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Thursday, May 23, 2024
The Observer

Denying communion to Gov. McDonnell

For our nation's commander-in-chief or the chief executive of each state, no more important duty exists than to officially order a person to serve in harm's way or to condone the death of a citizen. Commuting a death sentence and pardoning a prison term are counterbalancing features within the framework of elective office. This week, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (Notre Dame ‘76) chose not to save the life of convicted murderer Teresa Lewis, but rather, refused to commute her death sentence, thus sending her to her execution. His action gives pause to Catholics whose definition of a pro-life agenda includes not only objection to abortion, but an opposition to war and capital punishment.

More than seven years ago, Lewis, with an IQ of 70, pled guilty to two heinous counts of capital murder for hire of her husband and stepson, a U.S. Army reservist set to deploy for active duty. Using the lure of sex and money to persuade two men to kill her husband and stepson in 2002, she plotted to obtain her husband's assets and her stepson's life insurance policy. After her co-conspirators shot the two victims multiple times with shotguns at close range, Lewis waited more than 45 minutes to call emergency response personnel, during which time her husband was still alive.

In McDonnell's released statement answering her request to commute her sentence of death to a sentence of life without parole, the governor noted, "Lewis's guilty plea, verdict and sentence have been reviewed by state and federal courts … which have unanimously upheld the sentence in this case. Lewis does not deny that she committed these heinous crimes. Numerous psychiatrists and psychologists have analyzed Lewis, both before and after her sentencing. After numerous evaluations, no medical professional has concluded that Teresa Lewis meets the medical or statutory definition of mentally retarded."

The governor, sending the first woman to an execution in nearly a century in Virginia, concluded, "Having carefully reviewed the petition for clemency, the judicial opinions in this case, and other relevant materials, I find no compelling reason to set aside the sentence that was imposed by the Circuit Court and affirmed by all reviewing courts. Accordingly, I decline to intervene and have notified the appropriate counsel and family of my decision."

Catholic Church hierarchy who vocally beat a constant drum to protect "innocent" life need also remind the governor to protect all life, including "guilty" lives. Serving a life sentence could convert Lewis' heart like so many others who find redemption while incarcerated. Where is the outcry from Virginia's Catholic bishops against McDonnell's death decision? Just six years ago, vocal bishops announced that they would refuse communion to pro-choice Catholic Democratic presidential nominee Senator John Kerry for his political stand to represent his constituency. The political constituency supporting capital death that McDonnell's action represents finds its seeds in the Baptist Christian right founded by Jerry Falwell of Lynchburg and Pat Robertson of Virginia Beach.

In their zeal to embrace other advocates opposed to abortion over the years, Catholics have hastily adopted Falwell's Baptist Moral Majority "pro-family," "pro-life," "pro-defense" and "pro-Israel" definitions espoused in support of Ronald Reagan's candidacy. Catholics have also clutched onto Robertson's Regent University's American Center for Law and Justice Republican-leaning Baptist "pro-family," "pro-liberty" and "pro-life" definitions evolved during his own Republican run for the presidency in 1988. Recently, Falwell joined several Republican-leaning or pro-business advocates to support McDonnell's plan to sell Virginia's state-owned liquor monopoly, triple the number of liquor retail outlets and place the state-run alcohol sales in private hands — hardly an issue for the Catholic Church to express a stand.

Our gospels are founded on redemption, salvation, forgiveness and love — not revenge, retribution or reprisals. Slaughtered martyrs passively stood in arenas for their new religion. What today passes for some as a true pro-life stand has politically morphed through the narrow Baptist filters that Falwell and Robertson created decades ago which promote capital punishment and war deaths. Therefore, the Catholic hierarchy need hold an equal standard for all elected officials if they insist that they hold Catholic teaching above the representations of their political constituencies. They cannot give a pass on capital punishment to a so-called "pro-life" Catholic official who opposed abortion while denying communion to an anti-capital punishment Catholic official who is pro-choice.

Catholic bishops need to stop dividing loafs by party lines when Catholic officials represent their constituencies over their religious hierarchy. McDonnell should be able to represent his powerful Virginia Baptist lobby and execute a prisoner or Kerry his national political party and support a woman's right to choose. It should simply be noted that both are not pro-life stands, and both should be held to an equal standard, not a Baptist-evolved one, when bishops decide to deny communion.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ‘73, serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton's administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.