Journalists and “cafeteria” Catholics

totebag 270Talk about rigging the debate. While nothing may be higher on the Catholic agenda than abortion (even more, it appears at time, than war and poverty), it doesn’t mean the death penalty is some minor issue unrelated to Catholic teaching. A Catholic who supports the death penalty is a cafeteria Catholic. The church is not neutral on the death penalty and it is clearly in opposition to church teachings even if abortion is the only litmus test . . .

Posted by Michael at 2:20 pm on September 27, 2005

This is a very important issue and the kind of factual question that journalists wrestle with all of the time. I wish I had the time (it’s column day) to dig out all of the links you need on this, right now.

Amy Welborn! If you are out there, please leave us a comment or two.

The Vatican has certainly expressed strong doubts about whether the death penalty can be used in a just way in a society torn up by racism, poverty, etc. But the death penalty itself has not been completely written off. Also, this is not an issue on which the church has been united for, oh, 2,000 years or so — such as abortion (where the condemnation is from the highest levels of the pre-schism universal church).

Just war theory is also ancient, but people within the church often wrestle with application. John Paul II condemned the war in Iraq, but this was not raised to a level of doctrinal certainty. Abortion has been at that level for centuries and centuries.

Economic justice is a perfect example of a topic where the goal is sure, but the means are not. What has caused more poverty in the U.S. in the past few generations — lack of commitment to economic justice or the fragmentation of the modern family?

Rome (and Eastern Orthodoxy, too) would say the best answer is both-and.

But there is the rub. Which modern American political party is on the correct side of both of those issues?

Michael wrote: “A Catholic who supports the death penalty is a cafeteria Catholic.”

That may be true in your church, but not in the Vatican’s church. A Catholic may also argue that the death penalty can be just, but that it is racist in this culture. There are lines people draw in different places on that issue. On abortion, the church’s teachings are ancient and universal. Catholics in modern America will argue about this (and they do and the press must cover that), but the doctrinal issue is quite clear.

Meanwhile, back to the original issue that started this discussion (keep those comments coming).

The New York Times also has a report out about the frightening rhetoric of that Cheryl F. Halpern woman, the new chairperson at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Once again, we are told — note the sneer quotes — that she is committed to “objectivity and balance” in public television and radio. There’s more:

Ms. Halpern’s commitment raised concerns among some broadcast executives who said her predecessor, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, used “balance” to justify providing the financing for at least one conservative program, featuring the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, and for monitoring programs that have been critical of the Bush administration.

Oh my gosh! Someone attempted to justify starting one — that number does appear to be one — conservative commentary program in a nation that is as strongly divided on political and cultural issues as this one? In the age of conservative talk shows and, yes, even the dreaded Fox News? What were they thinking? Ratings? Looking for bipartisan support?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Michael

    Can you identify a liberal commentary show on PBS that does not include conservatives as a counterbalance? Is there a single show where, week after week, liberal opinion makers are allowed to give unfiltered, biased takes on the news without some sort of opposing viewpoint??

  • tmatt

    Can you name one in which the moderator or executive editor is a cultural conservative? The issue is some diversity in the gatekeepers.

    Also, the constant thorn in the flesh has been the documentary teams. Part of the problem there, of course, is that there are so few conservatives who can work at this level in the documentary world.

  • Erik Nelson

    It is indeed true that the Catholic church is not neutral on the death penalty, as this paragraph from the Catechism is very clear:

    2267 “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”

    The problem is that most Catholics do not argue against the death penalty in the way that JPII did (which was consistent with the Catechism). Instead they argue that the death penalty is absolutely wrong–an argument somewhat at odds with traditional Catholic teaching on the matter.

    One may also note that even in the US, the death penalty is indeed rare, both compared to its use in the past and to the number of criminals in prison.

  • Michael

    Can you name one in which the moderator or executive editor is a cultural conservative

    Can you name one moderator or executive editor who is a secularist or liberal? Maybe Bonnie Erbe. Do we assume Gwen Ifill is a liberal because she is an African American woman?

  • Megan B.

    It seems very difficult to argue that in the context of the American judicial system, the death penalty is “the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”

    The catechism goes on to say that: “Today … the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

    This doesn’t seem that gray to me. If a person supports the regular use of the death penalty in the American judicial system, it seems to me a huge stretch to call them faithful to the Church’s overall teachings on human life. People may “draw the lines in different places”, as tmatt says, but I don’t think many of those lines are consistent with the Vatican’s current teaching.

