February 26, 2002
Scalia: Stuck In the Past
By Anne Thompson
During his time on the bench, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has shown strong and steadfast support of capital punishment. He has issued opinions facilitating faster and easier implementation of the death penalty while repeatedly voting against stays of execution. In recent weeks, Scalia has even called for the resignation of Catholic judges who believe that capital punishment is wrong.
Considering Justice Scalia's active and sustained contribution to what Pope John Paul II has called "the culture of death," I was surprised that he was scheduled to be the alumnus spotlight speaker during Georgetown's annual Jesuit Heritage Week. While I listened to Scalia's remarks earlier this month celebrating Jesuit identity, Catholic values and cura personalis -- the value of the "whole person" -- a clear dichotomy emerged between the justice's words and his record on the court. When the moderator called for questions, I challenged Justice Scalia to confront the issue, asking him how he reconciles his Catholic beliefs with his continued support of the death penalty.
While Justice Scalia prefaced his response by saying that he had thought a lot about Catholicism and the death penalty, his remarks were riddled with misleading use of scripture, fallacious reasoning and a failure to address the central moral and spiritual issues at stake. Scalia began by citing a long history of the church's supporting the practice of capital punishment. "No authority that I know of denies the 2,000-year-old tradition of the church approving capital punishment," he said. "I don't see why there's been a change." Scalia traced the support for capital punishment all the way back to Saint Paul, who proclaimed, "But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid, for he beareth not the sword in vain, for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil" (Romans 13). Last month Scalia told participants at a conference in Chicago that this passage provided clear support for the death penalty.
Yet by presenting Saint Paul as the indisputable Biblical authority on capital punishment, Justice Scalia conveniently disregarded other passages from Scripture often cited as condemnations of the death penalty. Many Christians have cited the story in which Jesus stopped a perfectly lawful execution in the eighth chapter of John as evidence that the ultimate authority condemned capital punishment. In short, Scripture provides neither unequivocal support nor unequivocal condemnation of the death penalty. Scalia's pronouncement that the church has been supportive of the death penalty since Biblical times is gravely misleading.
Scalia continued to develop his argument that the church has historically supported the death penalty by citing Catholic thinkers such as Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas and Sir Thomas More. He recalled that More had taken part in numerous executions before becoming a canonized saint. Yet Scalia's retrospective argument for the death penalty is highly problematic. His claim rests on the assumption that what was acceptable in the past must continue to be acceptable. Following this kind of logic, progress and reform are impossible, and the church should still tolerate witch hunts and holy wars.
When Scalia finally turned to the current church authority's position on capital punishment, he dismissed the matter by citing the fact that Pope John Paul's condemnation of the death penalty issued in the Evangelium Vitae was not ex cathedra and therefore not official dogma of the Catholic Church. While Scalia talked about the technical aspects of the pope's statement on the death penalty, he failed to address the moral and spiritual issues at the heart of the matter. In his extensive response to my question, not once did he mention the central Christian values of forgiveness, the dignity of each human person and God as the Lord of Life. Searching for Catholic support of the death penalty, Scalia turned to narrow interpretations of the Bible, history and doctrinal technicalities, but steered clear of fundamental Christian teachings.
Scalia failed to address central Christian beliefs because they are irreconcilable with the practice of capital punishment. On the contrary, the death penalty feeds the cycle of violence fueled by revenge, disregarding the inherent value of all human life.
While current church authorities have recognized that the death penalty violates the fundamental moral teachings of Catholicism and have called for the abolition of capital punishment, Justice Scalia continues to cling to the ideas of the past in order to advance his own political beliefs about the death penalty. Scalia must be reminded that turning to the past and molding religious tenets to fit personal ideologies are dangerous courses for all faiths and societies.
The writer is an undergraduate at Georgetown University and is active in anti-death penalty causes.
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