Death Penalty Decision Answers Lingering Questions About How Barr’s Faith Affects His Politics

Attorney General William Barr testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

By Charles C. Camosy. Charlie Camosy, though a native of very rural Wisconsin, has spent more than the last decade as a professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University. He is the author of five books, including, most recently, “Resisting Throwaway Culture.” He is the father of four children, three of whom were adopted from Philippines.


U.S. Attorney General William Barr is, by all accounts, a very committed Catholic. He’s a Knight of Columbus and served for several years as a member of its Supreme Board. He served on the board of the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C. until 2017 and serves on the board of the New York Archdiocese’s Inner-City Scholarship Fund. He reportedly donates $50,000 of his own money to pay for Catholic education for needy students each year.

His wife goes to Bible study regularly (and now, one presumes, somewhat awkwardly) with the wife of Robert Mueller.

Barr’s Catholicism is so well known that it came up in his confirmation hearing for attorney general when Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy, chastising Democrats who had made an issue of a judicial nominee’s Catholic associations, rhetorically asked if Barr’s religion should disqualify him for the job. (Barr said no.)

But Barr himself has long been criticized by secular groups for mixing church and state, particularly for his declaration that “society’s moral culture is based on God’s law,” in a speech to a Catholic group in 1992.

The worry that Barr might impose his private religious views on federal matters has apparently been overblown, at least judging from his decision this week to reinstate the federal death penalty.

Since at least 2005, when they issued their statement, “A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death,” America’s Catholic bishops have condemned the death penalty as inconsistent with the pro-life teaching of the Catholic Church.

The federal government has not used the death penalty in nearly 20 years, making it hard for Barr to claim that his decision is demanded by law. No one is forcing him to make the change, in other words. It appears to be his specific, individual choice alone.

As one might imagine, the powers that be in the Catholic Church are not happy. Speaking for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Frank Dewane said, “I am deeply concerned by the announcement by the United States Justice Department that it will once again turn, after many years, to the death penalty as a form of punishment, and urge instead that these Federal officials be moved by God’s love, which is stronger than death, and abandon the announced plans for executions.”

The USCCB is on very strong ground. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the “dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes” and notes that “more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.”

The only moral possibility for the death penalty comes from, as St. John Paul II put it, a situation where it is the only way to “defend society.” But in 1995, the Holy Father noted that “such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent” given the capacities of most penal systems. Today’s U.S. supermax federal prisons, it hardly needs saying, fall into the “practically non-existent” category.

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Source: Religion News Service