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A Witness To Life: The Catholic Church and the Death Penalty

 

Cardinal Roger Mahony
Archbishop of Los Angeles
The National Press Club
Washington, D.C.
Thursday, May 25, 2000

Good afternoon. As I begin my remarks, I would like to thank John Cushman and the Board of Governors of the National Press Club for the invitation to speak before you this afternoon. I would also like to acknowledge the members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committees on Domestic and International Policy as well as staff from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops who are joining me for today's program. Finally, I would like to extend a special welcome to Frank and Ellen McNeirney, the co-founders and co-directors of Catholics Against Capital Punishment.

I come to this prestigious forum as a pastor who has witnessed firsthand the irreparable pain and sorrow caused by violence in our communities and in our nation. I have presided at the funerals of police officers killed in the line of duty. I have sought to console and comfort families who have lost children to drive-by shootings. I have heard the concerns and fears of parents who live—day in and day out—surrounded by the violence that haunts their neighborhoods.

As a Catholic priest, I have seen the pain of those whose lives have been forever altered by the loss of a loved one to senseless murder. Their own struggles have tested not only their faith but the faith of those who walk with them. As their own quest for healing has brought them closer to God, their witness has been a light of hope to those who accompany them.

The cost of crime and violence is real. It is measured in the lives of parents, children, and families, not anonymous statistics. The hopes, dreams, and human potential that will never be realized are a loss to each one of us.

I believe the Gospel teaches that people are responsible for their actions. I believe that the reality of sin demands that those who injure others must make reparation. But I do not believe that society is made safer, that our communities are made whole, or that our social fabric is strengthened by killing those who kill others. Instead, the death penalty perpetuates an insidious cycle of violence that, in the end, diminishes all of us.

For many Catholics, Pope John Paul II's visit to the United States in 1999 was a turning point on this issue. In calling the abolition of the death penalty an authentically pro-life position, he challenged Catholics to protect not only innocent human life, as we do in opposing abortion and euthanasia, but also to defend the lives of those who may have done great evil by taking the life of another. To demonstrate this conviction in a dramatic and personal way, he appealed for the life of Darrell Mease whose execution was postponed in deference to the Pope's visit.

The words and actions of Pope John Paul II in St. Louis brought renewed attention to the debate on the death penalty. It provided renewed moral support to those that have worked tirelessly over the last several decades for an end to capital punishment and placed the Catholic Church even more squarely on the side of those calling for its abolition.

In articulating a consistent ethic of life, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin provided the framework for a "sustained moral vision." It now appears that this consistent moral vision is beginning to take root and gain ground. A recent article in America magazine notes that pro-life Catholics are far more likely to reject capital punishment than Catholics who do not embrace the Church's stand on abortion. Among these pro-lifers, fifty-two percent reject the death penalty while support among all Catholics—in 1998—remained at around 70 percent. While we still have work to do in our own community, it is clear that this consistent ethic of life is resonating in the pro-life community.

I recognize that there are distinct differences between abortion and the death penalty. But like abortion, the death penalty remains one of the more contentious and volatile issues facing the nation. It is an issue steeped in deep emotion. It is a topic that evokes visceral responses from supporters and opponents alike. It is a debate that, unfortunately, often generates more heat than light, more passion than persuasion.

Among the signs that the nation as a whole may be taking a new look at the death penalty is a recent ABC poll that indicates support for the death penalty has dropped to 64% from nearly 70% just a few years ago. And in a Time magazine online poll, 43% of respondents expressed support for abolition of the death penalty.

This gradual shift is remarkable given that virtually no elected leader in the last decade has made the case against the death penalty. It is worth noting that in the last two elections, presidential candidates from both parties supported capital punishment. In some cases, candidates went to great lengths to advertise their support throughout their campaigns. Both President Clinton and Governor Bush halted their presidential campaigns to reject appeals to delay executions in highly publicized cases.

In California, 565 inmates await execution on death row. Unfortunately, support for the death penalty is one of the few things that unites politicians of both political parties.

So the fact that, in the face of almost universal support among elected officials, the death penalty is slowly losing support among the public at-large is hope that the tide may be turning.

