What abortion is to American Catholics, the death penalty is for Italians


I’m in Rome this week, where this morning I took part in an hour-and-a-half radio program on RAI, the Italian state network, along with Cardinal Pio Laghi, the former Apsostolic Nunio in the United States; Gian Maria Vian, director of L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper; and Greg Burke of the Fox News Channel. The topic was Pope Benedict XVI’s April 15-20 visit to the United States.

I agreed to do the program largely because I was interested in how the trip looked to Italians, having spent much of the last couple of weeks absorbing American commentary. This was one of those shows where we took listener phone calls and e-mails, so I figured I might get a good sense of Italian “vox populi” on the experience.

What struck me was how often our host, Massimo Franco, a well-known Italian journalist, as well our listeners raised an issue that barely registered on American radar screens during the pope’s trip: the death penalty. Why, Franco and the listeners wanted to know, didn’t Benedict XVI make more of an issue out of the difference between the United States, particularly the Bush administration, and the Catholic Church on the issue of capital punishment?

It was Burke who put into words something I’ve long sensed, and that became especially clear during the course of our conversation this morning: For many Italian Catholics, and perhaps Catholics in other European countries as well, the death penalty is what abortion is for many Catholics in the United States – the defining moral issue of the time.

That is to say, if the dominant “single issue” temptation for American Catholics is to focus almost exclusively on abortion, the analogous “single issue” tendency within Catholicism in Italy and elsewhere in Europe is the death penalty.

In Italy, for example, one doesn’t really find the same proliferation of organized pro-life movements that one sees in American Catholicism, despite the fact that abortion during the first three months of pregnancy has been legal here since 1978, almost the same span of time that Roe v. Wade has rendered abortion legal in the United States.

After the failure of a Vatican-backed referendum to overturn the Italian law in 1981, many Italian Catholics have made their peace with the situation. Despite periodic rumors of moves to amend the abortion statute, the church has generally not invested tremendous social capital in those efforts. Instead, it has concentrated its political muscle elsewhere, for example in a successful campaign in 2005 to invalidate a referendum that would have liberalized vitro fertilization.

Anti-death penalty campaigns, on the other hand, are a huge feature of Italian Catholic life, often led by the Community of Sant’Egidio and involving a wide cross-section of dioceses, parishes, and lay movements. Whenever a state anywhere in the world bans or declares a moratorium on capital punishment, Rome’s Colosseum is lit up, and Catholic groups are always in the front row among those rejoicing.

Italy takes great pride in long forming the vanguard of the abolitionist movement with regard to capital punishment. The Grand Duchy of Tuscany was the first sovereign state to ban the death penalty in 1786. It did so under the influence of Italian essayist Cesare Beccaria, whose 1764 anti-death penalty tract “On Crimes and Punishments” is considered an abolitionist classic.

So strong had Italian aversion to capital punishment become that when an anarchist named Angelo Bresci assassinated King Umberto I in 1900, Italian courts sentenced him to life in prison. It was the first time a man had killed a European king (without toppling his regime) and not been executed.

That legacy is very much alive at the Catholic grassroots in today’s Italy, as our callers this morning reminded us. For them, it was therefore remarkable that the pope did not raise the issue on American soil.

For American Catholics, this focus on the death penalty rather than abortion can often seem terribly imbalanced. According to Amnesty International, there were 1,591 executions worldwide in 2006, while the estimated number of abortions around the world each year is on the order of 45 million. On a purely quantitative basis, some would argue, there’s no comparison in terms of which is the more grave threat to human life. Moreover, many abortion opponents would also argue that while all killing is wrong, with the death penalty we’re usually talking about convicted criminals, while abortion strikes at the most innocent and vulnerable.

For Italian Catholics, on the other hand, the moral gravity of the death penalty often looms larger because in this case the state is not merely tolerating an act of killing, but actually performing it. It’s one thing, they argue, for women in painful circumstances to make a tragic choice; it’s another for a state, which purports to embody the values of civilized society, to put someone to death while espousing the values of justice and due process of law. From that point of view, it’s not so much the numbers involved, as the statement capital punishment makes about the moral fabric of the state itself, that jars the conscience.

Obviously from the point of view of Catholic social teaching, this is not an “either/or” choice, but very much a “both/and.” The social doctrine of the Church regards abortion as an absolute moral wrong, and, following the magisterium of Pope John Paul II, does not exclude the death penalty on principle, but holds that “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

A “consistent ethic of life” therefore posits opposition to both abortion and capital punishment.

Nonetheless, within that consistent ethic different cultures at different times will accent one or another issue, and for now it would seem that many American Catholics and many European, especially perhaps Italian, Catholics have a different sensibility in terms of where they make their most emphatic stand.

For Americans, it would no doubt have been huge news had Benedict XVI come to the United States and never mentioned abortion. For Italians, it seems equally shocking that Benedict came to the United States, one of just six nations which account for the bulk of annual executions worldwide, and didn’t bring up capital punishment.

One can draw a variety of different conclusions about all this, but it’s at least a valuable insight into varying Catholic attitudes on the two sides of the Atlantic.

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