NEW YORK — Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth believes Catholic bishops in Texas are slowly gaining momentum in reducing Catholic support for the death penalty in a state that is widely considered ground zero for the use of capital punishment in the U.S.
His remarks came in an interview with Crux just days after Governor Greg Abbott granted clemency to Thomas Whitaker less than an hour before he was scheduled to be executed — a decision praised by the state’s Catholic bishops.
Whitaker will now serve life in prison without the possibility of parole as punishment for assisting in the 2003 murder of his mother and brother, and the attempted murder of his father, Kent. His father was the leading petitioner for clemency, leading the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to make a unanimous recommendation to the governor to grant the request.
The board said Kent Whitaker maintained that he “would be victimized again if the state put to death his last remaining immediate family member.”
Abbott, who is Catholic, has been a long-time defender of the death penalty — a position maintained by an overwhelming majority of Texans. Recent joint polling from the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune found that 73 percent of respondents either somewhat or strongly supported the death penalty and only 21 percent opposed the practice.
Despite such strong public support, Olson says he believes this decision by Abbott is an encouraging sign that Catholics are beginning to shift in their support on the issue — though he cautions that there is much work to be done.
“I think at least we’re making headway in fostering greater awareness among our people about the ineffectiveness of the death penalty to curtail crime and to fulfill even the classical understanding of its permissibility,” he told Crux.
“Our recent letter as Texas Bishops also talked about how its use is a failure to witness to the greater truths about the dignity of human life,” he added.
Olson said that the issue of capital punishment, however, isn’t the only issue where Catholic opinions on public policy fail to line-up with the Church, and he lamented the fact that too often views are informed by secular influences rather than Church teaching.
“The big challenge we face as the Church and as bishops entrusted with the authentic teaching mission, is that Catholics tend to identify not so differently from the secular mainstream populace,” said Olson.
He continued: “They do this not just exclusively on this issue, but on other issues involving the common good, such as immigration and refugees. That’s the challenge we have as a state conference and as a local church.”
One demographic Olson believes is leading the shift in this debate is young people.
“I see a greater attentiveness to this issue of capital punishment as a part of our Catholic pro-life witness, especially with the younger people,” he told Crux.
Olson — who has become an active Twitter user since being named bishop of Fort Worth in January 2014 — used the medium both to raise awareness of the Whitaker case and also to express his gratitude to Abbott for his decision to grant clemency.
As far as its overall value, he renders a mixed verdict, but says to the extent that social media is being used to welcome people into the Church and at times alter public perception of it, then that should be welcomed.
“It’s a contemporary tool but it’s deceptively very limited,” said Olson. “It has a high impact, but as part of a means for providing the substance of Catholic teaching, social media is always going to limp. I think it’s good at creating intentional communities but these communities are without a high degree of commitment for belonging. And at times social media can form not a community, but a mob, a violent mob.”
“As long as we use social media to invite people back into the communion formed by the Eucharist within the mission of the Church, it’s a valuable tool,” he concluded.
For several decades now, internal debates have swirled over how the Church should engage pro-life issues ranging from abortion to euthanasia to capital punishment.
Olson told Crux that the “seamless garment of life” philosophy can often be applied without making critical distinctions, and that approach is not identical to a “consistent ethic of life” which he champions.
“The consistent ethic of life has to do with recognizing the inherent dignity of each and every human person,” said Olson.“As St. Pope John Paul II always reminded us, it’s important for Catholics to know our anthropology. We understand and flourish as human persons in the context of human society.”
“One can understand the importance of life issues, such as abortion, contraception, married life, euthanasia, assisted suicide, the distinction between ordinary and extraordinary means, but we also have to learn to make critical distinctions in light of our belonging to society as more than abstract individuals,” he added.
Helping Catholics learn how to make these distinctions — while at the same time offering a consistent and more compelling vision of human society seems to be Olson’s main priority in speaking out on these issues at the moment.
“The first society to which we belong is the family,” he concluded.