I interviewed Father Frank Pavone, the director of Priests for Life, on Phyllis Schlafly’s weekly radio program many years ago. In discussing his 2006 book, Ending Abortion, I noticed that he had substituted the term, A Consistent Life Ethic, for the old Seamless Garment.
The latter was a metaphor employed by the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin that expanded the range of life issues from abortion and euthanasia to a broader horizon that included nuclear war, poverty, labor unions, and the minimum wage. The Cardinal’s idea has always bothered me because its very name implied a moral equivalency among many disparate issues. A priest friend told me years ago that it trivialized abortion opposition.
Unfortunately the existence of the garment has had the unintended consequence of allowing several Catholic politicians to hide their pro-abortion advocacy under its mantel. Illinois Senator Dick Durbin ran a poll on its 22 “moral” issues among the 15 Catholics in the Senate in 2004. The surprising “winner” was pro-choice advocate John Kerry with a raw score of 64%. The fact that Senator Kerry happened to be Catholic, but pro-abortion probably had nothing to do with Durbin, also a Catholic who promoted abortion. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, then the only anti-abortion Catholic senator, finished at the back of the pack.
Pope John Paul II let the world know that there was a hierarchy of life issues in his encyclical, The Gospel of Life, when he wrote abortion and euthanasia are crimes, which no human law can legitimize.
The issue that has caused the most consternation for those of us who want to concentrate on the primary life issues has been the death penalty. No other garment issue has distracted more from the energy needed to fight abortion and euthanasia than the death penalty. Curiously, most of the pro-abortion Catholic Senators in Durbin’s poll were against the death penalty. I find it impossible to fathom Catholics who can condone the slaughter of over 42 million unborn children since 1973 and yet protect the lives of convicted murderers.
Since 1930 fewer than 5000 convicted criminals have been executed. This has been usually after having exercised their constitutional rights of due process, including lengthy appeals, a last meal, clergy council, and family visitation. This was far more than they granted their innocent victims. The Catholic sense of proportionality alone should require us not to exert any undo efforts on this lesser cause when there is still so much to be done in truly ending abortion.
On an intellectual level, my main problem with the death penalty is that I have not heard one argument against it that makes any sense. Most opposition focuses on anecdotal stories of emotional hyperbole that in some cases have bordered on a pitted assault on our judicial system. Other arguments have abused the English language to the extent that words lose their meaning. They say that the death penalty is vengeance and legalized murder. If so, than all punishment is revenge and incarceration is legalized kidnapping. When language flies out the window, true justice goes with it.
During Mass years ago, one priest asked us to pray for the end of the intrinsic evils of abortion and the death penalty. Contrary to his moral equation, my college ethics book in the early 1960s, complete with an imprimatur, listed the death penalty as one of the three moral exceptions to the Fifth Commandment. If the death penalty were intrinsically evil, then the Church is guilty of having taught evil for a 1000 years.
The only argument that I have to listen to is the one made by Saint John Paul II in his Gospel of Life. As an addendum to his implicit condemnation of the seamless garment, the pope stated that he believed that the cases necessitating the death penalty were very rare, if not practically non-existent because of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system.
Unfortunately, he did not illustrate what these improvements were that allowed for his modification in Church teaching. His statement seems to contradict many other opponents of the death penalty who think that the justice system is in total disarray. Until I find a more plausible answer, I will adhere to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which allows for the right and duty of legitimate public authorities to punish malefactors by means of penalties in commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty.