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In preparing for the group discussion, you will need at least one copy of each small group discussion handout for each group (although you may want to provide each group member with a copy as well). You will need paper and pens or pencils for someone from each group to record the groups discussion. You will need to make a copy of the quotations and prayer intentions for the closing reflection and cut them apart to distribute among participants.
Introduction and Opening Prayer (5 minutes)
Leader : We have come together today to learn about and reflect on the death penalty and how our Catholic Faith informs our consciences and convictions on this issue. We will have an opportunity to consider perspectives on the death penalty both as a whole group and in smaller discussions. We will begin as we will end, in prayer:
Heavenly Father, You create each person in your image and invite everyone to a special relationship with you, our sole end. You alone are the Lord of life. Restore our relationships with you and one another.
Lord, Jesus Christ,
You are the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Help us to find our way to justice, to understand the truth of our human dignity, and to find new life in you.
Holy Spirit, source of all wisdom.
Renew in us the light of reason and the spirit of love.
Bless our time together today.
Father, we ask this through Our Lord Jesus Christ,
who lives, and reigns with you and
the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen .
Opening Discussion (10 minutes)
Encourage participants to share their current understanding of the death penalty and Catholic Social Teaching. This time should help them to start thinking about perspectives on the issue:
Closing Discussion (25 minutes)
Leader : Call the discussion groups back to the whole gathering. Ask the recorder/reporter from each group to report back on general themes they covered. Encourage other group members to add any other points that they found meaningful. What struck or challenged them most? Encourage comments on the application of CST to the death penalty as well as personal experiences or perspectives. Once a group has finished sharing, invite participants from other groups to ask questions or share their reactions and responses. Each group should have 5 minutes to report on their discussion.
With the remaining five minutes, ask the whole group to consider, one question at a time: What are ways our community can take action? What can we do to help eliminate the use of the death penalty? How can we spread awareness of this issue and the Church's teaching? Who would like to commit to being involved in carrying out these ideas?
Closing Reflection and Prayer (5 minutes)
Gather for reflection and prayer in an arrangement that is appropriate for your group (e.g. standing or sitting in a circle). Cut into separate pieces and distribute the following quotations and intentions, depending on the size of your group. Ask those with quotations to read them out loud in turn.
Our witness to respect for life shines most brightly when we demand respect for each and every human life, including the lives of those who fail to show that respect for others. The antidote to violence is love, not more violence. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics (Washington, DC: USCCB, 1998), 22.
The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life in every situation. A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary. Pope John Paul II, Homily at the Papal Mass at the Trans World Dome, St. Louis, MO (January 27,1999).
O LORD, you have probed me, you know me:
you know when I sit and stand; you understand my thoughts from afar.
My travels and my rest you mark; with all my ways you are familiar.
Even before a word is on my tongue, LORD, you know it all.
Behind and before you encircle me and rest your hand upon me.
You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother's womb (Ps. 139:1-5, 13).
Have mercy on me, God, in your goodness; in your abundant compassion blot out my offense.
Wash away all my guilt; from my sin cleanse me.
For I know my offense; my sin is always before me.
Against you alone have I sinned; I have done such evil in your sight (Ps. 51:3-5).
Cleanse me with hyssop, that I may be pure; wash me, make me whiter than snow.
Let me hear sounds of joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Turn away your face from my sins; blot out all my guilt.
A clean heart create for me, God; renew in me a steadfast spirit.
Do not drive me from your presence, nor take from me your holy spirit.
Restore my joy in your salvation; sustain in me a willing spirit.
I will teach the wicked your ways, that sinners may return to you (Ps. 51:9-15).
Leader: We now offer these intentions for our nation and our Church ( Invite those with the intentions to read them):
We pray for victims of crime and their loved ones, for those awaiting execution and their families, for our leaders, for those who work in the criminal justice system, and for one another, that we might help bring an end to the culture of violence and build a culture of life in our nation and throughout the world.
