How the church under Pope Francis could change hearts and minds over the death penalty

Virginia, Texas and Oklahoma have accounted for more than half of 1,407 executions since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, but in recent years rates of executions, even in many death-penalty friendly states (how's that for a license plate slogan?), have slowed considerably. Part of the reason for the increasing reluctance of prosecutors to seek a capital judgment may owe more to a change in the mechanics of execution than in a prosecutorial change of heart—it is becoming increasing difficult for states which still use capital punishment to maintain a ready supply of the lethal chemical cocktail most often used to administer it. Virginia’s enthusiasm for the death penalty peaked in 1999 with 14, according to statistics compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center, but there have only been two executions in the commonwealth since 2011.

Now the commonwealth’s Catholic bishops are attempting to encourage a re-evaluation of the entire institution. In a statement released on May 6, Virginia’s bishops argue “our faith …challenges us to declare sacred even the least lovable among us, those convicted of committing brutal crimes which have brought them the ultimate penalty, the penalty of death.”

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Why have Virginia bishops issued this counter-cultural call now? Perhaps exhaustion with the increasingly ghoulish discussion meant to salvage this peculiar and problematic institution. Pharmaceutical companies have become increasingly unwilling to endanger corporate brands by producing drugs used for executions, and recent substitute combinations have led to badly botched executions. (One such execution in Oklahoma in 2014 has led to a Supreme Court challenge.)

Virginia’s bishops in recent months have found themselves occupied by campaigns against legislation meant to tackle the “problem.” One measure would have permitted the commonwealth to arrange the production of new lethal drug cocktails, but hide the identities of the pharmacies and compounds used from the public. Another measure—also opposed by the conference—would have permitted death by electrocution if lethal drugs were not available. That proposal followed the logic of a law recently passed in Utah which has restored execution by firing squad as a back-up to lethal injection, a law opposed by Utah’s one-man Catholic bishops’conference, Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City (recently appointed to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico.)

Now Virginia’s bishops argue that nationally “we are having the wrong debate.”

“We should no longer debate which inmates we execute or how we execute them,”the bishops say. “Instead, we should debate this: If all human lives are sacred and if a civilized society such as ours can seek redress and protect itself by means other than taking a human life, why are we continuing to execute people?”

Ending the use of the death penalty, according to the bishops, would be “one important step—among significant others we must take—to abandon the culture of death and embrace the culture of life.”

The bishops point out that “people have been executed despite serious doubts about their guilt, and inmates who languished on death row for decades have been freed after their innocence was proven.”According to the bishops, since 1973, some 152 death row inmates nationwide—“including one in Virginia”—have been exonerated. They add, “We must also be aware of the racial inequity inherent in the system, and that the death penalty has been administered to individuals with severe intellectual disabilities.”

In urging the end of capital punishment, the Virginia conference joins a growing chorus of U.S. bishops who have challenged the death penalty, suggesting that for the church leadership, if not yet for an absolute majority of Catholics in the pews, the institution has become untenable.

