Rep. Mary Fritz, the mother of 6 and grandmother of 14, is a Roman Catholic who backs the church's teachings on abortion, euthanasia and most other matters of conscience.
But the Democrat from Wallingford breaks from the "culture of life" teachings of the U.S. bishops on one fundamental point: She adamantly supports the death penalty. "I believe it's a deterrent and a matter of justice and I think it's the right policy for the state of Connecticut,'' she said.
Fritz recognizes the inconsistency of her stance in the eyes of church leaders, but that, she said, is "between me and God.''
Connecticut is one of the most Catholic states in the nation yet some Catholic lawmakers are openly dissenting with the church over a bill that would abolish capital punishment and replace it with life in prison with no possibility of release.
The measure, Senate Bill 280, cleared the judiciary committee last week on 24-19 vote, and supporters hold out hope it could finally win passage after several years of false starts and failed outcomes. Gov.Dannel P. Malloy, who is Catholic, has said he would sign the repeal bill should it reach his desk, although his spokesman said he is not sure whether the governor's faith shaped his opposition to capital punishment.
Several Catholic legislators were reluctant to talk about the gap between their beliefs and the teachings of the church. The vote, particularly in the Senate, is expected to be extremely close, and the church has mounted a vigorous lobbying effort in support of the bill.
Sen. Michael McLachlan, a Republican from Danbury and an active Catholic, said he has wrestled with the issue in the past. But after meeting with Dr. William Petit, a death penalty advocate whose wife and two daughters were killed in a home invasion in Cheshire in 2007, McLachlan said he came to believe that capital punishment is appropriate for those who commit the most heinous of crimes.
"It's a tough call because I'm clearly pro-life,'' said McLachlan, who is a trustee of St. Peter Church in Danbury and a member of the Knights of Columbus. He has received numerous accolades, including the Diocese of Bridgeport's Saint Augustine Medal of Service Award; in 2010, he was named a Knight of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem by then-Archbishop of New York Timothy Dolan.
McLachlan said he has been "lobbied pretty hard" on the death penalty by close friends, including his bishop, William Lori, the head of the Bridgeport diocese. "I do honor what my faith tells me is appropriate,'' McLachlan said. "In this case, I have to agree to disagree."
Rep. Jeffrey Berger, a communicant of Blessed Sacrament Roman Catholic Parish in Waterbury, said he doubts that even a majority of his fellow parishioners back repeal. "I don't think they want the church to go in that direction,'' Berger asserted. The Waterbury Democrat is a retired police officer whose former colleague, Walter Williams, was shot to death in 1992; Williams' killer is one of 11 men on Connecticut's death row.
TheU.S. Conference of Catholic Bishopsgenerally rejects the idea that the death penalty is a just punishment, even for those who guilty of the most horrific crimes.
"The test of whether the death penalty can be used is not the gravity of the offense, but whether it is absolutely necessary to protect society,'' the USCCB states on its website. And "the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity, are very rare, if not practically nonexistent."
Several Catholic supporters of the death penalty say the bishops' position is nuanced on the topic.
A 2005 publication of the USCCB, citing the church catechism, says in part: "the Church affirms the right and duty of legitimate public authority 'to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense.' ... Recourse to the death penalty is not absolutely excluded ... the death penalty is not intrinsically evil, as is the intentional taking of innocent life through abortion or euthanasia. ... Nevertheless, the Church teaches that in contemporary society where the state has other nonlethal means to protect its citizens, the state should not use the death penalty."
On the other hand, Pope John Paul II's influential 1995 encyclical, the Gospel of Life, holds that "the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.''
And Cardinal Joseph Bernadin of Chicago advocated a "consistent ethic of life" that directs Catholics to work against abortion, euthanasia, nuclear war — and the death penalty. Bernadin died 15 years ago, but his words were invoked by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn when he signed a bill abolishing capitol punishment in that state last year.
Rep. Patricia Dillon read from the pope's encyclical on the floor of the House during one death penalty debate several years ago. The New Haven Democrat, who opposes the death penalty, said her life has been profoundly shaped by her Catholic faith, although she says she's careful to never say she's speaking "as a Catholic."
Every lawmaker ultimately has to balance the teachings of their religion with the will of their constituents — and their own conscience. "All of these things work out in different ways for different lawmakers,'' Dillon said.
A "consistent ethic of life" means that human life is sacred and deserves the utmost respect, from conception until natural death, Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus Peter Rosazza of the Archdiocese of Hartford told Connecticut lawmakers during a hearing on Connecticut's death penalty bill earlier this month.
"People do not lose that sacredness, even though they have taken the life of another," Rosazza said.
Rep. Al Adinolfi, a Republican from Cheshire, questioned the bishop on that point. Adinolfi said his views on capital punishment used to be more ambiguous, but they hardened following the Petit killings, which occurred in his neighborhood.
Moreover, Adinolfi told the bishop, his constituents overwhelmingly support the death penalty. "I still feel that as a legislator ... I would vote the conscience of my constituents and not my own conscience. ... I think a lot of us are faced with that problem," he said.
"I can certainly sense the problem," Rosazza responded, "but you have a conscience ... and you have to determine what is right and what is wrong. It's up to an individual to vote his or her conscience."
It's an old conundrum for lawmakers, said the Rev. Richard Ryscavage, director of the Center for Faith and Public Life at Fairfield University: "In a democracy, should a politician simply reflect the viewpoint of the people who elected him like a mirror or should he stand for certain principles?"
Ryscavage said the church's position is not to interfere with the political process directly but rather to make sure Catholic legislators are taught about the church's teaching.
The U.S. Catholic bishops are enmeshed in a high-profile campaign against what they view as "an unjust and illegal mandate" requiring health insurers to provide free contraception, an indication, said Ryscavage, of the church's renewed engagement in the public sphere.
"I think some of the moral authority that the bishops had is returning,'' he said, citing a loss of influence experienced about a decade ago due to the sexual abuse scandals. "I expect a more vigorous effort by the church on social issues over the next few years."
Rep.T.R. Rowe, a devout Catholic and a staunch opponent of abortion rights, voted against abolishing the death penalty in 2009. But this year, he is backing the repeal effort.
"I do think the Connecticut bishops' strong push and the Holy Father's strong push promoting the so-called culture of life and opposing the death penalty has played a role,'' Rowe said in an interview in his office earlier this month. "I don't think it's a strong role, frankly, just as unfortunately I think their push for pro-life legislation has fallen largely on deaf ears.''
Rowe, a Republican from Trumbull, said he's no theologian — "I'm just a guy that goes to Mass on Sundays and tries to do the right thing." He noted that lawmakers spent hours debating the death penalty for "the worst of the worst" while repeatedly resisting what he views as even the most minimal restrictions on abortion.
Yet Rowe said he grapples with the morality of capital punishment, especially since the sentence is rarely meted out in Connecticut.
"Technically we have the death penalty law, but practically we don't have it. ... If it's a choice between getting rid of it and promoting a culture of life, or keeping it on the books and having this fallacy … right now I would vote to get rid of the fallacy and end the debate."
"I tend to see things in black and white, Rowe added, "but I'll confess there's a lot of gray here."
(source: Hartford Courant)