  • Avram

    Lumping “abortion” into a single issue obscures a lot of details. Terry, for how long has it been official Catholic doctrine that human life starts at conception?

    (BTW, that article you linked to? The author’s take — and Tertullian’s if the author is representing him corectly — on Exodus 21:22-24 is very much at odds with the traditional Jewish interpretation.)

  • Sean Gallagher

    When it comes to comparing Catholic moral teaching on abortion to another life issue such as the death penalty, the distinction between the two comes down to whether or not the Church teaches that the specific act is intrinsically evil or not.

    With abortion, it always involves the deliberate killing of an innocent human person. According to the Church’s teaching, based on its view of natural law and revelation, this is intrinsically evil.

    The death penalty, on the other hand, in the best of situations, involves the killing of a human person who is definitively known to have acted gravely against the common good.

    Therefore it is not intrinsically evil. There can be mitigating factors that can make the death penalty an evil act, but it is not such in and of itself.

    Now one might argue that in the United States in the 21st century there are no situations where the death penalty is morally justifiable. But, what that person would be doing in that case is making an argument about the prudential application of the death penalty.

    The problem that members of the media who use sneer quotes when using the word “objectivity” seem to run up against when comparing the Church’s teaching on abortion with its teaching on the death penalty is that, it would appear (by the use of their sneer quotes), they don’t believe that there is anything that is intrinsically (i.e., objectively) evil.

    Now perhaps, as tmatt has suggested, one chooses to use the word “balanced” instead “objective.” With this change, one might be able to at least treat with respect the fact that a sizable segment of society believe and seek to make an intelligent case for the fact that some acts can indeed be instriscally evil.

    I don’t know why this is so difficult for some folks at NPR and the NYTimes to do. I’m asking them to buy into the belief that some things can be intrinsically evil. I just want them to treat it with respect, to presume that an intelligent argument can be made for its validity.

  • Sean Gallagher

    A correction for the first sentence in the last paragraph of my comment:

    “I’m not asking them…”

  • Erik Nelson

    Megan, the Catechism does not say that the “regular” use of the death penalty is wrong. It only says that the situations in which it can be justified are rare . There are a lot of hedges in that. First, the Catechism is not specific as to number. How rare is rare (that is, if it is not practically nonexistent)? One in a million? Even so, we would still see executions. Is that a violation of the Catechism? No.

    Which is why so many Catholics revert to their own language, rather than the language of the Catechism, to oppose the death penalty. Such as opposing the “regular” use of the death penalty. There is no other kind of use–what would you have the state do, arbitrarily use the death penalty without first passing a law to regularize it?

    The Catechism offers no absolute condemnation of the death penalty. To offer an argument that says that the death penalty is inherently wrong is as much a violation of the Catechism as one who would argue that the death penalty should be used for a broad range of crimes, rather than the most extremely narrow selection of the most heinous crimes.

  • http://JAVA ECJ

    “Catholics who have girded themselves with the cross for the extermination of the heretics, shall enjoy the indulgences and privileges granted to those who go in defense of the Holy Land.”

    Canon 3, Fourth Lateran Council

    This council (among other things) infallibly established the Doctrine of Transubstantiation. Opposition to the Death Penalty in Catholic teaching is a very recent historical phenomenon. It is therefore not a valid test case.


  • Megan B.

    By regular I meant unexceptional, not non-arbitrary. As in, “kill a cop, get the death penalty” — there’s no extreme circumstance there as described in the catechism (i.e. cop-killers aren’t more likely to, say, bust out of prison and wreak havoc on society if we don’t kill them dead), it’s just the regular and unexceptional application of a legal principle that calls for the death penalty for certain crimes. I think that is clearly contrary to letter of what the catechism teaches, and certainly to the spirit of it. Sean says “one might argue that in the United States in the 21st century there are no situations where the death penalty is morally justifiable” — well, yes, I think that’s what the catechism is arguing, in fact. That’s certainly how the Vatican interprets it. I mean, have you read the rhetoric they put out on this issue?

    I disagree with Sean when he says that this is about whether a good Catholic should say the death penalty is intrinsically evil in every circumstance. That’s beside the point. The question is whether it is fair in public discourse to claim that a person is significantly out of step with Catholic teaching on human life if they support the death penalty as currently implemented (i.e. for a certain set of the “worst” crimes) in the American judicial system. (Even ignoring the question of bias/prejudice.)

    I think the answer is clearly yes. Abortion may be more important (and of longer standing), but the death penalty is clearly also of REAL consequence, specifically in the area of the dignity of human life. How can you criticize journalists, pundits, or activists for making the same connection that, for instance, JPII consistently made himself?