Movies such as "Dead Man Walking" and the "The Green Mile," and TV shows such as "The Practice" and "West Wing" have brought the moral complexity of the issue to a much broader audience. The courage of Illinois Governor George Ryan and the work of lawyers, journalists and students have focused attention on the fact that innocent people are on death row.

In the midst of this debate, the most persuasive and challenging voices continue to be the victims. One of the most visible is Pope John Paul II. He has never fully recovered from the gun wounds that nearly killed him. But his own attack became an example for us all when he reached out in forgiveness to his assailant and called for the abolition of the death penalty. Other victims and families are less known, but no less inspiring or heroic.

There is Bud Welch, a Texaco dealer who lost his only daughter, Julie, in the bombing that destroyed the Oklahoma City Federal Building. He turned his own anger into a search for justice and reconciliation. He was denied an opportunity to testify at Timothy McVeigh's trial because of his opposition to the death penalty—a position that Julie also shared. Undeterred, he has carried his message to hundreds of groups arguing that capital punishment only deepens the emotional wounds opened by the initial act of violence. He has met with members of the Timothy McVeigh family knowing that they also suffer terribly from their son's crime.

The witness of Pope John Paul II, Bud Welch and others strikes me as the modern day embodiment of Jesus Christ's message of hope, forgiveness and reconciliation. It is an affirmation that the answer to violence cannot be more violence.

In the Catholic Church, teaching on the death penalty has developed over time. For centuries, the Church accepted the right of the state to take a life in order to protect society. But over time and in the light of new realities, Catholic teaching now recognizes that there are non-violent means to protect society and to hold offenders accountable. Church teaching now clearly argues for the abolition of capital punishment.

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the conditions under which a life can be taken—even to protect the lives of others—have been narrowed significantly. Specifically, the Catechism states:

If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person."1

How do these principles that uphold human life and dignity apply to the complex matter of capital punishment? In reflecting on Catholic teaching, we must conclude that "even the most hardened criminal remains a human person, created in God's image, and possessing a dignity, value, and worth which must be recognized, promoted, safeguarded and defended."2 Simply put, we believe that every person is sacred, every life is precious—even the life of one who has violated the rights of others by taking a life. Human dignity is not qualified by what we do. It cannot be earned or forfeited. Human dignity is an irrevocable character of each and every person.

In the last decade, the Holy Father has reminded us that the purpose of punishment should never be vengeance. Rather, it is a "condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfils the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people's safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behavior and be rehabilitated."3

The Pope states that "…the nature and extent of punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and 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." He goes on to say "…as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent."4

The reality is that the penal system in the United States, perhaps better than all other countries, has the ability to permanently isolate dangerous individuals.

Now, even some death penalty supporters are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the status quo. The arbitrary manner in which the death penalty is sometimes applied; the disproportionate number of racial and ethnic minorities and low-income persons on death row; the fiscal burdens borne by penal institutions; and, most disturbingly, the mounting evidence that innocent people have been convicted and sentenced to death—all these factors have sown considerable doubt in the minds of elected officials and the public at-large.

In many states, underfunded and overworked defense attorneys struggle to keep up with large caseloads. It is simply unacceptable that defendants charged with capital crimes should have to rely on counsel that is underfunded, inexperienced, or simply incompetent.

A wide range of voices is calling for an end to the death penalty or a moratorium on executions. Governor Ryan of Illinois, a supporter of the death penalty, suspended executions in his State until its capital punishment apparatus could be thoroughly examined. He has stated that he will reinstate the death penalty only if the commission studying the issue can provide a "100 percent guarantee" that the Illinois system is flawless.

In New Hampshire, the legislature last week passed a measure to ban capital punishment only to have it vetoed by Governor Jeanne Shaheen.

And in the Supreme Court, questions about the circumstances under which death row inmates have been tried and sentenced have been raised again.

In Congress, Senator Patrick Leahy and Representatives Ray LaHood and Bill Delahunt have introduced legislation that would, among other things:

  • Ensure that defendants have access to exculpatory DNA evidence when available;
  • Require states to provide competent defense counsel; and
  • Limit the federal government's authority to pursue the death penalty for federal crimes committed in states without capital punishment.

