The Association of U.S. Catholic Priests (AUSCP) has blasted the “scandalous” decision to honor U.S. Attorney General William Barr at the annual National Catholic Prayer Breakfast.
“The recent decision of the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast (NCPB) to confer its Christifideles Laici award on Attorney General Barr at their September Breakfast is for us shocking, incomprehensible, and scandalous,” states the AUSCP, which supports Black Lives Matter and crusades against the “climate crisis.”
“Specifically, we consider Mr. Barr’s recent decisions and actions to be abhorrent in the context of Catholic faith,” the statement continues. “We consider especially scandalous his decision to begin again federal executions after 17 years of moratorium. Executions are clearly not pro-life.”
The mission of AUSCP involves “raising a prophetic voice” and undertaking “prophetic action,” according to the group’s website.
Over the past 25 years, the Catholic Church’s official position on the death penalty has evolved considerably.
Capital punishment was not abolished in the Vatican City State itself until as recently as 1969 and for nearly all of the Church’s history it was accepted as a legitimate form of punishment for serious offenses. Over the centuries, hundreds of criminals were executed in the Papal States under the government of the popes.
Doctors of the Church, from Ambrose to Augustine to Thomas Aquinas to Robert Bellarmine to Alphonsus Liguori all taught the legitimacy of capital punishment.
In recent years, however, the Catholic magisterium has moved to a position where it no longer views the death penalty as a worthy form of punishment in today’s world. Pope John Paul II wrote in 1995 that governments should “not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity,” adding that, in the modern world, “such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”
Pope Francis has gone further still, declaring capital punishment to be “inadmissible” and “contrary to the gospel.” The Vatican’s doctrinal congregation declared that the new teaching on capital punishment “expresses an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium.”
Importantly, however, the Catholic Church has never declared capital punishment to be intrinsically evil, like abortion or euthanasia, which would indeed be a direct contradiction of past teachings.
In 2004, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was in charge of the doctrinal office at the time, made this very distinction, stating that there may be “a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”
In that same memorandum, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that “if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion,” which is not the case regarding abortion or euthanasia.
Yet the AUSCP said that Mr. Barr’s actions involving the death penalty are not all they find scandalous.
“Mr. Barr also showed disrespect for sacred space when he was party to a recent show of force to enable the President to use the grounds and building of an Episcopal Church in Lafayette Square to hold up a bible in front of the church as a prop for a political photo op,” the statement reads.
“We ask any Bishop who may have been involved in the choice of Mr. Barr to receive the NCPB Catholic award to reverse this regrettable choice and/or to remove themselves from NCPB,” the statement states. “We have asked Bishop Robert Barron, who is scheduled to keynote the award virtually to withdraw from that role.”
“For these reasons the AUSCP urgently calls for the NCPB Board to reverse its scandalous decision,” it concludes.