    “The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will acclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life in every situation. A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform.”


    “It is surely more necessary than ever that the inalienable dignity of human life be universally respected and recognised for its immeasurable value. The Holy See has engaged itself in the pursuit of the abolition of capital punishment and an integral part of the defence of human life at every stage of its development and does so in defiance of any assertion of a culture of death.”

  • Tom Breen

    The death penalty is a red herring. Pro-death penalty Catholics can find wiggle room in the Catechism by citing the letter, rather than the spirit, of Catholic teaching (didn’t St. Paul have something to say about following the letter of the law rather than the spirit? I think it was “the letter kills, but the spirit gives life,” which in this case, anyway, is literally correct).

    A better case is divorce and remarriage. Unlike the death penalty (and unlike abortion – there’s no Thomas Aquinas argument for divorce like there is for abortion), Catholic teaching from the patristic age to the present is absolutely consistent on the question of divorce. There is, of course, a great deal of scriptural precedent, too.

    The catechism is blunt: “Divorce is a grave offense against the natural law.” Remarried Catholics cannot, of course, receive Communion.

    And yet how many Catholics of any stripe in this country are in favor of laws banning or restricting divorce and remarriage? My guess is that there are very few such Catholics. And yet opposition to the church’s teaching on divorce seems to make one just as much of a cafeteria Catholic as opposition to the church’s teaching on abortion.

  • tmatt


    Important, yes. Of equal clarity and stature, no.

    The problem, Micah, is that the world of Catholic academia really does include people who are crystal clear on war and the death penalty, but then they actually want to waffle — for political reasons — on the ancient clarity of the abortion teachings. On the right, there are those who want to waffle — for political reasons — on the contemporary, but still important, statements on the death penalty.

    Tom: Excellent point. The divorce issue is a strong point of comparison.

    Now, when the GOP declines to take on Roe, how will the traditional Catholics feel? They will probably feel like the pro-life, consistent Catholics who fight on in the Democratic Party.

  • Sean Gallagher


    I think that you and I are not as far apart on this as it might have appeared. I believe that, by and large, the way that the death penalty is applied in the United States at the current time is not morally justifiable according to the conditions laid out in the catechism. I think its use works against creating a culture of life.

    But I still think that the fact that the Catholic Church teaches that abortion is instrinsically evil on the one hand and that the death penalty on the other is not should be taken into account by those in the media. They shouldn’t portray these two teachings as if they are equal. Why? Because they’re not.

    Such a comparison might be used by a source to show that one civic official who opposes abortion but, at the least, is in favor of using the death penalty in some cases is as bad a Catholic as one who actively supports keeping abortion legal but works for banning the death penalty.

    This comparison is not valid according to the teachings of the Church.

  • David R.

    Tom, please help me find where Thomas Aquinas argued for abortion.

  • Tom Breen


    Aquinas didn’t oppose abortion within the first 40 days of conception, because he based his understanding of biology on the theories of Aristotle, who argued that human souls first pass through vegetative and then animal states, before becoming human. Once a fetus is “ensouled,” Aquinas argued that abortion was immoral. This is sort of a common trope among pro-abortion rights Catholics:

  • tmatt


    And when you consider the ancient Church Fathers (a term that includes some female figures, too), Aquinas is relatively modern. This is one case where modern science has only added to the information stressing the humanity of the unborn. Thus, you have atheists for life, too.

  • Dan Berger


    I can’t say I place a lot of trust in the position paper from Catholics for Choice; they can’t even keep the distinction between celibacy and chastity straight.

    (I’m one of those Democrats tmatt mentioned.)

  • Tom Breen


    Interesting, too, that the views of the ancient fathers like Tertullian and Gregory of Nyssa are closer to what modern science shows about conception – and they were writing hundreds of years before Aquinas.


    Yeah, I was lazy in searching for a link rather than hunting on my bookshelf. If you’re looking for the relevant Aquinas citation, it’s in “On the Truth of the Catholic Faith,” Book II, Chapter 89.

    The “delayed hominization” theory derived from Aristotle kept popping up in Catholic doctrine. It wasn’t until 1869 that Pope Pius IX proclaimed immediate hominization as the definitive view.

  • Susan F Peterson

    In our area, the WSJ program was aired on the local NPR station at 5 am on Sunday morning. Then I think they moved it to 3 am. My husband had been getting up at 5 on Sunday to watch it, but 3 discouraged even him. These broadcast times don’t indicate much of a desire for the program (which is good) to find an audience.