Some of the comments I’ve been seeing around the web relating to the post made here on abolishing the death penalty, or other news stories relating to the death penalty, seem to insinuate that calling for an end to the death penalty ignores the fact that abortion is also present in our culture. And, these comments insinuate, abortion always kills the innocent. The argument appears to be a game of numbers: A few (questionable, in the minds of many) innocents, compared to a lot of innocents necessarily means a stronger focus on the greater number of innocents.

Why, therefore, aren’t theologians also rising up in numbers to protest abortion in a similar way?

I have listened to those who would jump immediately to suggesting a liberal/conservative divide. Theologians are “liberal” and therefore support “liberal” causes like being opposed to the death penalty, but not abortion. So the recent statement and its signatures seem merely to confirm that theologians are “liberal.” Bishops, on the other hand, are “conservative” – just look at Cardinal DiNardo’s recent statement on Respect for Life month. He doesn’t mention the death penalty anywhere in there. So – further proof of the dichotomy.

Except that there are plenty of chinks in that story to suggest it doesn’t work that way. Cardinal DiNardo has, many times, opposed the death penalty. Bishops protested the death penalty in Davis’s case (as did the Vatican). And, there are plenty of theologians, including many of those who signed the statement, who are on record as being against abortion, too. We, at this blog, have written several times about abortion.

We could play another kind of numbers game with this (though of course, this, too, is a zero sum game, and I’ll bring this up again at the end of this post): 66% of American Catholics support the death penalty; but about the same number (60%) oppose abortion. This means a majority of American Catholics are in line with the teachings of their magisterial authorities when it comes to abortion, but not the death penalty.

Many will argue, of course, that this discrepancy is because abortion is clearly a more authoritative issue because it has a long history of opposition by the church, while the death penalty statements made by the bishops date only back the 1980s.

Yet on matters like the death penalty, the Vatican document on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian says concerning the Magisterium:

When it comes to the question of interventions in the prudential order, it could happen that some Magisterial documents might not be free from all deficiencies. Bishops and their advisors have not always taken into immediate consideration every aspect or the entire complexity of a question. But it would be contrary to the truth, if, proceeding from some particular cases, one were to conclude that the Church’s Magisterium can be habitually mistaken in its prudential judgments, or that it does not enjoy divine assistance in the integral exercise of its mission.

[Emphasis mine]

A prudential judgement would be about a bishop’s particular thought about a particular case; it would not be correct, however, to presume that the bishops are always and everywhere right about abortion but wrong about the death penalty.

I happen to think that these days, many more people than just the “professional theologians” have taken on for themselves the task of doing theology, as they see fit. Lay people do their own theology, too. It is part of our voluntaristic religious culture. But if lay American Catholics seek to “do theology” then I think they also need to remember, again from the Vocation of the Theologian:

Although theological faith as such then cannot err, the believer can still have erroneous opinions since all his thoughts do not spring from faith.(32) Not all the ideas which circulate among the People of God are compatible with the faith. This is all the more so given that people can be swayed by a public opinion influenced by modern communications media.

Humility suggests that we be responsible to and for each other, by paying particular attention to the people whose specific role in the church is aimed at “preserving, explaining, and spreading the Word of God.”

Which issue, then, needs more support from academic theologians? The one where most Catholics agree with their bishops? Or the one where they don’t?

As I mentioned above, this is, of course, playing a numbers game on issues of life, which is a zero sum game. Just as in the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus cares so much about the one that is lost that he leaves the 99 to find the 1, so we, as Catholics, are called to advocate for life – ALL life – exactly in order that all people may be invited to share in the life and love of God. To phrase the issues in such a way that suggests one is pitted against the other is to kowtow to non-Christian ideologies.

I want to close this post by highlighting an excellent blog post by Mark Shea, who writes at National Catholic Register and Crisis Magazine (though these comments come from his own blog). Shea, too, raises questions about the ways we American Catholics think about pro-life issues and suggests that on these matters, there is danger of becoming idolatrous. Shea observes:

The devil has lots of ways to tempt us to idolatry, of course. One of them, paradoxically, is to get us to crack up and go sappy about the sheer adorable goodness of the Idol. In short, Satan *loves* Love, so long as it’s disordered love…. Even adorable innocent babies? Yes. Especially adorable innocent babies if that happens to be your weak spot and the place you can be tempted to place the creature before the Creator.

And, Shea mentions ways to mitigate the kind of idolatry he worries about here:

As a bought and paid for Professional Catholic[TM] who, I am informed, hates the Faith, babies, America, apple pie and motherhood, I naturally revel in subverting the True Catholic Faith by such sinister means as
a) trusting the Magisterium;
b) urging docility to the Church even on things that do not pertain to abortion and are not infallibly defined….
d) opposing abortion, but not worshiping the prolife movement more than Jesus Christ;
e) not subscribing to the theory that opposition to abortion taketh away the sins of the world and constitutes the sole social concern of all Real Catholics[TM]….

To these I would add my own f): believing that my fellow theologians, my bishops, and my brothers and sisters in Christ are all attempting to stumble toward God.