The ‘seamless garment’ on the campaign trail: Does the death penalty violate pro-life values?

Catholicism includes opposition to the death penalty as part of its pro-life agenda. The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin called it … Continued

Catholicism includes opposition to the death penalty as part of its pro-life agenda. The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin called it the “seamless garment” of Catholic pro-life teaching, referring to the Gospel passage (John 19:23) where the Roman soldiers putting Christ to death were afraid to tear apart his garment because it was made of a whole piece of cloth. The “seamless garment” idea expresses respect for human life whether it is of a fetus inside a womb or for a murderer sentenced by justice. The political climate, and the approaching 2012 presidential contest, however, will probably put to the test the Catholic position of opposing both abortion AND the death penalty, since the current political scenario generally forces each party to choose one pro-life position and oppose the other. We Catholics are not permitted such political schizophrenia.

Let it be said that Catholic teaching allows for both abortion and the death penalty in few extreme cases. If it is medically certain that both child and mother would due without an abortion, the pro-life position allows an abortion that will preserve life. It is a matter of self defense. Similarly, if it is impossible to safely retain dangerous prisoners who have been convicted of murder, a death penalty may be exacted. But since those situations are relatively infrequent, it is safe to state that the Catholic pro-life position opposes both abortion and the death penalty.

Some Catholics argue that a believer may consider the life taken by abortion as worse offense than executing a convicted criminal. The loss of innocent human life, it is said, is a worse offense than the state-ordered killing of a murderer. Yet, no matter which testament you read, God does not rejoice in the death of a sinner (Ezekiel 18:23; 33:11). Jesus Lord explicitly told us that there is “more joy in Heaven for a sinner who repents than for the ninety-nine who remained faithful (Luke 15:7).” And in fact, Catholic opposition to the death penalty is based on the desire to see repentance. Life imprisonment is not only harder on the criminal than would be rapid execution, the length of time spent in jail usually brings on a reconsideration of evil deeds. Repentance for one’s sin is not meant as a get-out-of-jail-free card, but it may save souls. The positive effects of repentance can be seen in countless cases as different as Charles Colson’s ministry after conviction for Watergate and Michael Vick’s resumed football success after imprisonment for cruelty to animals.

The Catholic position to oppose both abortion and the death penalty is not always understood by those who follow a different faith’s teachings. John Calvin (Institutes, 2.11.1) for instance, insisted that both the Old Testament and the New Testament were equally binding on Christians, because every word of scripture was true. In contrast, the Council of Trent taught there was a difference between reformable and irreformable traditions. Thus, Christ’s teachings on marriage could reverse and reform the Old Testament teaching that allowed Abraham and the patriarchs to practice polygamy. So also, Moses’ teaching (Lev. 24:20) of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” has been superseded, says Catholicism, by Christ’s commandment (Mt. 5:38ff) “to love one’s enemies and to do good to those who persecute you.”

I am not one of those who believe that bishops have an obligation to forbid votes for a candidate like Rick Perry who opposes Catholic teaching on the death penalty or one like Barack Obama who upholds the law permitting abortions. The impact of the death penalty, however, is not an idle issue. The judicial system has flaws that have produced many faulty verdicts, sentencing innocent people to death. In Illinois, Governor Quinn suspended all executions. The “good” done by executing the guilty was outweighed by the evil done in executing even one innocent person. In contrast, Texas Governor Perry refused to accept scientific proof of a convicted man’s innocence. While recognizing that he was not obliged by law to intervene, Catholicism imposes a moral obligation to prevent state-sanctioned murder of innocent life. Ignoring that moral duty, places Governor Perry and his supporters against Catholic pro-life teaching.


Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo is Professor Emeritus of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Brooklyn College and Distinguished Scholar of the City University of New York.
  • usapdx

    Very well said but how many humans have lost their life account of religions? Just look at the RCC history. From the past to the present, religion is the cause of the loss of life in many events. What right does a religious in this country have the right to tell any person how to vote?

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