Capital punishment, abortion and a Catholic politician

Capital punishment, abortion and a Catholic politician October 19, 2012 Washington Post’s front page today featured a long profile focused on the faith and religious underpinnings of former Virginia Gov. — and current U.S. Senate candidate — Tim Kaine.

The top of the 2,700-word story:

It’s not unusual, on an election-year Sunday, to find a white candidate in a black church. But Tim Kaine, swaying this month to the gospel groove at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in a poor Richmond neighborhood, wasn’t on the campaign trail. He was taking a break from it at his home parish.

“How you doing, brother?” said Peter Thompson, 53, a lean black man in a green fedora, hugging the round-faced Kaine on the church steps.

The part-time Pizza Hut cook and the former governor have known each other since Kaine joined the church almost three decades ago. “We helped start the Men’s Group together,” Thompson said.

Kaine, 54, and his wife, Anne Holton, made their way into the cool bright sanctuary, stopped by friends every few feet to swap Sunday greetings and family news. The Kaines were married in 1984 at St. E’s altar. All three of their children were baptized at its font.

For Kaine, religion saturates both life and politics. A former missionary in rural Honduras, he talks frequently of how Catholicism informs his views on race and poverty and his deep embrace of cultural diversity, which he hails as “God’s rich tapestry.”

It’s a meaty, fascinating story.

The Post provides a gripping, emotional account of the Democratic candidate’s attempts to balance his personal religious convictions against the death penalty and abortion with political pragmatism and the will of the people.

Except that the story fails to include the voices of any conservative Catholic theologians who might critique the following:

Instead Kaine took his feelings straight to voters, casting his opposition to both capital punishment and abortion as strict articles of Catholic faith. But he emphatically pledged that he would uphold laws permitting both.

Kaine’s pitch neutralized both issues, and made him a hero to Democrats fighting to win back Bible voters. But his victory also set him up with a case of moral self-doubt that haunts him still.

Abortion was easier. Kaine has straddled the issue, as many Democrats do, by abhorring abortion but leaving the decision up to each woman. Unlike capital punishment, abortion cases don’t routinely land on a governor’s desk.

The Post does not make clear that the church hierarchy views the death penalty differently than, say, abortion or euthanasia. As I understand it, one’s position on capital punishment is more of a matter of individual conscience, while a Catholic politician at odds with the church on abortion could be denied Holy Communion. Mollie did an exceptional job of explaining this in a 2009 post.

So what do church leaders say about Kaine’s approach on these life issues?

Just asking.

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7 responses to “Capital punishment, abortion and a Catholic politician”

  1. So what do church leaders say about Kaine’s approach on these life issues?

    Journalists can find ‘church leaders’ to provide them quotes of to fit any agenda. Within the Catholic Church can be found a particularly wide range of political/social views. A sure norm for what the Catholic Church teaches of the faith is the ‘Catechism of the Catholic Church.’

    The article shows a weblink to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) as a source for Kaines understanding of the faith. Journalists should understand, however, that the USCCB is not a teaching authority, per se, rather a conference, or many committees publishing their own recommendations. USCCB publications typically reflect a certain tendency of an author within a particular cultural, societal or political environment.

    Some general principles pulled from the Catechism (
    1) Abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment all result in a person being killed.
    2) Innocent or guilty: The dead victims of abortion and euthanasia are different from victims of capital punishment in that abortion and euthanasia victims are ALWAYS innocent of any crime. Victims of capital punishment should received a fair trial and the State (legitimate public authority) has the right and duty to inflict penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime. Whereas the victim of abortion or euthanasia does not received a fair trial, and the penalty of death is not commensurate with the ‘crime’ of being too young, inconvenient, old, etc.
    3) Death penalty: Catechism goes on to clarify that death penalty should be rare in today’s times, but nonetheless, the Catholic Church teaches that death penalty is a decision to be made by public authorities on case by case basis.

  2. Good explanation.

    In any case, all Kaine said was that he would uphold the laws as written. A Governor has no influence on abortion other than moral suasion. A Governor doesn’t have to sign off on the death penalty; failing to do so is still upholding the laws of the state.

