On September 21, 2011, a man’s life ended. His death was not natural; it was not a product of anyone’s god; rather, the drug cocktails that caused the heart of Troy Davis to stop beating were purely the result of human artifice.
Davis was a convicted murderer who was put to death by the State of Georgia as punishment for the crimes of which he was found guilty. Like so many other death row inmates who were wrongly convicted of—and sometimes even executed for—crimes they did not commit, Troy Davis may well have been innocent. There was no physical evidence proving his crime, and many of the eywitnesses upon whom Davis’ conviction depended later recanted their testimony, citing undue pressure from prosecutors to finger the person they had apparently already decided was responsible. In the end, however, whether or not Troy Davis was guilty or not is merely salt in the wound of a far bigger outrage.
The Catholic Church officially opposes capital punishment. This doctrine is in the same vein as those opposing abortion, birth control, and physician-assisted suicide: church doctrine dictates that life begins at conception and is a gift from God. Consequently, it is beyond the scope of any soul, no matter how high the earthly authority, to terminate a human life. It does not matter if it is legal, and it does not matter if the rationale is to relieve suffering: the taking of life is God’s department, not ours.
Yet in the middle of September, as opposition to the impending execution of Troy Davis reached a fever pitch and a singular opportunity presented itself for the Church to not just call for an act of mercy, but support a key element of doctrine, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops was silent as the grave. Yes, some local Catholic bishops in Georgia did support the conscience of their doctrine by calling for a reprieve, but the USCCB, the organization most responsible for lobbying and policy advocacy on behalf of the Holy See here in the United States, sat idly by. The execution of a possibly innocent man was not enough to stir the bishops into action. But birth control? That’s a different story altogether.
The directive of President Obama’s Health and Human Services Department that requires employers to cover the cost of contraceptive prescriptions was met with outrage by the USCCB. Never before, they argued, had citizens been forced to pay for things that violated their religious conscience. Not that the Church would have been forced to cover the cost of contraceptives: churches who objected receive an exemption under the directive. The Bishops even rejected a compromise that allowed women who work for affiliated organizations, such as nonprofits and hospitals, to obtain contraceptive coverage directly from an insurer, as opposed to through their employer. Apparently, preserving the “religious conscience” of an insurance company was ground that these bishops simply would not cede.
One could commend the bishops’ commitment to principle if it were based on any sincerity. Unfortunately, that seems not to be the case. Our tax dollars subsidize executions in every state where they are conducted, as well as pay for the wars and occupations that offend a true Catholic conscience, yet these bishops will not lift a finger to stop the execution of one possibly innocent man, let alone work to prevent their believers from paying for these egregious violations of doctrine.
Yes, the hypocrisy is shameful, and it serves as yet another reminder that in this mean-spirited age, the only doctrines that conservatives deem worth standing up for are those that punish and impede, rather than those that demonstrate any inkling of compassion and mercy.