Religion News Service Editor Mark Silk Says Catholic Church Should Be Calling Out AG William Barr for Reinstating the Death Penalty

Attorney General William Barr speaks during a tour of a federal prison in Edgefield, S.C, on July 8, 2019. The Justice Department says it will carry out executions of federal death row inmates for the first time since 2003. The announcement Thursday says five inmates will be executed starting in December. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college’s Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.


Attorney General William Barr’s announcement last week that he is lifting the Justice Department’s moratorium on federal death penalty executions has again raised the issue of whether a Catholic government official who advances policy condemned by his church ought to be denied communion.

Here at RNS, columnist Charles Camosy says yes. He believes that Barr’s bishop, Michael Burbidge of the diocese of Arlington, should “ask to sit down with Barr and respectfully insist on his faithfulness to the teaching of the church.” If Barr doesn’t, then the bishop “would be justified” in asking Barr not to show up at the altar rail.

Over at U.S. Catholic, retired Catholic University professor Stephen Schneck says no.  While insisting that Catholics in public life should “bring their faith to bear when addressing the laws and policies of the political orders,” he urges “my fellow American Catholics on all sides in public life to forego any new rounds of the Communion Wars. Regarding the sacraments, we are wrong to judge and wrong to politicize.”

Thus far, Burbidge has made no public statement on the matter, so we can only speculate about whether he’s invited Barr for a sit-down. The official hierarchical response has come from Bishop Frank J. Dewane, chair of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

Dewane cites decades-long papal criticism of the death penalty, culminating in Pope Francis’ recent amending of the church’s Catechism to say that capital punishment is “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” He points out that in June the U.S. bishops voted “overwhelmingly” to support this position and concludes by urging that “Federal officials take this teaching into consideration, as well as the evidence showing its unfair and biased application, and abandon the announced plans to implement the death penalty once more.”

More pointedly, Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich, a leading Francis supporter, tweeted: “Today, Attorney General William Barr announced that he was reversing a moratorium on the federal death penalty. This decision is gravely injurious to the common good, as it effaces the God-given dignity of all human beings, even those who have committed terrible crimes.”

Neither Dewane nor Cupich, however, suggested that Barr has something to answer for as a prominent Catholic layman (a Knight of Columbus and past board member of the KoC and the Catholic Information Center of Washington, D.C., among other things). Their criticism has, in other words, not been comparable to the way some bishops called out Catholic government officials like John Kerry and Kathleen Sebelius for their support of abortion rights.

In fact, and in contrast to the abortion issue, there has been pushback in high ecclesiastical places against the Vatican’s evolved position on capital punishment. Foremost among those pushing back has been Cardinal Raymond Burke, the sometime archbishop of St. Louis whom Francis removed as head of the Vatican’s highest court in 2014.

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Source: Religion News Service