We pray that the Church may reach out to the families of those whose lives have been taken away through violence, and assure them of our support, compassion, and care.
We pray for the commitment to advocate for public policies that better protect society from perpetrators of violence, and that do not resort to the death penalty.
We pray for the desire to learn more about Catholic teaching on the death penalty, and the grace to reflect seriously on our own attitudes and positions on the death penalty.
We pray for opportunities to educate others about Catholic teaching on the death penalty and the criminal justice system, with courage and clarity, in ways that persuade.
We pray for the strength to advocate in the Congress, in the courts, and in the public square; to urge our public officials to support measures that restrict the death penalty or provide alternatives; and in a particular way, to ask those who make decisions about the death penalty to take their own opportunities to bring an end to its use.
We pray for the inspiration to reform the criminal justice system to make it more just, more effective, and more restorative to victims, offenders, and communities.
We pray for success in building a constituency for life, not death, to defend life, not take it away.
Leader: We lift up all these hopes and visions in the Name of Jesus, who taught us to pray, Our Father
Give participants a copy of the What Every Catholic Should Know About the Death Penalty handout to take as they leave.
Discussion Group Handout #1 ( PDF)
In this group, you will reflect on Catholic teaching on the use of the death penalty. Ask one or several people to read aloud and consider the following quotations from Catholic Social Teaching (CST), and then discuss what you have read based on the questions which follow. Have one group member take notes to summarize your discussion for the larger group. You will have 15 minutes for your discussion.
From the Catechism of the Catholic Church ( CCC)3
Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility. (2265)
The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people's rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and the duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense.
Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting peoples safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.4 (2266)
Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.
If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect peoples safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm -- without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself -- the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically non-existent.5 (2267)
From other Church documents
Since something of the glory of God shines on the face of every person, the dignity of every person before God is the basis of the dignity of man before other men.6
Some ask whether those who commit the most heinous crimes or who are found guilty of repeated violence constitute the rare occasions when the death penalty is appropriate. According to The Gospel of Life, the existence of a rare occasion when the death penalty may be used is not determined by the gravity of the crime but by whether it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.10 No matter how heinous the crime, if society can protect itself without ending a human life, it should do so.7
One alternative to the death penalty is life without the possibility of parole for those who continue to pose a deadly threat to society. Our Conference has addressed these challenges in its criminal justice statement entitled Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration.8
We reaffirm our common judgment that the use of the death penalty is unnecessary and unjustified in our time and circumstances.9
What does Catholic Social Teaching (CST) say about the right of the state to punish offenders and protect society?
According to CST, what conditions might permit the use of the death penalty? What limitations does CST impose on the use of the death penalty?
What are the purposes of punishment? Does the death penalty achieve these goals?
How do other nations approach the death penalty? What alternatives are there? Is the death penalty necessary in the United States?
How does CST affect your position on the death penalty? What implications does this teaching have for public policy in the United States?
Discussion Group Handout #2 ( PDF)
In this group, you will reflect on human life, crime and punishment in Scripture. Ask one or several people to read aloud and consider the following passages, and then discuss what you have read based on the questions which follow. Have one group member take notes to summarize your discussion for the larger group. You will have 15 minutes for your discussion.
