Cardinal Blase Cupich said Thursday that he wishes Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had lived to see Pope Francis say the death penalty is wrong in all cases.
The exchange about Scalia, a conservative Supreme Court justice and devout Catholic who ruled and spoke in favor of the death penalty, capped an exchange on the legal and theological implications of the punishment between Cupich and three legal experts who oppose the death penalty.
The panel discussion, part of the American Bar Association’s annual meeting in Chicago this week, came just hours after Pope Francis announced that the catechism of the Catholic Church would declare the death penalty always “inadmissible”.
Previously, the church had taught that the death penalty could be used in rare instances when no other way of deterring a violent criminal was available.
Cupich was responding to a Scalia quote read by the panel’s moderator, Ronald J. Tabak, the chair of the ABA’s death penalty committee, in which Scalia suggested that Christian societies, confident in eternal life, tended to be more comfortable with the death penalty than secular societies.
“Would that he had lived to be here today, to see what the pope has done, because I think it would cause him to rethink that,” Cupich said.
“I think that his understanding of salvation has great limitations. Its an atomistic view of salvation, that is, as individuals,” Cupich said. “God saves a people. God doesn’t just save by individuals. How is it that we integrate human beings into society, especially those at the margins? That’s the question we should be posing here.”
Cupich’s concerns about the implications of the death penalty for social justice jibed with the concerns of the legal experts, who described a justice system that preyed on those least likely to get a fair trial, including the mentally ill and racial minorities.
The waning ranks of death row inmates are filled with “the most vulnerable, not the worst of the worst,” said Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
Cupich said he believed that the church’s categorical opposition to the death penalty could reinforce its teaching on abortion.
“Erasing the innate value of individual lives because of crimes committed, and removing such criminals from the human family, is an echo of the violence done to human dignity when pro-choice advocates imply that the life developing in the womb is not ‘real human’ life,” Cupich said.
Cupich and his fellow panelists discussed death row “volunteers,” who decline appeals and go willingly to their executions. Cupich encountered such a case as the bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota.
“He wanted to die, his life was so terrible. When I spoke about it, I said, what we have here isn’t the death penalty. We have state-assisted suicide,” Cupich said.
Cupich said he understood some Catholics would struggle with the church’s teaching on the death penalty due to “a desire to restore the order of justice that has been so viciously violated.”
“But there is a flaw in that way of thinking,” Cupich said. “When the state imposes the death penalty, it proclaims that taking one human life counterbalances the taking of another life. This is profoundly mistaken.”