The Aquinas Institute for Catholic Thought will host a debate at the University of Colorado next week on the use of the death penalty in the U.S., demonstrating the Church's desire for dialogue.
“We're showing that the Church has something to say about the common good in society as a whole, and we really want to be a voice in that public debate,” Scott Powell, director of scriptural theology at St. Thomas Aquinas parish in Boulder and one of the event's organizers, told CNA Jan. 23.
“We do 'The Great Debate' every year around the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas, who had a long tradition of engaging in public debate at universities on important issues of the time,” he explained.
This year's debate, being held Jan. 31, is the seventh annual Great Debate; it will be between Dr. E Christian Kopff, founder of the University of Colorado Honors Program, arguing in favor of the death penalty in the U.S., and Msgr. Stuart Swetland, professor of ethics at Mount St. Mary's University, arguing against.
The debate is “in the spirit of hospitality and fairness,” Powell said, and is meant “to include the Catholic voice in a secular university; we're really trying to represent the Church well.”
Past debate topics have included abortion, the nature of marriage, and government intervention in the economy. Capital punishment was chosen as this year's theme because “many people are asking the question,” Powell explained.
The issue is expected to play a role in Colorado's next gubernatorial race, and the issue has been raised in the upcoming trial of an inmate who killed a correctional officer and in the trial of James Holmes, the Aurora movie theater shooter; national attention focused on capital punishment with the Jan. 22 execution of Edgar Tamayo by the state of Texas.
“People have very strong feelings” on the issue, Powell said, “and I don't think many people know exactly where the Church lands on it … it's not as black and white as some we've done in the past.”
Church teaching has traditionally permitted the use of capital punishment; in his own work defending the Church against non-Christians, St. Thomas Aquinas said “the evil … may be justly executed.”
Yet in his 1995 encyclical “Evangelium Vitae,” Bl. John Paul II said that today, cases in which the death penalty may be justly utilized “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”
Msgr. Swetland, a priest of the Peoria diocese, holds a doctorate of theology from the Pontifical Lateran University, and will argue the position expressed by the late Roman Pontiff. Powell said the priest has published on the topic, and is “doing a lot of work at the moment on this topic, and working with the Vatican on whether or not (capital punishment) might be an issue of development of doctrine – whether this might be a place for that.”
Kopff, meanwhile, is an associate professor of classics, in which he earned his doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The conservative thinker, a Lutheran, advocates for classical education and is “very versed in Aquinas, and Catholic teaching” on the issue, and is “well known” in Boulder for his defense of the death penalty.
With the debate, the Aquinas Institute for Catholic Thought is trying “to show the university, and Boulder at large, that the Catholic Church is serious about having intelligent and respectful debates about things that we know that we disagree about.”
Powell explained that it important to neither present the Catholic position by banging it over others heads, nor “circling the wagons” and refusing to dialogue with the society at large.
“We really want to engage the broader culture, and the university culture.”