Then God said: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the cattle, and over all the wild animals and all the creatures that crawl on the ground. God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them. ( Gn 2:26-27)
You shall not kill. ( Ex 20:13)
Cain said to his brother Abel, Let us go out in the field. When they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. Then the LORD asked Cain, Where is your brother Abel? He answered, I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper? The LORD then said: What have you done! Listen: your brother's blood cries out to me from the soil! Therefore you shall be banned from the soil that opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. ( Gn 4:8-11)
Show me the coin that pays the census tax. Then they handed him [Jesus] the Roman coin. He said to them, Whose image is this and whose inscription? They replied, Caesars. At that he said to them, Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. ( Mt 22:19-21)
The First Crime and Gods Punishment
Cain said to the LORD: My punishment is too great to bear. Since you have now banished me from the soil, and I must avoid your presence and become a restless wanderer on the earth, anyone may kill me at sight. Not so! the LORD said to him. If anyone kills Cain, Cain shall be avenged sevenfold. So the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest anyone should kill him at sight. ( Gn 4:13-15)
Whoever takes the life of any human being shall be put to death. A life for a life! Anyone who inflicts an injury on his neighbor shall receive the same in return. Limb for limb, eye for eye, tooth for tooth! The same injury that a man gives another shall be inflicted on him in return. ( Lv 24:17-20; See also similar language in Ex 21:23-25 and Dt 19:21)
A correct interpretation of these passages indicates, however, that the principal intent of such laws was to limit the retribution that could be exacted for an offense, not to require a minimum punishment. Furthermore, it is important to read individual passages in the context of Sacred Scripture as a whole. While the Old Testament includes some passages about taking the life of one who kills, the Old Testament and the teaching of Christ in the New Testament call us to protect life, practice mercy, and reject vengeance.10
Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. They said to him, Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women.11 So what do you say? They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So he was left alone with the woman before him. Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? She replied, No one, sir. Then Jesus said, Neither do I condemn you. Go, (and) from now on do not sin any more. ( Jn 8:3-11)
Jesus refused to stone the woman accused of adultery (Jn 8:1-11 ), reminding us to be cautious in judging others and to have hope in the possibility of reform and redemption.12
What consequence did Cain expect as a punishment for murdering his brother? How did God respond to his crime?
How did Jesus acknowledge the crime of the woman caught in adultery? What limit did Jesus place on the community's authority to punish her? What opportunity and challenge did Jesus offer the woman?
How does the sentencing of Jesus to death by crucifixion and his forgiveness of those who crucified him affect your position on the death penalty?
Discussion Group Handout #3 ( PDF )
In this group, you will reflect on the effectiveness of the death penalty. Ask one or several people to read aloud and consider the following information about the use of the death penalty in the U.S., and then discuss what you have read based on the question which follows. Have one group member take notes to summarize your discussion for the larger group. You will have 15 minutes for your discussion.
Geography: From 1995-2000, 42% of the federal cases submitted to the Attorney General for review came from just 5 of the 94 federal districts. Including 21 districts that have never submitted a case for review by the Attorney General, 40 of the 94 never recommended the death penalty for a defendant.13
Race: A statistical study in Philadelphia found that for similar crimes committed by similar defendants, blacks received the death penalty at a 38% higher rate than others.14 Studies in Maryland,15 New Jersey,16 and North Carolina17 found that defendants who killed a white victim were more likely to receive the death penalty. Similarly, although blacks and whites are murder victims at almost the same rate, 80% of executions involve white victims.18
Quality of Legal Representation: I have yet to see a death case among the dozens coming to the Supreme Court on eve-of-execution stay applications in which the defendant was well represented at trial. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (2001)19
A comparison of the annual number of murders in death penalty states and in non-death penalty states from 1990 to 2007 shows that there are consistently more murders in states which use the death penalty. The percentage difference ranged from a low of 4% in 1990 to a high of 46% in 2006. In other words, in 2006 there were 46% more murders in states with the death penalty than in states which do not use the death penalty. In 2007, the difference was 42%.20
Academic reviews of studies which claim that the death penalty deters crime demonstrate that there is no evidence for this claim. Some studies even suggest that increased use of the death penalty correlates with increased homicides.21
Cost of Protecting Society
In California, the annual cost of the current death penalty system is $137 million per year. The cost of the present system with reforms recommended by the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice to ensure a fair process would be $232.7 million per year. The cost of a system with a reduced number of death-eligible crimes would be $130 million per year. The cost of a system with a maximum penalty of lifetime incarceration instead of the death penalty would be $11.5 million per year.22
A Maryland study estimates the average cost to Maryland taxpayers for reaching a single death sentence as $3 million - $1.9 million more than the cost of a non-death penalty case. The study examined 162 capital cases prosecuted between 1978 and 1999 and found that those cases will cost $186 million more than what those cases would have cost had the death penalty not existed as a punishment. At every phase of a case, death penalty cases cost more than non-death penalty cases.23
Studies show similar trends in Florida, Indiana, Kansas, New Jersey, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington.24
On the national level, a 2001 report by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that large unexpected costs increase the burden of the death penalty on states. Counties manage these high costs by decreasing funding for highways and police and by increasing taxes.25
On August 26, 2008, Michael Blair of Texas became the 130th person released from death row with evidence of innocence since 1973. Dozens of others have either been released through probable innocence or had their sentences commuted due to possible innocence. Who knows how many of the more than 1,000 persons executed since 1976 were also innocent?26
The defense of the life and dignity of the human person in Catholic Social Teaching (CST) includes recognition of the equality of all persons. Racism, for example, is an intrinsic evil. In CST, the common good of communities includes public safety. In light of these teachings, how does the information above affect your position on the death penalty?
