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Statement on the Death Penalty

 
This statement was presented to the Judiciary Committee of the Nevada State Senate on February 15, 1973

In its official teaching the Catholic Church has not taken a position relative to the retention or abolition of capital punishment. The Catholic Bishops of the United States have the question under study at the present time. Hence, the following statement is made as a personal declaration and not in my capacity as the Roman Catholic Bishop of Reno.

Whether it reflects the position of the majority of the Catholics of the Church in Nevada, I cannot say. I am certain, however, it reflects the attitudes of many and, in a way, expresses the mind of the Church because of the position we have taken officially in so many instances involving the preservation of human life.

There is in our society an experience of and an understandable exasperation with violent crime. Sky jackings, the murder of peace officers and robbery victims, as well as the rising incidents of rape and other violent crimes come to mind immediately as frequent occurrences.

Society's need to defend itself from such wanton acts and to uphold the value of human life have prompted numerous individuals and groups to advocate re-introduction of capital punishment on a basis that would meet the standards of constitutionality determined by the United States Supreme Court. No responsible citizen can ignore these grave social problems. What is at issue is the most adequate, equitable and effective manner in which to deal with them.

The argument most frequently advanced by proponents of capital punishment is the deterrent factor. Various studies carried out in the past and recently give no certain conclusions on this score. In a sense all punishment is meant to involve a deterrent factor, and thus, to provide some measure of protection for society.

I would urge that we consider alternatives to capital punishment; alternatives that would express society's outrage and reaction to violent crime and provide protection from repeated criminal acts. Such alternatives do exist in the form of extended and even lifelong imprisonment of criminals, but these sanctions must be imposed with no discrimination between the rich and the poor, with no distinction between whether the person convicted of crime belongs to the majority or the minority of our citizenry.

Is not the fear that the perpetrators of the most heinous crimes will soon again be free to walk the streets what prompts many, almost in despair of any other solution, to advocate capital punishment?

We do not fault the argument that the punishment must be just and fit the crime, nor do we minimize society's legitimate need to be protected from criminal acts. What concerns us, however, is to see the issue of capital punishment considered in isolation from the question of reform of our judicial and penal systems, in isolation from the climate of violence glamorized in film and the media, and in isolation from the social conditions which breed crime and violence.

Our society is desperately in need of an affirmation of the value and dignity of human life. It was for this reason that the National Conference of Catholic Bishops inaugurated last year a comprehensive program under the title of Respect for Life Week. We have only slowly and painfully come to see that the issue of life's value and dignity is on a moral continuum. We must not only oppose the killing of the innocent - whether through a war or an abortion - but we must also show our respect for life through many other avenues, to name a few, in struggling against poverty, injustice, racism, hunger, social oppression, the use of drugs, etc.

But while striving to enhance the value of life, let us not advocate recourse to the taking of life, even that of a criminal. Not only is our humanity at issue here. Our belief that God alone gives and sustains life suggests that He alone properly takes it. This is, unfortunately, not a conclusion that has become general or compelling to all. But it is one which should give us pause.

In sum, I am suggesting that in a society in which violence and killing is too easily resorted to as means to criminal ends, the state and public authorities should be wary of sanctioning the use of violence and killing to achieve society's ends. We must provide for the public safety, but not at the sacrifice of the values we seek to protect.

These are my personal judgments on the difficult and complex issue of capital punishment.

However, sensitive to the existing attitudes of many people, if the members of the Legislature judge that they must reflect the opinions and wishes of their constituency on this question, I judge they would be wise to be most restrictive in this matter as Governor O'Callaghan was in his State of the State Message.

If the Legislature acts within these parameters, perhaps eventually we will reach the day when a total and acknowledged recognition of the dignity and value of every human life despite its weaknesses and failures will rule out capital punishment and substitute more humane and reasonable punishment for serious crimes against society.

Above all else we must never forget that what is at issue here are the dignity, worth and potential of every human person.


 


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