Pope Francis has shown the U.S. a new path for ending the death penalty—for good.
Last year, an unprecedented spate of executions by the U.S. federal government—ordered and administered by then-president Donald J. Trump and his Catholic attorney general, William Barr—claimed the lives of 12 men and one woman. It also exposed many of the moral concerns and systemic breakdowns endemic to the use of the death penalty.
Aside from being an obvious affront to those who respect human life, these killings ended a deepening consensus against the federal use of the death penalty. Before Daniel Lewis Lee’s execution on July 14, 2020, it had been 17 years since the federal government had last carried out an execution. This de facto moratorium on executions lasted through all of President Barack Obama’s time in office and most of the administration of George W. Bush. In other words, there was nothing to necessitate the Trump administration’s pursuit of executions outside of its own thirst for vengeance.
There was nothing to necessitate the Trump administration’s pursuit of executions outside of its own thirst for vengeance.
At the same time, the death penalty in the United States last year was in a period of unusual quiet. The Covid-19 pandemic led to a historic 10-month lull in executions by state governments, a strange silver lining to lockdowns and restrictions, and state death sentencing rates also dropped. By the end of 2020, a total of 22 U.S. states had formally abolished the death penalty, three more were under governor-declared execution moratoria, and another 10 hadn’t carried out an execution in at least a decade. Nationally, the usage and popularity of capital punishment were both on the decline.
Unfortunately, the lifting of Covid restrictions this year meant that some states felt “safe” to resume executions—the irony here is inescapable—and several jurisdictions began setting execution dates. Texas, a state notorious for its use of the death penalty, was the first to break the hiatus, executing Quintin Jones on May 19 and later this year executing John Hummel and Rick Rhoades. The next state was Missouri, which executed Ernest Johnson on Oct. 5 despite his attorney’s argument that he was intellectually disabled, objections from racial justice advocates and a plea for clemency from Pope Francis. Now several other states, including some that have not carried out executions in many years, have launched efforts to restart them. These regressive actions bear an eerie resemblance to the federal government’s relentless push toward executions in 2020.
The lifting of Covid restrictions this year meant that some states felt “safe” to resume executions.
In some of the federal cases, like that of Mr. Lee, the victims’ families strongly opposed the government’s decision to execute. Others were rife with evidence of racial bias, including the execution of Navajo citizen Lezmond Mitchell, which the federal government ordered despite objections from the Navajo Nation. Moreover, a disturbing number of those executed suffered from severe mental or emotional impairments, including Wesley Ira Purkey, whose dementia had progressed to the point that he had no understanding of why he was being executed; and Lisa Montgomery, whose lawyers argued that she had “brain damage, severe mental illness, and suffered a lifetime of sexual torture.” All three were executed, by order of the federal government, in Terre Haute, Ind.
The executions also raised serious health and safety concerns, with several ultimately being blamed for Covid-19 outbreaks among staff and execution witnesses at the U.S. penitentiary in Terre Haute. And there were legal questions about the legitimacy of the federal government’s lethal injection protocol and other procedural matters (two of the executions went through after the government’s death warrants had expired).
At the state level this year, there have been moves in Arizona, South Carolina and other states to reinstitute antiquated execution methods like electrocution, firing squad and the gas chamber, as lethal injection drugs have become harder to access. (Pharmaceutical companies are increasingly refusing to sell such drugs to states for the purposes of executions.) So far, none of these barbaric protocols have been put to use, but that they are beng considered shows the determination of certain states to resume executions.
There has been, however, a bright spot in 2021. In March, Virginia joined the ranks of states that have repealed death penalty laws, becoming the first Southern state to do so. Virginia’s abolition was a sign of a growing national awareness of the linkage between capital punishment and the U.S. histories of slavery, lynching and systemic racism. To the abolition movement, the victory brought a renewed hope that future Southern death penalty repeals might soon be on the horizon.
Keeping pressure on the Biden administration
On Oct. 3, 2020, Pope Francis released “Fratelli Tutti,” his encyclical on social friendship. Though the encyclical touches on numerous issues facing society and the church, the section cementing the church’s opposition to the death penalty stands apart in its unflinching certitude: “There can be no stepping back from this position” (No. 263).
