Views on Death Penalty

In Wake of Scalia Comments, Pat Buchanan Column Was Off the Mark

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WASHINGTON, D.C., FEB. 14, 2002 (Zenit.org).- Recent comments by two high-profile American Catholics on the death penalty raised a lot of eyebrows in the Church.



And along the way, the views of both John Paul II and U.S. Cardinal Avery Dulles were misrepresented -- the former pilloried as "outside the mainstream" of Church teaching, the latter for being portrayed as more in line with papal critics than with the Pope himself.

The problem started Feb. 4 when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia told an audience at Georgetown University that Catholic judges who oppose the death penalty should resign.

"No authority that I know of denies the 2,000-year-old tradition of the Church approving capital punishment," he said. "I don´t see why there´s been a change."

The "change" was seen as a reference to John Paul II´s insistence that the need for the death penalty is virtually nonexistent in modern societies.

Then came Pat Buchanan. The well-known columnist, television commentator and former presidential candidate rushed to Scalia´s defense in a column Feb. 11.

"Challenging the views of the Pope and the U.S. bishops, the justice urged any Catholic judge who could not in conscience impose a death sentence to get off the bench," Buchanan wrote. "´(T)he choice for the judge who believes the death penalty to be immoral,´ said Scalia, ´is resignation, rather than simply ignoring duly enacted constitutional laws and sabotaging the death penalty.´"

Buchanan continued: "Scalia had not contradicted or defied any Catholic doctrine. Rather, it is the Holy Father and the bishops who are outside the Catholic mainstream, and at odds with Scripture, tradition and natural law. For an exposition of Catholic doctrine, one should pick up the essay by Cardinal Avery Dulles in the April issue of First Things. As Dulles notes, Catholicism has supported the death penalty for 2000 years."

He then quotes from Cardinal Dulles´ article: "´In the Old Testament, the Mosaic Law specifies no less than 36 capital offenses calling for execution by stoning, burning, decapitation or strangulation. ... In the New Testament, the right of the State to put criminals to death seems to be taken for granted. ... At no point ... does Jesus deny that the State has authority to exact capital punishments."

To explain episcopal opposition to the death penalty, Buchanan further writes: "´The roots of opposition ... are not in Christianity,´ continues Dulles. ´The mounting opposition to the death penalty in Europe since the Enlightenment has gone hand in hand with a decline in faith in eternal life. ... The movement to abolish the death penalty in formerly Christian countries may owe more to secular humanism than to deeper penetration into the gospel. ..."

Buchanan´s article implies that Cardinal Dulles´ view is closer to Scalia´s than to the Pope´s. Is that case?

When contacted by ZENIT, Cardinal Dulles clarified his position in his April article.

"In my First Things article of April 2001 and several subsequent talks," said the theologian, "I have made two principal points: first, that the death penalty is not a violation of the right to life of a person who has committed a deliberate and heinous crime; second, that, given the current situation in countries like the United States, it is generally undesirable to impose the death penalty."

"The first of these theses is a reaffirmation of Scripture and long-standing tradition; the second is a prudential application of the principles, dependent on contingent circumstances," the cardinal stated.

"Pope John Paul II and the bishops, in my opinion, have never said that the death penalty is unjust in principle or that it is a violation of the criminal´s right to life," he said. "But it is their considered opinion that the death penalty should be applied only in rare and extreme cases."

"I support their judgment for a variety of reasons which I have spelled out elsewhere," Cardinal Dulles added. "Among them would be the likelihood of miscarriages of justice, the difficulty of assessing the personal guilt of the offender, and the danger of fostering a mentality of vindictiveness, which would be contrary to the teaching of the Gospel."

He continued: "They also fear that the frequent use of the death penalty may lead to disregard for the value of human life. If the Pope and the bishops were denying that the state ever had the right to inflict the death penalty, they would be outside the Catholic mainstream, but I do not understand them as doing so."