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A penalty of death

Commentary by American Life League president Judie Brown

Some days it seems as though the world has turned completely upside down; nothing makes sense. I just experienced a couple of those days and it has left me nearly – but not totally – speechless.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops just finished their annual meeting in Washington, D.C. I am certain a large number of topics were discussed, but the big news coming out of the meetings is that the bishops approved an 11 page statement entitled A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death. According to one news report, 237 bishops voted for it while four did not.

The bishops are quoted as saying that the country we live in cannot "teach that killing is wrong by killing those who kill."

Wait a minute, let me think about this. The country we live in does not teach that killing innocent human beings is wrong; the country we live in sanctions the direct murder of more than 3,500 innocent human beings daily. The country we live in imposes the most unjust of sentences on the most vulnerable people in our midst. The country we live in sanctions a culture of death.

Yet the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has nearly unanimously agreed that their focus on the death penalty is needed. And during the days leading up to the meeting, a case was already being made for this focus.

In fact just two days prior to the bishops' annual meeting his eminence, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the archbishop of Washington, D.C., was commenting to the media about the need for the bishops to deal with the death penalty. The reporter stated that Cardinal McCarrick cited a number of factors upon which his view was based, including the fact that the use of DNA evidence has freed wrongly convicted inmates.

DNA, of course, is a miniscule part of the molecular thread, as the late Professor Jerome LeJeune often said, that identifies who a human being is. LeJeune used to captivate audiences by explaining that this thread of DNA included a thousand times more information than could be contained in the largest computer in existence – at least in 1990 when he made that comparison.

But the most interesting piece of information about DNA is that when a human being's life begins as a single cell organism, a zygote, his or her DNA is present. This means that his or her identity is encoded for the rest of his life right there in that single cell. And yes, if at some later point in life he is wrongly convicted of a crime, as Cardinal McCarrick so accurately pointed out, it is that very same DNA that could be used to prove his innocence.

But – and this is an enormous but – the bishops did not, nor have they ever, used the scientific evidence relating to the DNA molecule to press for protection of every single innocent human being from his beginning as a single-celled organism. It seems to me that if DNA can be cited to shore up the argument that the bishops needs to launch a national campaign to oppose the use of the death penalty, then surely that same molecular evidence should be used to press for an end to abortion.

Not only that, but every bishop (and every ordained priest, for that matter) could use this very same evidence to educate all those wayward Catholic public figures who promote and advocate the direct murder of the innocent.

So while some will applaud the bishops' new document, I am stunned into disbelief. My astonishment stems from the realization that their unanimous support for the imposition of the Catholic Church's canon law, which would result in the denial of Holy Communion to any public figure who claims to be Catholic while supporting the aborting of the innocent, remains illusory.

In fact, the day after their announced agreement on A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death, we learned that Cardinal McCarrick's special task force on the problem of dealing with public figures who claim to be Catholic while supporting abortion was going to schedule meetings. The meetings will involve off-the-record discussions with Democratic and Republican lawmakers. The purpose of the meetings will be to take counsel from the politicians, according to press reports, on precisely how the bishops should deal with the thorny problem of canon law and its enforcement (specifically, it is Canon 915 which states that those "who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to communion").

While this piece of news made my perplexing day down right vexing, it does expose for one and all to see the problem and the seriousness of the situation. Let me be blunt.

Opposing the death penalty gets applause in every political corner of the room because it's the popular thing to do these days.

On the other hand, making it quite clear that nobody in public life can be Catholic and pro-abortion is not popular these days. In fact it's downright disgusting to a vast majority of Catholics; especially to elected officials who want use their Catholic identity go gain political power and influence.

So the bishop needs advice from elected officials? Say what?

The role of an ordained priest is never, ever to be popular at the expense of foregoing his mission as a priest. Every priest is called to teach and preach the truth because his goal is to make sure he does all he can to help souls get to heaven. This is not my personal opinion, mind you. It is a valuable lesson I learned from one of the most remarkable priests I've had the privilege to know: Cardinal John O'Connor.

Cardinal O'Connor loved his priests, and told me that one of the lessons he tried to instill in them came from the late French Cardinal Emmanuel-Celestin Suhard, who wrote, "Like Christ, the priest brings mankind a priceless good, that of worrying it. He must be the minister of restlessness, the dispenser of a new thirst and a new hunger. Like God, he calls a 'famine upon the land.' The unrest which the priest must spread is the fear of God."

The priest who spreads this fear of God is doing good, is saving souls, is protecting Christ from abuse, and is standing on 2,000 years of Catholic teaching and the word of God.

I have to ask myself, what will it take for all of the bishops who are actively involved in the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to agree that Canon 915 provides them with the teaching tool they need to make it clear that protecting Christ from sacrilege is the most important message they can give to pro-abortion public figures who claim to be Catholic?

What will it take for every bishop to agree that worrying Catholic people, challenging the status quo and defending the truly innocent are more critical than anything else they could possibly do?

I've had a very exasperating week. But I wonder if perhaps the bishops have also had a rather frustrating week. Even more than that, I pray that they are going to begin examining the basic concept of restoring the culture of life by lifting the penalty of death from all preborn babies.

Enforcing the Church's canon law would be an excellent place to start.

Release issued: 18 Nov 05