Colorado Governor expected to sign bill abolishing death penalty

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A bill banning capital punishment in the State of Colorado is expected to pass in early 2019, an effort that Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila has supported, and that Colorado Governor Jared Polis said he would sign should the legislature present it to him.

In his speech during the March for Life Jan. 12, Archbishop Aquila assured that disagreements with politicians on life issues would not prevent him from collaborating with them on the abolishment of this measure.

“During this legislative session, we hope to see an effort to repeal the death penalty in Colorado, a measure that the Church has long advocated for, since our prison system can ensure these criminals pose no danger to the public once they are incarcerated. We also know that men who have been condemned to death have converted and have changed. They have opened their hearts to the one who can give them light.

“All life has dignity and worth, even the lives of those who have killed others. The State should not participate in the cycle of violence by taking life but should instead strive to protect it.”

In an interview with 9NEWS in November 2018, Governor Polis said he would sign a bill repealing the death penalty and expressed his opposition to the current measures.

Colorado has executed a total of 101 people in its history, all of them males found guilty of murder. Yet, the state has only executed one person — in 1997 — since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1975.

The State of Colorado can still impose the death penalty in class 1 felony cases, which involve certain murders, kidnapping or treason. These may include the death of law enforcement officers, of children under 12, the usage of explosive devices, extreme indifference to human life or extremely cruel conduct.

The Church has traditionally held that the dignity of a person is not lost even after having committed a grave crime.

Nonetheless, as the Catechism states, it has also traditionally taught that “it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life,” which means that “someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his transgressor a lethal blow.”

In the case of those who hold a position of authority and are responsible for many lives, “legitimate defense cannot only be a right but a grave duty… The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm.”

The Catechism continues: “the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

“If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person” (CCC 2263-2267, prior to May 11, 2018).

In a recent change to this section of the Catechism, Pope Francis called for the repeal of capital punishment worldwide, a measure that Archbishop Aquila assures can already be implemented in Colorado.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article stated the wrong year of the most recent execution in Colorado. The most recent execution in Colorado took place in 1997. We apologize for the error.

COMING UP: Historical clarity and today’s Catholic contentions

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One of the curiosities of the 21st-century Catholic debate is that many Catholic traditionalists (especially integralists) and a high percentage of Catholic progressives make the same mistake in analyzing the cause of today’s contentions within the Church — or to vary the old fallacy taught in Logic 101, they think in terms of post Concilium ergo propter Concilium [everything that’s happened after the Council has happened because of the Council]. And inside that fallacy is a common misreading of modern Catholic history. The traditionalists insist that everything was fine before the Council (which many of them therefore regard as a terrible mistake); the progressives agree that the pre-Vatican II Church was a stable institution but deplore that stability as rigidity and desiccation.

But that’s not the way things were pre-Vatican II, as I explain at some length and with some engaging stories in my new book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform (Basic Books). And no one knew the truth about pre-Vatican II Catholicism better than the man who was elected pope during the Council and guided Vatican II through its last three sessions, St. Paul VI.

On January 25, 1959, Pope John XXIII, thought to be an elderly placeholder, stunned both the Church and the world by announcing his intention to summon the 21st ecumenical council. That night, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini (who would be known as Paul VI four and a half years later), called an old friend. An experienced churchman who had long served Pius XII as chief of staff, Montini saw storm clouds on the horizon: “This holy old boy,” he said of John XXIII, “doesn’t know what a hornet’s nest he’s stirring up.”

That shrewd observation turned out to be spot on –– and not simply because of the Council, but because of the bees and hornets that had been buzzing around the ecclesiastical nest for well over 100 years.

Contrary to both traditionalist and progressive misconceptions, Catholicism was not a placid institution, free of controversy and contention, prior to Vatican II. As I show in The Irony of Modern Catholic History, there was considerable intellectual ferment in the Church during the mid-19th century, involving great figures like the recently-canonized John Henry Newman, the German bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler (grandfather of modern Catholic social thought), and the Italian polymath Antonio Rosmini (praised by John Paul II in the 1999 encyclical, Faith and Reason, and beatified under Benedict XVI). That ferment accelerated during the 25 year pontificate of Leo XIII, who launched what I dub the “Leonine Revolution,” challenging the Church to engage the modern world with distinctively Catholic tools in order to convert the modern world and lay a firmer foundation for its aspirations.

American Catholicism, heavily focused on institution-building, was largely unaware of the sharp-edged controversies (and ecclesiastical elbow-throwing) that followed Leo XIII’s death in 1903. Those controversies, plus the civilization-shattering experience of two world wars in Europe, plus a rapid secularization process in Old Europe that began in the 19th century, set the stage for John XXIII’s epic opening address to Vatican II. There, the Pope explained what he envisioned Vatican II doing: gathering up the energies let loose by the Leonine Revolution and focusing them through the prism of an ecumenical council, which he hoped would be a Pentecostal experience energizing the Church with new evangelical zeal.

John XXIII understood that the Gospel proposal could only be made by speaking to the modern world in a vocabulary the modern world could hear. Finding the appropriate grammar and vocabulary for contemporary evangelization didn’t mean emptying Catholicism of its content or challenge, however. As the Pope insisted, the perennial truths of the faith were to be expressed with the “same meaning” and the “same judgment.” Vatican II, in other words, was to foster the development of doctrine, not the deconstruction of doctrine. And the point of that doctrinal development was to equip the Church for mission and evangelization, for the modern world would be converted by truth, not ambiguity or confusion.

Over the past six and a half years, it’s become abundantly clear that more than a few Catholics, some quite prominently placed, still don’t get this history. Nor do the more vociferous elements in the Catholic blogosphere. Which is why I hope The Irony of Modern Catholic History helps facilitate a more thoughtful debate on the Catholic present and future, through a better understanding of the Catholic past.