What a weekend for inquisitive, thorough, and objective journalism. First we have 60 Minutes' coverage of Plamegate, and today we open the Washington Post to find a front page editorial/feature on the faith of Tim Kaine, VA Democratic candidate for governor. Usually when the mainstream media examines the position of the Catholic Church and how it impacts a politician's positions, it's with the distasteful tone of "how dare the Church insist its members listen on matters of faith and morals."
What a difference another party can make. The Post uncritically accepts John F. Kennedy's compromise on his faith in insisting it won't intrude upon his governing. Tim Kaine shares that same devotion to Catholic Church principles, at least when it comes to matters of life and death. He insists that his faith is a fair question, since it's part of who he is. But he won't bring that aspect of his character to the state house in Richmond.
The article only compounds Kaine's appalling stance. If Kaine is so adamantly pro-life, and that includes anti-death penalty, then why didn't Kaine protest abortion as much as he once protested the death penalty? Writer Caryle Murphy doesn't ask. What do conservative (non-Georgetown) Catholics think of Tim Kaine's position? Murphy doesn't ask. What do quality theologians say about the death penalty? Murphy doesn't ask.
Sadly, statements from the Church, including those by John Paul II, have contributed to the confusion in this area. The Catechism is vague on when it should be applied, but makes it very clear that states have a right to execute criminals, contra Murphy. Add the U.S. bishops into this mess, and it's entirely unclear what the Church teaches. Then it's too easy for a reporter to believe Kaine, common wisdom, and some errant professor of social thought. For the best recent theological review of this topic, see Avery Cardinal Dulles in the April 2001 First Things. Dulles takes on the abolitionists:
This abolitionist position has a tempting simplicity. But it is not really new. It has been held by sectarian Christians at least since the Middle Ages. Many pacifist groups, such as the Waldensians, the Quakers, the Hutterites, and the Mennonites, have shared this point of view. But, like pacifism itself, this absolutist interpretation of the right to life found no echo at the time among Catholic theologians, who accepted the death penalty as consonant with Scripture, tradition, and the natural law.
Dulles is unequivocal: the teachings that would justify abolition just don't exist:
The Catholic magisterium does not, and never has, advocated unqualified abolition of the death penalty. I know of no official statement from popes or bishops, whether in the past or in the present, that denies the right of the State to execute offenders at least in certain extreme cases.
Opposition to the death penalty isn't Tim Kaine's faith. This is Tim Kaine's politics projected onto his faith.
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