By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) – The official words from the U.S. president to the pope were an interesting contrast to simultaneous actions being taken by two arms of the U.S. government April 16.
As President George W. Bush was telling Pope Benedict XVI on the South Lawn at the White House that the United States is "a nation of compassion," the U.S. Supreme Court, with a majority of its justices who are Catholics, was upholding the constitutionality of a form of capital punishment that the church opposes in nearly all circumstances.
In a splintered ruling, six justices wrote separate opinions that, added together, constituted a 7-2 majority upholding the legality of lethal injection. All five Catholic justices were part of the majority.
Although as of April 18 Pope Benedict had not spoken about capital punishment during his U.S. visit, as recently as February the Vatican issued a position paper saying the death penalty "is not only a refusal of the right to life, but it also is an affront to human dignity."
Echoing the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the paper recognized the obligation of governments to protect their citizens, but it also said that "today it truly is difficult to justify" using the death penalty when other means of protection, including life imprisonment for murderers, are possible.
It cited appeals by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict for clemency for people condemned to die, saying the Vatican supported international campaigns to proclaim a universal moratorium on the use of capital punishment and the abolition of the death penalty worldwide.
The court's action is expected to end a de facto moratorium on executions that has existed since the court took the case last September. Lower courts, governors, legislatures and prosecutors in states with the death penalty put executions and capital trials on hold pending resolution of the question of whether lethal injection constitutes unnecessarily cruel and unusual punishment.
Frank McNeirney, co-founder of Catholics Against Capital Punishment, told Catholic News Service the timing of the ruling's release was an ironic coincidence.
He said he was hopeful that Pope Benedict might say something about the death penalty during his visit that might have the power of Pope John Paul II's 1999 request to Missouri's governor for clemency in a then-pending execution.
During a stopover in St. Louis, Pope John Paul personally asked Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan to commute the death sentence of inmate Darrell Mease, which the governor did.
In another ironic bit of timing, immigration agents in several states were conducting raids of workplaces where largely Hispanic immigrants work, while back at the White House April 16 Bush was telling the pope at the official welcoming ceremony for him that "Americans believe that the measure of a free society is how we treat the weakest and most vulnerable among us."
At that hour in half a dozen states, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were processing hundreds of workers detained that morning at poultry processing plants, a doughnut factory and a chain of Mexican restaurants, all suspected of being in the country illegally.
The timing wasn't lost on the National Immigration Forum, which advocates for a comprehensive approach to immigration reform that would provide many of the estimated 12 million workers in the country illegally with a way to legalize their status and would ease limits on legal immigration.
"What a black eye for the president and for the United States," said Doug Rivlin, the forum's communications director, in an April 16 statement. "At the same moment that Pope Benedict XVI was admonishing President Bush that the U.S. must treat immigrants with dignity and humanity, the Bush administration was rounding up immigrant workers."
Aboard the flight from the Vatican to Washington, Pope Benedict had told reporters that the long-term solution to immigration issues in the United States is to make sure employment and social opportunities at home are sufficient so people don't need to emigrate.
He said he planned to talk to Bush about development assistance to Latin American countries.
In the short term, the pope said, families separated by immigration must be helped.
"This (separation) is really dangerous for the social, moral and human fabric of these countries," he said.
He said immigration has been positive for the United States. "So with all the painful things, let's not forget so much real humanity and so much positive action that exists," he said.
Pope Benedict at the White House talked about the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the need for global solidarity, "if all people are to live in a way worthy of their dignity – as brothers and sisters dwelling in the same house and around that table which God's bounty has set for all his children."
Later that day, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a teleconference that she looked forward to hearing the comments on immigration she was told Pope Benedict would make at some point during his U.S. visit.
"I think it would be very important for there to be a statement from His Holiness" on immigration, said Pelosi. For one thing, she said, it might help encourage other church leaders, Catholic and non-Catholic, to have the courage to speak in favor of comprehensive immigration reform.
"I believe the cardinals and the bishops need the visibility of the Holy Father on this issue," Pelosi said.In an evening address to the U.S. bishops after a vespers service, Pope Benedict recalled the rich history of the U.S. Catholic Church as an immigrant church. He urged the bishops to continue to welcome immigrants and "to share their joys and hopes, to support them in their sorrows and trials and to help them flourish in their new home."
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