In addition to acknowledging the many positive messages I received about my column here last week partly about Justice Scalia, I want to thank Shannen Coffin, a chirpily content former Justice Department official and legal counsel to Vice President Cheney, for writing, despite his farrago of sophomoric pedantries and disparagements. After his opening summary, he conveniently put the question: “Have I got that right?” I am afraid not, and he didn’t get much else right either, which enables me to clarify some points that are important and that the Coffin message indicates remain ambiguous. I share Mr. Coffin’s high opinion of Justice Scalia, which is why I am disappointed in what I do consider to be “inconsistency” (Coffin) in some of the justice’s legal and theological views.
Mr. Coffin invokes, like Chamberlain returning from Munich and waving aloft his peace pledge with Hitler, Justice Scalia’s opposition to partial-birth abortion. To someone who takes the official Roman Catholic position on abortion seriously (and I too am one who does), partial-birth abortions are infanticide, and for publicly adherent Roman Catholics to oppose them is not a triumph of ultramontane orthodoxy.
Mr. Coffin’s portentous unguided stroll into the minefield of the abortion and death-penalty debates (I am grateful to him for not dragging us into euthanasia, suicide assistance and prevention, and “just” wars) left us stranded amidst undetonated high explosives. His claim that there is any ambivalence about the Holy See’s opposition to the death penalty is spurious. It notionally accepts that capital punishment may exceptionally be defensible, but is, and long has been, hostile to the routine execution of those convicted of capital crimes, as occurs in the United States frequently and with the explicit general approval of the majority of the Supreme Court, including Justice Scalia.
Neither (I prayerfully hope) Mr. Coffin nor I would claim theological qualifications to debate the competing merits of the right to life of the unborn and those convicted of capital crimes. In a word, the unborn are obviously blameless, but their acquired rights as people are disputed by many in society, mistakenly as Justice Scalia and I may usually think that may be. And no sane and informed person could attach much credence to the ability of U.S. courts unfailingly to produce just and condign verdicts and sentences when prosecutors demand the death penalty. There is also the general Catholic principle that life is sacred, a status that is not expunged in respect of those judged guilty of heinous illegalities.
Mr. Coffin was, I believe, legal counsel to the vice president when Mr. Cheney’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby, was, to say the least, unrigorously convicted at the behest of one of the most unscrupulous and fanatical prosecutors in America, by probably the most passionately partisan mainly white jury the District of Columbia has seen since the (Herbert) Hoover administration. It is not conceivable to me that, given his professional experience, Mr. Coffin labors under onerous misconceptions about what a stacked deck U.S. criminal justice is.