  3. It’s misleading to cite the death penalty as left up to the individual conscience, whereas other issues aren’t. One the one hand, ultimately all decisions are made by conscience which Catholics are instructed to follow regardless. On the other hand, while the Church acknowledges that in some cases, at certain periods and in certain places, there may be justified uses of the death penalty, there is also a firm condemnation of its application in modern societies since Vatican II. I quote, as it says this most succinctly, JPII’s Evangelium Vitae discussion on the death penalty: “Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

    This teaching isn’t that it is to be made on a case by case basis; it is that the US penal system is one that is capable of protecting society from offender’s to such an extent that the death penalty should not be used. Right below in Evangelium Vitae, JPII quotes the Catechism: “If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.” This goes far beyond rare into nonexistence for the death penalty today.

    Kaine’s decision as governor to allow an inmate’s execution would be in opposition to the work, statements, and professed beliefs of the two most recent popes, many bishops, and the Catechism — and given his position as governor, where he could really save lives rather than abortion where his affect is far more stunted, I think his position on the death penalty is really a key life issue for Virginia voters.

    • Bob,
      while I agree with your initial point about conscience, I cannot follow in your statement that “there is also a firm condemnation of [the death penalty’s] application in modern societies” by the Church. Yes, you add “since Vatican II” and go on to quote the two most recent popes and I wouldn’t contradict either. However, every teaching given by a Council or a Pope must be seen in light of all the teaching that have come before. There should be no room for “modern snobbery”.

      Now, it is certainly the view of John Paul II that today’s improvement make legitimate use of the death penalty rare or non-existent. However, JPII did not speak of the US in specific but of the modern world in general.

      Yes, a Catholic is bound – in conscience – to accept these teachings: that, as the catechism says, “If bloodless means are sufficient”, bloody means are not to be used.

      However, the Church doesn’t answer whether that condition is met. JPII made a general observation of the modern world but that doesn’t mean that he could, would or did rule that any particular country met the condition.

      This is up for law makers of that particular country to consider. And if they decide that the death penalty is needed, they thereby admit that their country is “underdeveloped” in that regard. But it’s their decision.

      It’s not even a governor’s decision because a) he doesn’t make the laws, b) he has to execute the laws. If he cannot, in conscience, to this than he is the wrong man at the wrong job at the wrong time. No, Kain could not “really save lives” except by abusing his right to pardon criminals. I absue because a pardon is to be given (or not) to each individually, not because one disagrees with a particular penalty.

  4. Whenever capital punishment comes up the media totally ignores the issue of who will pay the price in blood and death to keep murderers locked up for life (the usual alternative to cap punishment promoted by those against it).
    Yet every year, according to reliable statistics, 7 or 8 prison guards on average are killed by prisoners, usually convicted murderers. (There was wholesale slaughter of guards by murderers at a prison in NY a few years ago)
    Yet I never see any stories in the media showing sympathy or support for the prison guards who will be executed in order to do away with capital punishment. Talk about forgotten by the media victims.
    Pardon me for bringing up an issue noone in the media wants to cover –or even touch- as they ooze compassion for mass murderers, child murderers, and assorted others behaving like savages.
    I feel strongly about this because a local guard was murdered by a lifer murdereer in the process of escaping. When he was finally caught years later he became the darling of activists who now wanted him freed because, they believed, he had “reformed.”

  5. If a governor decides not to go along with a death penalty sentence, he or she does not “pardon” the convict, he “commutes” the sentence to life. That’s what happened when the IL governor (now himself in prison) froze the execution of all death penalty sentences.

    On a tour of Pontiac maximum security prison in Illinois some time back, the guards told us that many of the prisoners really run the place. They know where all the guards live and the names of their family members.
    In general, I’m against the death penalty for practical reasons, but I could see how dangerous really violent men can be even when they are behind bars. Not only do they murder guards while in lock-up, they also can and sometimes do successfully order harm done to guards and their families in their homes.

    This is another case where there is more than YES or NO; lots of nuances that rarely get any attention.

  6. I can’t bridge this gap. I can’t understand how anybody can hate the unwanted, the unplanned, the unable, and the unfit so much as to assert that they deserve the death penalty.

    To me there is NO difference between abortion, war, the death penalty, and euthanasia. They’re all the same disease of hatred and bigotry.