Senator Russell Feingold has introduced a bill to abolish the death penalty at the federal level and Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr. has joined him in introducing bills that would institute a moratorium on the use of the death penalty.

We support these and other bills that would end the death penalty or, at the very least, postpone or commute some sentences while exposing fundamental flaws in the current administration of capital punishment.

It is in this light that I have written today to Gray Davis, Governor of California, calling on him to institute a moratorium on the death penalty while the California system can be thoroughly assessed and the inequities, weaknesses, and biases in the process can be revealed fully.

All these initiatives, taken together, are signs of growing skepticism about the system under which the death penalty is currently applied. While I support these efforts, the long-term goal is not simply to make the application of the death penalty free from bias, inequity, or human error. Instead, these efforts should be steps towards a public dialogue that ultimately brings a permanent end to state executions. As the campaign to ban partial birth abortions has cast new light on the morality of abortion, these partial steps against the death penalty can create awareness of the fundamental moral problems with capital punishment. The time is right for a genuine and reasoned national dialogue.

A recently formed independent commission to study issues of procedure, innocence, and other legal aspects of the system is significant and my fellow bishop, Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore has agreed to serve on that commission. But we must expand the dialogue beyond the legal problems to address the moral and human dimensions of the death penalty. This dialogue should be happening not only in commissions, but also in our communities, in our churches and homes, and in newspapers and other public forums.

In the end, we are deceiving ourselves if we believe we can fix the current death penalty system to make it more humane and just. Social, political and economic factors make a complete overhaul of the system doubtful. Moral and ethical questions make such an endeavor impossible.

Conclusion

As we have pointed out in previous statements, the death penalty is further indication of a culture of violence that haunts our nation. Sadly, we are the most violent nation on earth not currently at war. It is reflected in our movies and music, our television and video games, in our homes, schools, and on our streets. More ominously, our society is tempted to solve some of our more significant social problems with violence. Consider this:

  • Abortion is promoted to deal with difficult or unwanted pregnancies;
  • Euthanasia and assisted suicide are suggested as a remedy for the burdens of age and illness;
  • Capital punishment is marketed as the answer to deal with violent crime.

A nation that destroys its young, abandons its elderly, and relies on vengeance is in serious moral trouble.

The Catholic Bishops of the United States join with Pope John Paul II in a recommitment to end the death penalty. Our faith calls us to be "unconditionally pro-life." We will work not only to proclaim our anti-death penalty position, but to persuade others that increasing reliance on capital punishment diminishes society as a whole.

In addition, we recommit to work with our community of faith to combat crime and violence, to turn our prisons from warehouses of human failure and seedbeds of violence, to places of rehabilitation and recovery. We will stand with victims of crime and seek real justice and accountability for them and their families.

Simple solutions rarely address difficult problems. What is needed is a moral revolution that results in genuine respect for every human life—especially the unborn and the poor, the crime victims and even the violent offender. In the end, our society will be measured by how we treat "the least among us." It challenges each person to defend human life in every circumstance and situation. It calls on our leaders and the media to seek the common good and not appeal to our worst instincts.

This is a time for a new ethic—justice without vengeance. Let us come together to hold people accountable for their actions, to resist and condemn violence, to stand with victims of crime and to insist that those who destroy community, answer to the community. But let us also remember that we cannot restore life by taking life, that vengeance cannot heal and that all of us must find new ways to defend human life and dignity in a far too violent society.

This will be a long struggle. It begins by raising new doubts about the death penalty. It will require new and more serious efforts to address crime and reform prisons. But in the end, we cannot practice what we condemn. We cannot defend life by taking life. We cannot contain violence by using state violence.

In this new century, we join with others in taking a prophetic stand to end the death penalty. In doing so, we hope to share a new vision of society that is unambiguous and consistent in its defense of life. It will demand the courage and faith of many to see us through a long and challenging process of dialogue and conversion. It is a challenge, however, that is worth our best efforts.

Thank you.


Endnotes

  1. Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2267
  2. Presentation by Father Bryan Massingale at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops's criminal justice consultation, November 1999.
  3. The Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II, #56
  4. Ibid.





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