Archbishop, Confess!

Does Archbishop Charles Chaput give Catholic Republicans wiggle room on the death penalty?

Archbishop Charles Chaput attends a news conference at the Vatican on Sept. 16, 2014
Archbishop Charles Chaput attends a news conference at the Vatican on Sept. 16, 2014.

Photo by Tony Gentile/Reuters

Does the Catholic Church oppose the death penalty? Or does it give conservative politicians wiggle room to exploit the issue in elections?

The question has come up in Colorado, where Bob Beauprez, the Republican nominee for governor, is pounding Democratic incumbent John Hickenlooper for granting a reprieve to a man on death row. Beauprez, a Catholic, claims that the former archbishop of Denver, Charles Chaput, told him it’s OK to support the death penalty.

Is it? Here’s what the church’s catechism says about the issue:

[T]he traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means. … Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm—without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself—the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

That seems pretty clear: If you have jails and laws that allow life imprisonment, you shouldn’t kill convicts. But Chaput and other bishops have allowed the loophole in that passage to muddle the message. In 2002, when Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia disputed the teaching against capital punishment (Scalia cited “canonical experts” to support his dissent), Chaput chided him for “cafeteria Catholicism”—trying to “pick and choose what we accept in Church teaching.” In the same breath, however, Chaput signaled that if you’re going to pick and choose, the teaching against capital punishment is relatively expendable. He distinguished the death penalty from abortion, saying the two issues “clearly do not have equal moral gravity.”

In 2004, Chaput led a movement of bishops who urged Catholics to vote according to their faith. The bishops presented abortion and gay marriage as non-negotiable but often ignored the death penalty. According to a New York Times report, Chaput made clear to a Catholic audience, without precisely saying so, that “there is only one way for a faithful Catholic to vote in this presidential election, for President Bush and against Senator John Kerry.”

In 2005, Chaput wrote in the Denver Catholic Register that the death penalty should be ended, but he added that it didn’t “have the same gravity or moral content” as abortion. When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement against capital punishment, Chaput praised his colleagues for distinguishing the two issues. The statement, he noted, “doesn’t say it’s intrinsically evil to support the death penalty.”

The following year, capital punishment became an issue in Colorado. Beauprez, who was then a congressman, ran for governor. He told the Denver Post that he prayed daily, said the rosary, and took weekly communion. He cited his Catholicism as the basis of his opposition to abortion and embryonic stem-cell research. But he supported the death penalty and claimed that Catholic doctrine didn’t stand in the way. To justify his position, he cited Chaput’s counsel. The archbishop, according to Beauprez, had assured him that “society has a right to establish and enforce laws.”

What had Chaput told Beauprez? When asked to explain, the archbishop wouldn’t say. A spokeswoman for the Denver archdiocese said that Chaput believed the death penalty “can’t be justified in the United States today” but that the archbishop “has a policy that he doesn’t speak about private conversations.” Chaput had a weekly column in which he often addressed issues and legislation and chastised politicians. But he never used it to rebuke Beauprez. A month before the election, Chaput told the Post that while candidates could disagree about immigration policy, abortion was a “foundational” issue for Catholic voters because “it deals with the basic human right, the right to life.” Beauprez’s campaign manager said that based on Chaput’s guidance, Beauprez was the better Catholic and the better candidate.

That fall, the Colorado Catholic Conference mass-mailed a document titled, “Moral Principles for Catholic Voters.” The first signature on it was Chaput’s. The document told Catholics that abortion, gay marriage, and pornography were “intrinsically evil” and that “to vote for a candidate who takes a permissive stand” on those issues would be to “commit moral evil.” But the document sent a very different message on capital punishment. Because its morality depends on “motive and circumstances,” Chaput and his fellow bishops concluded, Catholics could reach “differing judgments on the state’s use of the death penalty.”

Chaput allowed no such ambivalence about abortion. When Catholic politicians invoked loopholes or dissents within Catholic tradition, he rebuked the politicians by name. In 2008, Chaput wrote a column blasting then–House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Joe Biden, who was then the Democratic vice presidential nominee. Chaput declared flatly that Pelosi had “misrepresented the overwhelming body of Catholic teaching against abortion” and that Biden’s adherence to Roe v. Wade “can’t be excused by any serious Catholic.” Chaput went on national television twice to refute Pelosi’s position. He dismissed the “ancient writers of the Church” Pelosi had quoted, and he insisted there could be “no doubt” about the church’s true teaching. He added that when politicians misled Catholics, bishops had a duty to correct them clearly and in public.

Does that rule apply to the death penalty? Apparently not. Beauprez, now in his second campaign for governor, is using the death penalty to portray Hickenlooper as soft on crime. And Beauprez is using Chaput as cover. Hickenlooper claims that Chaput once counseled him against the death penalty. He says Chaput told him that “the New Testament is all about forgiveness. And only God has the right to take a life.” Beauprez says he, too, consulted Chaput—and got a different story. He says he cleared his support for capital punishment with the archbishop.

The issue blew up Thursday night when Beauprez was asked in a debate:

You have said that your opposition to abortion is rooted in your strong Roman Catholic faith. You have called elected pro-choice Catholic Democrats “heretics.” I’m curious how you came to decide that your church is right on sanctity of life for the unborn, but wrong on sanctity of life as it applies to the death penalty, which you support.

Beauprez replied:

Because I’ve talked to—let me quote him—Archbishop Charles Chaput. And people are very confused about this, and that’s why I went to him, as, I think, a credible source on what church doctrine is. Many Catholic clergy believe, as the governor now says he does, that they’re anti–death penalty. But the archbishop made it very clear to me. He said, “Bob, you pray on it, sleep on it, reach the conclusion that is right for your soul.” And he said, “I’ll back you up, because church doctrine is not anti­–death penalty.” I want to be very clear about that.

The moderator was incredulous: “Pope Francis recently said that the death penalty should not be used even in the case of a terrible crime. But you feel that the archbishop told you otherwise?” Beauprez said yes, he had: “The archbishop was very clear on that. He said there are many in the clergy that have a policy position” against the death penalty, but it wasn’t “Church doctrine.”

After the debate, reporters contacted the archdiocese of Philadelphia, where Chaput is now the archbishop, for clarification. Chaput declined to say what he had told Beauprez. Instead, a spokesman for the archdiocese issued a statement. “Scripture and long Church teaching uphold the basic legitimacy of the death penalty,” it said. However, because it’s rarely needed for justice or public safety in the developed world, “the death penalty should not be used.”

Chaput is trying to have it both ways. Out of one side of his mouth, he’s saying that he opposes the death penalty. Out of the other side, he’s giving Beauprez and other politicians license to advocate the death penalty, on the grounds that Scripture and church teaching support its “basic legitimacy.” Chaput continues to reaffirm this loophole, even though the catechism says that in a country such as the United States, conditions in which a criminal could justly be executed are “practically nonexistent.” In the case at stake in Colorado—the convict is locked up for good—it’s obvious that those conditions don’t apply. Yet Chaput refuses to contradict a candidate who says he has not just a right to dissent on this issue but the archbishop’s approval to do so.

Fess up, archbishop. Did you tell Bob Beauprez that Catholics are entitled to their own conclusions on capital punishment? How do you square that with the catechism? Is the church pro-life on the death penalty? Or is it pro-choice?