Discussion Group Handout #4 ( PDF )
In this group, you will reflect on some of the social effects of the death penalty. Ask one or several people to read aloud and consider the following passages, and then discuss what you have read based on the questions which follow. Have one group member take notes to summarize your discussion for the larger group. You will have 15 minutes for your discussion.
Building a Culture of Life
Others question whether our criminal justice system can indeed protect society. They point to examples of the release of offenders who subsequently commit horrible acts of violence. But in the face of a growing culture of death, every effort should be made to promote a culture of life. Therefore, we believe that the primary response to these situations should not be the use of the death penalty but should instead be the promotion of needed reform of the criminal justice system so that society is more effectively protected. One alternative to the death penalty is life without the possibility of parole for those who continue to pose a deadly threat to society. Our Conference has addressed these challenges in its criminal justice statement entitled Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration.27
Catholic teaching on the common good commits each of us to pursue the good of everyone and of society as a whole.28 When the state, in our names and with our taxes, ends a human life despite having non-lethal alternatives, it suggests that society can overcome violence with violence. The use of the death penalty ought to be abandoned not only for what it does to those who are executed, but for what it does to all of society.29
The pursuit of the common good is linked directly to the defense of human life. At a time when the sanctity of life is threatened in many ways, taking life is not really a solution but may instead effectively undermine respect for life. In many ways the death penalty is about us: the actions taken in our name, the values which guide our lives, and the dignity that we accord to human life. Public policies that treat some lives as unworthy of protection, or that are perceived as vengeful, fracture the moral conviction that human life is sacred.30
Effects on Families
Our family of faith must care for sisters and brothers who have been wounded by violence and support them in their loss and search for justice. They deserve our compassion, solidarity, and support: spiritual, pastoral, and personal. However, standing with families of victims does not compel us to support the use of the death penalty. For many left behind, a death sentence offers the illusion of closure and vindication. No act, even an execution, can bring back a loved one or heal terrible wounds. The pain and loss of one death cannot be wiped away by another death.31
A number of us have also visited people on death row. We have listened to their families who tell of their own fear, grief, and shame. Some who have been on death row have been released after years of facing execution because new evidence has exonerated them. The human loss and cycle of violence in capital cases touches their families too.32
Effects on the Criminal Justice System
Those who work in the criminal justice system also deserve our concern, prayers, and attention.
Governors, wardens, corrections officers, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and especially those involved directly in executions face difficult choices of life and death, crime and punishment, justice and mercy, rehabilitation and redemption. In addition, some may find themselves required to participate in a process they find morally objectionable.33
Our prisons must be transformed from warehouses of human failure and seedbeds of violence to places of responsibility, rehabilitation, and restoration.34  It is time to turn away from a deeply flawed system of state-sponsored executions to a way of protecting society and holding accountable the truly guilty in a way that reflects our society's best values.35
What effects does the use of the death penalty have on our efforts to build a culture of life and a society which promotes the common good?
How could our criminal justice system change to respect human life and dignity more consistently?
