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.”
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