FARGO, N.D. — While many in North Dakota have called for the death penalty for a convicted murderer, there’s one voice that has been crying in the wilderness opposing it.

That voice belongs to Fargo Bishop Samuel Aquila. For those who are familiar with the bishop, they say it’s business as usual for a man who is unafraid to say what he means and mean what he says.

“When different things come up in the public forum, Bishop Aquila is very forthright,” said Jon Morris, a Fargo banker, husband and father of three. “He’s not one to just let things be glossed over. He’s a strong defender of the Church and explains what the Church stands for and why. He explains the teachings of the Church.”

That’s just what happened in September after a federal judge issued the death penalty for Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., who was convicted of murdering a 22-year-old university student three years ago. Bishop Aquila used the opportunity to be a Church voice against capital punishment.

“Responding to this senseless act of violence with another act of violence through imposition of the death penalty does not erase the hurt caused by the first act,” said Bishop Aquila. “Rather, it reinforces the false perspective of revenge as justice. In doing so, it diminishes respect for all human life, both the lives of the guilty and the innocent.”

As Pope John Paul II and other Catholics have alluded, Bishop Aquila has said that the legal system in the United States is “capable of protecting society by incarcerating violent offenders for life.” Bishop Aquila said that the “Catholic faith teaches that the death penalty is rarely, if ever, justified.”

While acknowledging that the primary purpose of capital punishment is to redress the disorder caused by the crime, Pope John Paul II, in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Value and Inviolability of Human Life), said that the nature and extent of punishment “ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.”

“Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent,” the Pope wrote.

But the death penalty is merely Bishop Aquila’s latest pronouncement in a five-year tenure that has been marked by periodic pastoral letters, attention to moral issues and personal energy spent in developing religious vocations.

This article continues the Register’s ongoing series exploring how some bishops have found the voice to address issues that many bishops, priests and deacons have avoided.

Among others, the series will feature Bishop Robert Baker of Charleston, S.C., Archbishop John Myers of Newark, N.J., Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colo. and Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Ore. The series has previously featured Bishop Victor Galeone of St. Augustine, Fla., Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, Ariz., and Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo.

Moral Issues

Ordained as Bishop for the Fargo Diocese in 2001, Bishop Aquila has used his office to teach in several ways. One of the most prominent ways he has done so is through the pastoral letter. Since becoming bishop he has issued four. His first, in 2002, focused on making the sacrament of confirmation available at an earlier age. His second and third dealt with parish life and the diocesan reorganization of parishes.

Bishop Aquila said the growth of relativism in the culture spurred him to write a fourth pastoral letter, which addressed truth. “You Will Know the Truth and the Truth will set you Free” came out in 2004.

“Over the last few years, I have grown more concerned about the influence of relativism, the non-existence of objective truth and that of subjectivism on Catholics,” Bishop Aquila told the Register. “In discussion with bishops, priests and laity, I had heard some say that ‘conscience must decide’ moral questions. While there is truth in this statement, it is misunderstood, for in many people’s minds it means that I decide what is good or evil, what is true or not true. This has led to a great deal of confusion.”

As part of that pastoral letter, Bishop Aquila mandated that every pastor in the diocese preach the first two Sundays of Lent that year on the topic of conscience, and provide a section on conscience from the Catechism of the Catholic Church to their parishioners.

In April 2004, Bishop Aquila became one of a handful of bishops to address the issue of Catholic politicians’ reception of the Eucharist.

“Neither the media nor the theologians who support the separation (between one’s faith and one’s professional life) will present the clear teaching of the Church,” Bishop Aquila said during his homily at St. Mary’s Cathedral. “I have the responsibility and duty before God to teach and to present to you the teaching of the Church on the matter of living one’s faith in the world.”

The bishop then recalled the words of St. Justin Martyr, who said that no one may share in the Eucharist unless he believes what the Church teaches is true, and the words of St. Paul that anyone who does so brings judgment on himself.

The bishop has been a public supporter of marriage between one man and one woman. In May, he released a statement encouraging the faithful to support the Marriage Protection Amendment.

“God’s original intent for our lives will never be out of style,” he wrote. “To label any union other than that between one man and one woman, as marriage is a lie about who we are and what God calls us to be.”

Bishop Aquila is also one of several bishops who mandated Natural Family Planning and theology of the body instruction for couples desiring sacramental marriage. He implemented that policy on the feast of the birth of Mary, Sept. 8, 2005.

“The bishop wants people to understand that in order for them to have happy marriages, they have to understand God’s plan for them in marriage,” said Rachelle Sauvageau, who, for the past 12 years, has served as the director of the Respect Life Office for the Diocese of Fargo. “The bishop is giving this tremendous gift to couples to help them build strong and happy marriages.”

The diocese makes available four different methods of natural family planning for the approximately 440 couples that are married each year in the diocese.           

Bishop Aquila’s style and message are resonating with young men. Over the past three years, the Fargo Diocese has seen its numbers of seminarians grow from 12 to nearly twice that number. He’s also attracting seminarians from nearby dioceses.

Father Darin Didier, who was ordained in June 2005, just three months before he succumbed to cancer, and Father Jason Asselin, who was ordained this past spring, both came from the nearby Diocese of St. Cloud, Minn.

Father Asselin said that he was attracted to the Diocese of Fargo by both the example of quality seminarians and priests, but also by a strong bishop “who was doing what he should be doing” in terms of vocations.

“Bishop Aquila is very frank,” admitted Father Asselin. “He’s open to challenging young people and families to prayerfully consider religious vocations.”

“Before he came, there wasn’t a single canon lawyer in the diocese,” said Dr. Emmet Kenney, a physician with Prairie St. John’s Psychiatric Hospital. “Now, he’s had three priests go to Rome to study canon law. He’s really fostered the growth of priests in the diocese.”

Whether he’s writing a column, appearing on the local news, or delivering a homily, Bishop Aquila points to the cultural confusion as the reason for his clarity.

“Bishops have come to recognize that we need to teach clearly,” he said. “Perhaps, in the time after the Second Vatican Council, there was a crisis of confidence, a time of questioning, and a failure to speak clearly. Some did not want to rock the boat, or turn Catholics away. This only led to a lukewarm approach to the Gospel. There was a move away, too, from the difficult sayings of Jesus and his teaching on judgment.”

He also recognizes that today’s bishops need to stand ready for persecution.

“Today bishops recognize in the crisis of faith that exists among some Catholics that we need to be of Christ and that means teaching clearly,” said Bishop Aquila. “We must take seriously the command given to the apostles: ‘Teach them to observe all that I have commanded you.’ We must be prepared too for rejection, ridicule and the Cross and always remember that Jesus and the first apostles suffered no less than us today.”

Tim Drake is based in

St. Joseph, Minnesota.