Washington Notebook

March 24, 2005
Vol. 2, No. 12

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Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent

Washington 
Correspondent
jfeuerherd@natcath.org
 

"Our Catholic teaching on the death penalty is both clear and complicated. The Catholic church has long acknowledged the right of the state to use the death penalty in order to protect society. However, the church has more and more clearly insisted the state should forgo this right if it has other means to protect society."

Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick,
himself a former supporter of capital punishment.

 

No easy answers

By Joe Feuerherd

Death -- Terri Schiavo's and for those facing state sanctioned execution -- was the theme in Washington over the last several days, which seems appropriate enough for Holy Week.

Early Monday morning, President Bush arose from his slumber and signed hastily-drawn legislation he thought would give Terri Schiavo's parents their day in federal court. Four days later, in what would seem to be their last appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case. Absent intervention from someone (Jeb Bush?) or some thing (Congress?) Schiavo will soon die. Which, depending on your point of view, is either another physical manifestation of the current reality, government-sanctioned killing, or, perhaps, something else altogether.

Kirk Bloodsworth knows of government-sanctioned killing. Twice convicted by Maryland courts (the first conviction was overturned) in the brutal rape and murder of nine-year-old Dawn Hamilton, Bloodsworth spent nearly nine years in prison, two on death row. In fact, he was no where near the scene of the crime, as DNA testing eventually confirmed.

The burly ex-Marine told his story at the Monday morning press conference called to launch the U.S. bishops' "Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty." He was joined by Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, himself a former supporter of capital punishment. "I am part of a family with a lot of policemen," explained the Brooklyn-bred archbishop. "Support for the death penalty was part of growing up."

McCarrick and his staff knew the Schiavo situation -- President Bush had just signed the bill allowing the federal courts jurisdiction over the case -- would interrupt the theme of the press conference. Or was it the same theme?

When the inevitable question was asked, McCarrick had a prepared response, the nuance of which is sure to raise hackles from those who already suspect the Washington archbishop of something less than total purity on life issues.

He quoted the pope. "In a speech last year, Pope John Paul II affirmed the inherent dignity of every human being: 'Even our brothers and sisters who find themselves in the clinical condition of a 'vegetative state,' he said, 'retain their human dignity in all its fullness.'

"The Holy Father said these patients have the right to basic health care, including nutrition and hydration. He reminded us that providing water and food, even by artificial means, is 'morally obligatory, insofar as and until it is seen to have attained its proper finality, which in the present case consists in providing nourishment to the patient and alleviation of his suffering.' "

And then the qualifier. "According to church teaching, there are times when even such basic means may cease to be morally obligatory, because they have become useless or unduly burdensome for the patient. But deliberately to remove them in order to hasten a patient's death would be a form of euthanasia, which we believe is gravely wrong."

Asked to elaborate, particularly on when "even such basic means may cease to be morally obligatory," McCarrick declined. He was too smart to engage that discussion with reporters more interested in controversy than comprehension.

In fact, as McCarrick hinted, Catholic teaching on the provision of hydration and nutrition to those in a persistent vegetative or minimally conscious state is far from definitive. Individual circumstances matter. (For more on what the church teaches on the topic, see the April 1 issue of NCR.)

It wasn't the only nuance the Washington archbishop offered that morning.

"Our Catholic teaching on the death penalty is both clear and complicated. The Catholic church has long acknowledged the right of the state to use the death penalty in order to protect society. However, the church has more and more clearly insisted the state should forgo this right if it has other means to protect society."

The bishops' conference released a poll they commissioned on the death penalty. Catholics -- who previously mirrored public opinion on the death penalty -- stand out like a statistical sore thumb in the latest surveys. Half now say they oppose capital punishment. That's up about 20 percentage points from polls conducted just 18 months ago. And among the half who continue to support the death penalty, the intensity of that belief (measured by those who say they "strongly support" the practice) has dropped from 40 percent to 20 percent.

The trend is similar in the general population (60 percent of Americans continue to support the death penalty, down 20 percentage points over the last decade) but much more pronounced in the Catholic community.

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Such wide swings on such a well-established issue, said pollster John Zogby, can only result from a "cataclysmic event that seismically moves public opinion." That "event," said Zogby, was actually several things: publicity about DNA testing that has exonerated some imprisoned death-row inmates, the moratorium on death sentences instigated by former Illinois Governor George Ryan, and recent Supreme Court decisions forbidding death sentences for the mentally retarded and those under age 18 among them.

Catholic opinion has been influenced by those events, said Zogby, but also by the steadfast opposition of church leaders to the death penalty. Catholics, said Zogby, "are listening to the message of the pope and the bishops."

Meanwhile, a March 21-22 CBS poll found more than 60 percent of those surveyed favored removing Schiavo's feeding tube, while 82 percent said Congress and the president should not be involved. Are Catholics listening on this issue? Or is church teaching too complicated, too ill-defined, not sound-bite ready?

Here's a Holy Week lesson: contrary to popular opinion, the Catholic church is not a moral convenience store or an easy ethical reference guide, a crutch for the intellectually lazy to lean on as they search for authoritative answers to big questions. If only it were that easy.


Editor's Note: Joe Feuerherd will be on vacation next week. The next Washington Notebook will posted April 7.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

 
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