The Gospel Truth

A Torn Garment | January 25, 2010

In May of 2008 I interviewed Father Frank Pavone the director of Priests for Life on Phyllis Schlafly’s weekly radio program on KSIV.  In discussing his 2006 book, Ending Abortion, I noticed that he had substituted the term, A Consistent Life Ethic, for the old Seamless Garment.

The latter was a metaphor employed by the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin that expanded the range of life issues from abortion and euthanasia to a broader horizon that included nuclear war, poverty, labor unions, and the minimum wage.

The Cardinal’s metaphor has always bothered me because its very name implied a moral equivalency among many disparate issues.  A priest friend told me years ago that it trivialized abortion opposition.  It is a bad garment that the Church should tear to pieces.  Otherwise they will never win the battle over abortion.

Over the last many years, the garment has had the unintended consequence of allowing several Catholic politicians to hide their pro-abortion promotion under its mantel.  Illinois Senator Dick Durbin ran a poll on its 22 “moral” issues among the 15 Catholics in the Senate in 2004.

The surprising “winner” was pro-choice advocate John Kerry with a score of 64%.

Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, then the only anti-abortion Catholic senator, finished at the back of the pack.  Pope John Paul II let the world know that there was a hierarchy of life issues in his encyclical, The Gospel of Life, when he wrote abortion and euthanasia are crimes, which no human law can legitimize.

The issue that has caused the most consternation for those of us who want to concentrate on the primary life issues has been the death penalty.

No other garment issue has distracted more from the energy needed to fight abortion and euthanasia than the death penalty.

Curiously, most of the pro-abortion Catholic Senators in Durbin’s poll were against the death penalty. I find it difficult to understand Catholics who can condone the slaughter of over 43 million unborn children since 1973 and yet protect the lives of convicted murderers.

Since 1930 fewer than 5000 convicted criminals have been executed.  This has been usually after having exercised their constitutional rights of due process, including lengthy appeals, a last meal, clergy council, and family visitation.  This was far more than they granted their innocent victims.

The Catholic sense of proportionality alone should require us not to exert any undo efforts on this lesser cause when there is still so much to be done in truly ending abortion.

On an intellectual level my main problem with the death penalty is that I have not heard one argument against it that makes any sense.  Most opposition focuses on anecdotal stories of emotional hyperbole that in some cases have bordered on a pitted assault on our judicial system.

Other arguments have abused the English language to the extent that words have lost their meaning.  They say that the death penalty is vengeance and legalized murder.

If so, than all punishment is revenge and incarceration is legalized kidnapping. When language flies out the window, true justice goes with it.

During Mass years ago, one priest asked us to pray for the end of the intrinsic evils of abortion and the death penalty. Contrary to his moral equation, my college ethics book in the early 1960s, complete with an imprimatur, listed the death penalty as one of the three moral exceptions to the Fifth Commandment. (Sixth Commandment in Protestant Churches)

If the death penalty were intrinsically evil, then the Church is guilty of having taught evil for a 1000 years.

Every so often a salacious murder surfaces underscores the internal weakness of the death penalty abolitionists.  I am referring to the brutal slayings in Cheshire, Connecticut in 2007.  Joshua Komisarjevsky and Stephen Hayes broke into the home of Dr. William A. Petit, Jr. and his family.  They knocked the husband unconscious.

Then they raped and strangled his wife Jennifer and molested his daughters, 11-year old Michaela and Hayley,17, tying them to their beds in the process. They set the house on fire. The father broke free of his restraints and escaped but his daughters died of smoke inhalation.

In defeating the tireless efforts of abolitionist, State Representative Michael Lawlor, a Democrat, out-going Governor, Republican M. Jodi Rell cited only one case–the Cheshire murders.

I know this is an anecdotal example and there is always the issue of ambitious DA’s abusing their power and prosecuting the wrong person but on a whole the only way that justice can be served is with the availability of the death penalty for such heinous, inhumane crimes, such as the Cheshire killings.

As Petit said “My family got the death penalty and you want to give murderers life. That’s not justice!”  He could have added that his family perished without any benefit of a trial.  I don’t think anyone can argue with this.

The only argument that I have to listen to is the one made by Pope John Paul II in his Gospel of Life. As an addendum to his implicit condemnation of the seamless garment the pope stated that he believed that the cases necessitating the death penalty were very rare, if not practically non-existent because of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system.

Unfortunately he did not illustrate what these improvements were that allowed for his modification of a Church teaching.  His statement seems to contradict many other opponents of the death penalty who think that the justice system is in total disarray.

Until I hear a more coherent answer, I will adhere to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which allows for the right and duty of legitimate public authorities to punish malefactors by means of penalties in commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty.

As an after-thought, I wonder how many of you have seen the Sean Penn movie, Dead Man Walking, loosely based on the efforts of Sister Helen Prejean, an ardent opponent of the death penalty?  I think it is a great ad FOR the death penalty.  Tell me what you think by making a comment



  1. Yes, Dead Man Walking presents an excellent argument for the death penalty.

    See Paragraph V.
    “Sister Helen Prejean & the death penalty: A Critical Review”–the-death-penalty-a-critical-review.aspx

    Comment by Dudley Sharp — January 26, 2010 @ 8:39 pm

  2. The logic of Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae, based upon defense of society, has a stronger argument for the death penalty.

    “Pope John Paul II: Prudential Judgement and the death penalty”

    “The Death Penalty: More Protection for Innocents”

    Comment by Dudley Sharp — January 26, 2010 @ 10:10 pm

  3. The biblical, theological, traditonal and rational teachings of the Church, for nearly 2000 years, show much greater strength in support of the death penalty, than is evidenced within the recent Church teachings.

    “Death Penalty Support: Modern Catholic Scholars”

    “The Death Penalty: Neither Hatred nor Revenge”

    “The Death Penalty: Not a Human Rights Violation”

    Comment by Dudley Sharp — January 26, 2010 @ 10:13 pm

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About author

After graduating from Holy Cross, Bill Borst earned an MA in Asian History from St. John's University and a Ph.D in American History from St. Louis University. (1972) A former New Yorker, he taught for many years in the St. Louis area, while also hosting a weekly radio show on WGNU from 1984-2006. He currently is a regular substitute for conservative Phyllis Schlafly on KSIV radio. (1320) He is the author of two books on social history, "Liberalism: Fatal Consequences," and "The Scorpion and the Frog: A Natural Conspiracy." He just retired as the Features editor of the Mindszenty Foundation Monthly Report. In his 11 years from 2003-2013 he wrote nearly 130 essays on Catholic culture and world affairs. Many in St. Louis also know him as the "Baseball Professor," because of a course that he offered at Maryville College from 1973-74. It was arguably the first fully-accredited baseball history course in the Midwest.The author of several short books on the old St. Louis Browns, he started the St. Louis Browns Historical Society in 1984. In 2009 his first two plays were produced on the local stage. "The Last Memory of an Ol' Brownie Fan," ran six performances at the Sound Stage in Crestwood and "A Perfect Choice" ran for two performances at the Rigali Center Theater in Shrewsberry. His third play, "A Moment of Grace," ran six performances at DeSmet High School in January of 2011with First Run Theater in January of 2011. He is currently working on a 4th play, "A Family Way," which is a comedy about a happy dysfunctional family. He can reached at







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