Read the rest at the Washington Post's Acts of Faith

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Martin Eble
2 years 6 months ago
The answer to the Virginia bishops’ question: “Instead, we should debate this: If all human lives are sacred and if a civilized society such as ours can seek redress and protect itself by means other than taking a human life, why are we continuing to execute people?” is that it is settled Catholic teaching that legitimate public authority has the duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Some crimes are so heinous that only the death penalty provides a proportionate punishment, justice in other words. For the State accomplishing justice is not optional. 27,110 women obtained abortions in Virginia in 2011. Abortions in Virginia represent 2.6% of all abortions in the United States. That is fertile ground for the bishops of Virginia, as leaders of the second largest denomination in that state, in which to work towards a civilized society where human lives are sacred.
J Cabaniss
2 years 6 months ago
The implication in the claim that "all lives are sacred" is that taking a life is always immoral. Given that the church has consistently taught that there are three reasons why life may be legitimately taken this implication is incorrect. Further, if all life really is sacred, how is it that the one exception the catechism acknowledges for the use of capital punishment is for the protection of society? How can one justify applying a punishment for the prevention of a crime that is not permitted as punishment for the crime itself? And is the life of the person who represents the threat not sacred also? I understand opposition to the application of capital punishment, but I reject the arguments being used to justify that opposition. From her inception the church has acknowledged that a State has a moral right to employ capital punishment. The bishops should stick with prudential arguments against its use. There are no valid moral objections.
Robert Lewis
2 years 6 months ago
The :"prudential" arguments are so strong and so overwhelming--involving, as they do, racist discrimination against minorities, "cruel and unusual" punishments (amounting, some suspect, to torture), and very great amounts of evidence that the innocents are too frequently executed, and that prosecutors rush to judgment and convictions without doing complete investigations (as in the mounting evidence that the Oklahoma City bombing involved more suspects than Timothy McVeigh)--that that they AMOUNT to a "valid moral objection." All punishments but capital punishment are subject to modification and are, therefore, legitimate because they do not tread on God's prerogative, but capital punishment is the deification of the State. Catholic moral theology "develops," and, in the instance of so-called "capital punishment" that "development" is slowly but surely concluding, according to the "sensus fidelium," and the OPINIONS of, now, three popes, that it is judicial murder.
Martin Eble
2 years 6 months ago
The immorality of racial discrimination and torture are not prudential judgments. The morality of capital punishment is settled Catholic teaching, and therefore its proper use cannot be considered deification of the State. Development of teaching involves expanding and building on the teaching which precedes, and therefore something which reverses settled teaching is impossible via the "sensus fidelium" or any other means. Improving the justice system is a laudable, and apparently necessary, goal. Making it an injustice system by eliminating the very possibility of levying a proportionate punishment for the most heinous of crimes is not. The personal opinion of three, or three dozen, Popes does not constitute a teaching.
Robert Lewis
2 years 6 months ago
You, sir, are deifying the Catholic Church, not Jesus Christ, with this rubbish: "... something which reverses settled teaching is impossible..." Something which reverses the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church, in order to align the Church more closely to the teachings and the will of the Savior is blessed and sanctifying. What I'm curious to know from you is this: what will you do when this pope or the next one declares, as a TEACHING OF THE MAGISTERIUM, not an "opinion," that judicial murder is incompatible with genuine Christian doctrine? Will you retreat to the coven which you apparently already belong to--the Protestant American sect somewhere in Texas, for whom "capital punishment" is, apparently, one of the most vital elements of their religion, almost a sacrament?
Martin Eble
2 years 6 months ago
When the Church teaches, it teaches from the Deposit of Faith, which is the revelation given to it at its founding in sacred Scripture and Tradition and which is itself infallible. Therefore, any genuine teaching of the Church cannot be reversed. There cannot be a teaching in the morrow that God is not Triune, or that abortion is moral, or that incest is blest. It is settled Catholic teaching from the ordinary Magisterium that (a) that if the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined the State has the right to inflict the death penalty and that (b) the State has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. The misunderstanding is understandable given the erroneous statements being made by people who one would think would know better, including some bishops, but as the Protestant Revolt demonstrated, error is not restricted to laymen or the uneducated.
Robert Lewis
2 years 6 months ago
As three recent popes have taught, capital punishment is NO LONGER "proportionate to the offense" when it is no longer necessary to protect the populace from evildoers. It was never "proportionate" ontologically, even in the past, because the prerogative belongs to God, not to the state. However, it was NECESSARY, because there was, in many cases, no other way to protect the commonweal. Now there are scores of other ways, and, therefore, it has BECOME illegitimate. This, I predict, is the position that the Magisterium is DEVELOPING.
Martin Eble
2 years 6 months ago
Opined, not taught; defense and protection of people's safety from an aggressor is only one of four reasons for levying a punishment; retributive justice is a duty of the State - supported both by Scriptures and the natural law - and is independently a reason for levying a punishment; what constitutes a punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense is a prudential judgment, one which belongs to the competent civil authority, not the Pope or one or more bishops; a position which purports to reverse a settled teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium (cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium 25, 2) cannot be a legitimate development.
Robert Lewis
2 years 6 months ago
Popes have a right and a duty to "opine" on "prudential judgments," and the OPINION that the last three have been gradually "developing" (and which will, I'm quite sure, be turned into a "teaching," just as the ones on slavery, clerical celibacy and so-called "Scriptural inerrancy" regarding heliocentrism and origin of species were) most likely will be that capital punishment is, in most cases, NO LONGER "proportionate to the offense" when so many alternative punishments and reparations are available. "Development" of the hidden imperative of Sacred Scripture as it is informed by science is absolutely legitimate in the non-fundamentalist Roman Catholic tradition, and ABSOLUTE "retributive justice," which cannot be modified, belongs to GOD, not to some deified State.
J Cabaniss
2 years 6 months ago
Capital punishment will never be declared an intrinsic evil; it will always be acknowledged as a right of the State.
The death penalty is not intrinsically evil. Both Scripture and long Christian tradition acknowledge the legitimacy of capital punishment under certain circumstances. The Church cannot repudiate that without repudiating her own identity. (Archbishop Chaput)
Indeed.
Why should we condemn a practice that all hold to be permitted by God? We uphold, therefore, what has been observed until now, in order not to alter the discipline and so that we may not appear to act contrary to God’s authority. (Pope St. Innocent I)
Beth Cioffoletti
2 years 6 months ago
And then there is the whole dilemma of the business of Capital Punishment. Like the Prison Industry, there are vast networks of judges, lawyers, attorneys, paralegals, secretaries, phone companies, who profit, financially, from the ongoing legal procedures that go with condemning a person to die. All at the taxpayer's expense and in the interest of "protecting" us. It's like a death penalty lobby, everyone feeding off the teat of death.

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