By: Cliff Kincaid
Accuracy in Media
You may have noticed the news that trust in the media remains at an all-time low. As if to drive that figure even lower, CNN was busy much of Tuesday afternoon trying to spare a killer from the death penalty on the false grounds that Catholicism forbids capital punishment.
No wonder our media are held in such disregard.
CNN’s Vatican senior correspondent John Allen said, “You know, the Catholic Church has a long history of opposing the death penalty.”
False. Section 2267 of the Catholic Catechism says, “The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.”
On a website called Crux, which covers “all things Catholic” and for which Allen serves as associate editor, we find an article noting, “The Church doesn’t teach that the death penalty is immoral, but says it should only be used in rare circumstances when the state has no other way to protect society from violent offenders.”
So why did Allen mislead his CNN audience?
Speaking to anchor Brooke Baldwin, CNN’s Allen went on, “It was as far back as 1969 that Pope Paul VI urged the abolition of the death penalty and every pope since has upheld the same tradition. I think the interesting thing, as you say, is that Pope Francis was just in the United States, got a rousing ovation from Congress, was widely hailed by political authorities up and down the country. This is sort of the first test, Brooke, as to whether those people who were cheering the pope’s presence are also going to be willing to act on his concrete agenda.”
The popes or the bishops and cardinals can have their own personal opinions, but the fact is that the teaching of the church does NOT forbid capital punishment. He knows this.
The Catholic Answers website notes that both the Old Testament (Genesis 9:6) and the New Testament (Romans 13:4) seemingly endorse the death penalty.
The Ellicott’s Bible commentary notes that the phrase “To bear the sword” from Romans seems to be a recognized Greek phrase to express the power of the magistrates. “It is clear from this passage that capital punishment is sanctioned by Scripture,” the commentary says.
So Allen had the facts wrong and wanted “those people who were cheering the pope’s presence” in the U.S. to accept his personal plea but disregard church teaching. This distortion is one reason why people don’t trust the media.
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia notes that support for the death penalty has been part of Christian and Catholic tradition in the Old and New Testaments. What’s more, it was morally accepted when the U.S. Constitution was adopted. Scalia recently told a group of students, “If the death penalty did not violate the Eighth Amendment when the Eighth Amendment was adopted, it doesn’t violate it today.”
The Supreme Court has formally ruled that the death penalty is not a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. What’s more, in June, the Court in a 5-4 ruling upheld the use of a particular drug for lethal injection in executions.
In the case at issue on CNN and other media on Tuesday, a woman named Kelly Gissendaner was given the death penalty by lethal injection because she ordered the murder of her husband, Douglas Gissendaner, in 1997. Her lover, Gregory Bruce Owen, stabbed her husband to death.
The family of Douglas Gissendaner issued a statement, noting, “Kelly planned and executed Doug’s murder. She targeted him and his death was intentional. Kelly chose to have her day in court and after hearing the facts of this case, a jury of her peers sentenced her to death… As the murderer, she’s been given more rights and opportunity over the last 18 years than she ever afforded to Doug who, again, is the victim here. She had no mercy, gave him no rights, no choices, nor the opportunity to live his life. His life was not hers to take.”
Despite media opposition to the death penalty, the majority of Americans still support it. Pew found that 56% favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder, while 38% are opposed.
Pew did find declining support for the death penalty among Democrats, helping to explain why the Democrats masquerading as journalists in the media oppose it. Pew explained, “Much of the decline in support over the past two decades has come among Democrats. Currently, just 40% of Democrats favor the death penalty, while 56% are opposed. In 1996, Democrats favored capital punishment by a wide margin (71% to 25%).”
Among Republicans it found that 77% favor the death penalty. Among independents the figure was 57% supporting capital punishment.
In addition to their liberal opposition to the death penalty, the media perceived a sexist angle in this case, since Gissendaner “became Georgia’s first female prisoner to be executed in 70 years,” as CNN put it, or “the only woman on Georgia’s death row,” as noted by The Washington Post.
Prior to the pope’s U.S. visit, CNN’s John Allen had written that “Francis knows that the death penalty is controversial in the United States, and that a strong camp in the American Catholic Church passionately defends it. Looking ahead to his trip here in September, this could be one of those moments in which discretion seems the better part of valor. On the other hand, it’s also a chance for Francis to show that he’s serious about the death penalty by saying something he knows full well many Americans, including some members of his own flock, don’t want to hear.”
As noted, Francis did condemn the death penalty before Congress. However, as a result of Georgia carrying out the ultimate punishment in the Kelly Gissendaner case, it appears that the pope’s influence in this area has been shown to be non-existent. He had actually pleaded for Georgia authorities to spare her life in a last-minute letter.
The credibility of the pope is a problem, since his personal views are contrary to church teaching and Georgia authorities ignored him anyway. But John Allen’s misrepresentation of the facts hurt his own credibility and that of the media, whose trustworthiness can only continue to decline.