Over the past few election cycles, Colorado has become an important "battleground state" and a bellwether for larger electoral trends. Featuring contested races for both a Senate seat and the Governor's mansion, it is arguably the most important site of the upcoming midterm elections. The gubernatorial contest has Bob Beauprez, an established figure in the Colorado Republican party, attempting to unseat (the previously very popular) Gov. Hickenlooper.
Social issues have entered the two campaigns in some expected ways -- abortion, health care coverage, gun safety laws, and marijuana legalization. But during these gubernatorial debates, the issue of the death penalty has also briefly held the spotlight.
Back in May, Beauprez made a campaign promise that surprised many, since he presents himself as a faithful Roman Catholic. "When I'm governor," he said during a GOP debate, "Nathan Dunlap will be executed." Or, in a headline offered by Mother Jones, "Elect Me, and I'll Kill that Guy."
No one would deny that Dunlap, whose death sentence has been stayed by Hickenlooper, was convicted of absolutely horrific crimes. And supporters of Hickenlooper also admit that the Governor did not handle his own decision to stay the execution very well.
But the Catholic Church's position on the death penalty in modern societies is very well-known, despite these facts. No. 2267 of the Catechism reads: "Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm -- without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself -- the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity 'are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.'"
The official document for forming consciences of Catholic voters in the United States, "Faithful Citizenship," inveighs against the death penalty in five different sections, saying "continued reliance on the death penalty cannot be justified" and "the USCCB supports efforts to end the use of the death penalty." To these ideas we can add recent realities: the exoneration of North Carolina’s longest-incarcerated member of “death row,” or the frightful, bungled executions that have taken place in recent years.
So how can Beauprez defend his explicit campaign promise to order an execution? On October 9, during a general election debate, he did so by reference to a private conversation with former Archbishop of Denver, Charles Chaput.
Here's the Denver Catholic Register's write-up of the Q & A:
The comment came in response to a question asked by Kyle Clark of 9News who asked: “Mister Beauprez, you have said that your opposition to abortion is rooted in your strong Catholic faith. You have called elected pro-choice Catholic Democrats ‘heretics.’ I’m curious how you came to decide that your church is right on sanctity of life for the unborn, but wrong on sanctity of life as it applies to the death penalty, which you support.”
Beauprez responded: “Because I’ve talked to, let me quote him, Archbishop Charles Chaput. And people are very confused about this and that’s why I went to him, as, I think, a credible source on what Church doctrine is. Many Catholic clergy believe, as the governor now says he does, that they’re anti-death penalty. But the archbishop made it very clear to me. He said, ‘Bob, you pray on it, sleep on it, reach the conclusion that is right for your soul and, he said, I’ll back you up, because Church doctrine is not anti-death penalty.’ I want to be very clear about that.”
Clark followed up: “Pope Francis recently said that the death penalty should not be used, even in the case of a terrible crime, but you feel that the archbishop told you otherwise?”
Beauprez answered: “Yes … the archbishop was very clear on that. He said there are many in the clergy that have a policy position and that’s the difference between that and Church doctrine. A policy position that is opposed to the death penalty. And that’s fine. I’ll just stipulate: There’s moral reasons to be anti-death penalty.”
In terms of rhetoric, Beauprez's defense was sound: when he was running for office in the past, he consulted with the highest Catholic official in his jurisdiction, and was told to follow his conscience. But the resurfacing of this anecdote invited questions about what Archibishop Chaput had actually said. His new archdiocese has offered a short statement:
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia said through a spokesman that Archbishop Chaput would be unable to comment on a private conversation between himself and the gubernatorial candidate.
However, they added that “Scripture and long Church teaching uphold the basic legitimacy of the death penalty. But, the Church also teaches that in the developed world, the circumstances requiring the death penalty for the purposes of justice and public safety rarely exist. Therefore the death penalty should not be used.”
As in the Catechism, the death penalty has a "legitimacy" in theory but "should not be used." Some have asked whether this statement gives "wiggle room" for Catholic candidates for office, but Chaput's record elsewhere would seem not to grant any.
In 2002 Archbishop Chaput criticized Catholic Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia for supporting the death penalty, calling it "cafeteria Catholicism." Scalia’s is only one voice -- albeit an influential one -- without any power to carry out capital punishment. Beapurez, on the other hand, promises to disregard church teaching precisely as one who has executive authority -- the power to execute.
We should not miss that peculiar feature of the situation in Colorado: this Catholic candidate for office has made an explicit campaign promise to contravene a clear and weighty doctrine of Catholic moral teaching – and to do it himself. There is hardly a "degree of cooperation" argument in this case, as we have with other moral reasoning about democratic elections and candidates' values.
With most other issues, a politician's platform indicates aspirations to certain goals, which sometimes include indirectly facilitating an immoral practice, usually one that is already readily available to the electorate. But in this case, Beauprez promises that his election will directly lead to Dunlap's execution. The causal link between the stroke of his pen and the sting of a needle is beyond doubt.
It's a macabre campaign promise for anyone to make, but especially for a Catholic.