1 E.g. The Catholic Church proclaims that human life is sacred and that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society. We believe that every person is precious, that people are more important than things, and that the measure of every institution is whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person. (http://)
2 E.g. The person is not only sacred but also social. How we organize our society in economics and politics, in law and policy directly affects human dignity and the capacity of individuals to grow in community. We believe people have a right and a duty to participate in society, seeking together the common good and well-being of all, especially the poor and vulnerable. (http://)
3 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: USCCB, 2000).
4 Cf. Lk 23:4-43.
5 John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56.
6 Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (Washington, DC: USCCB, 2005), 144.
7 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death: A Statement of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Calling for an End to the Use of the Death Penalty (Washington, DC: USCCB, 2005), 14.
8 Ibid., 13. See also United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice (Washington, DC: USCCB, 2000), 27-28.
9 A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death, 3.
10 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death: A Statement of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Calling for an End to the Use of the Death Penalty (Washington, DC: USCCB, 2005), 11.
11 Lev 20:10 and Deut 22:22 mention only death, but Deut 22:23-24 prescribes stoning for a betrothed virgin.
12 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death: A Statement of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Calling for an End to the Use of the Death Penalty (Washington, DC: USCCB, 2005), 12.
13 U.S. Dept. of Justice, The Federal Death Penalty System: A Statistical Survey (1988-2000) (September 12, 2000). (Cited on Death Penalty Information Center website, http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/arbitrariness)
14 Richard C. Dieter, The Death Penalty in Black & White, Death Penalty Information Center (1998). (Cited on Death Penalty Information Center website, http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/arbitrariness)
15 Raymond Paternoster, et. al., An Empirical Analysis Of Marylands Death Sentencing System With Respect To The Influence Of Race And Legal Jurisdiction (January 7, 2003). (Cited on Death Penalty Information Center website, http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/race-and-death-penalty)
16 New Jersey Supreme Court. (Asbury Park Press, August 13, 2001). (Cited on Death Penalty Information Center website, http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/ race-and-death-penalty)
17 Jack Boger and Isaac Unah, Race and the Death Penalty in North Carolina An Empirical Analysis: 1993-1997 (April 16, 2001). (Cited on Death Penalty Information Center website, http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/ race-and-death-penalty.)
18 NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Death Row, USA, Winter 2007 (January 1, 2007), p. 7, http://www.naacpldf.org/content/pdf/pubs/drusa/DRUSA_Winter_2007.pdf.
19 Cited on Death Penalty Information Center website, http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/arbitrariness.
20 Death Penalty Information Center, http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/discussion-recent-deterrence-studies.
21 Death Penalty Information Center website, http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/discussion-recent-deterrence-studies.
22 California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, Final Report (June 30, 2008), http://www.ccfaj.org/documents/CCFAJFinalReport.pdf. (Cited on Death Penalty Information Center website, http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/costs-death-penalty.)
23 Jennifer McMenamin, Death penalty costs Md. more than life term, The Baltimore Sun, (March 6, 2008). (Cited on Death Penalty Information Center website, http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/costs-death-penalty.) See also, See also John Roman, The Cost of the Death Penalty in Maryland (Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute Justice Policy Center, March 2008).
24 Cited on Death Penalty Information Center website, http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/costs-death-penalty.
25 Katherine Baicker, NBER Working Paper No. 8382: The Budgetary Repercussions of Capital Convictions, (July 2001). (Cited on Death Penalty Information Center website, http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/costs-death-penalty.)
26 Death Penalty Information Center, http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/innocence-and-death-penalty.
27 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death: A Statement of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Calling for an End to the Use of the Death Penalty (Washington, DC: USCCB, 2005), 7.
28 See John Paul II, On Social Concern (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis) (Washington, DC: USCCB, 1987), no. 38.
29 A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death, 14.
30 Ibid., 14-15.
31 Ibid., 5, 6.
32 Ibid., 6.
34 Ibid., 18. See also United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice (Washington, DC: USCCB, 2000), 39.
35 A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death,20.
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