A year later, the church in the Unites States would do well to unify around the prophetic call in “Fratelli Tutti” for the abolition of capital punishment, and to advance in practical ways Pope Francis’ vision for a justice that upholds human dignity, hope and healing. “Fratelli Tutti” may not have tempered the federal government’s bloodlust last year, but it has inspired and animated people of good will in their advocacy toward an end to state-sanctioned killing.
Indeed, when Virginia abolished the death penalty, the state’s Catholic bishops celebrated the repeal with a statement quoting “Fratelli Tutti,” affirming that “the firm rejection of the death penalty shows to what extent it is possible to recognize the inalienable dignity of every human being and to accept that he or she has a place in this universe” (No. 269).
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also cited the encyclical in one of its many appeals to the Trump administration to reverse course on the federal execution spree. Individual bishops, too, quoted “Fratelli Tutti”; for example, Archbishop Charles Thompson of Indianapolis urged Catholics and people of good will to oppose the federal government’s “perpetuation of a culture of death.”
By the time the federal executions ended in January 2020, mere days before President Biden’s inauguration, the Catholic call for death penalty abolition in the U.S. had never resounded with such force. Thousands of Catholics had decried the killings through petitions and letter-writing. Still more had prayed and publicly lamented online through a series of 13 online prayer vigils hosted by Catholic Mobilizing Network, which featured voices like those of Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory of Washington, D.C., and Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., chairman of the U.S.C.C.B.’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities.
The chorus of Catholic voices in opposition to capital punishment has not lessened with the new administration. Though Mr. Biden is seen as the first U.S. president to have campaigned on a platform including opposition to capital punishment, it should be noted that his stances on issues of criminal justice have evolved over the life of his career. In 1994, for example, he sponsored the notorious crime bill that expanded federal capital offenses and became widely criticized for exacerbating mass incarceration.
Archbishop Charles Thompson of Indianapolis urged Catholics and people of good will to oppose the federal government’s “perpetuation of a culture of death.”
Not content with the new administration’s adopting a de facto moratorium on the death penalty which is as toothless as the one before President Trump’s revival of executions, Catholic advocates have been urging Mr. Biden to fulfill his campaign promise to work toward dismantling the federal death penalty. Nearly 10,000 have signed a Catholic Mobilizing Network national petition calling on Mr. Biden to declare an official moratorium on federal executions, commute the sentences of every person on federal death row and advocate to end the death penalty through legislation in Congress and the states. Signatories include the renowned death penalty abolitionist Helen Prejean, C.S.J., and other Catholic religious and lay leaders from across the nation. Mr. Biden is also scheduled to meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Oct. 29, his first trip there as president, and their conversation may well include the church’s renewed opposition to the death penalty.
In July, the Biden administration took a first step toward dismantling the federal death penalty when Attorney General Merrick Garland announced a temporary moratorium on federal executions. But Sister Prejean said of the decision, “While a moratorium on federal executions has symbolic value, we’ve seen the danger of half-measures that do not fully address the fundamental brokenness of our death penalty system.”
Mr. Biden is also scheduled to meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Oct. 29, his first trip there as president, and their conversation may well include the church’s renewed opposition to the death penalty.
I could not agree more. History has shown us that a lukewarm approach to eradicating the death penalty is tantamount to leaving the door wide open to future government killing sprees. Mr. Biden promised us a permanent end to the federal death penalty; he should deliver on it. As Sister Prejean says, “More is required.”
Given the opportunities—and vulnerabilities—currently before us, I believe there has never been a more critical time for Catholics and people of good will to unite around our shared call to “work with determination,” as the Catechism of the Catholic Church now says, for the death penalty’s abolition worldwide.
It goes without saying that our faith does not conform to any one political party, which makes Catholics critical bridge-builders in the work of abolition. It is the role of Catholics to proclaim a consistently pro-life ethic—one that applies as much to the guilty as it does to the innocent.
A new vision of justice
It is also important to note that “Fratelli Tutti” does much more than simply fortify the church’s teachings on the “inadmissibility” of the death penalty. It offers a vision for what justice in its broadest sense can look like: a way of being in relationship with one another that unconditionally upholds human dignity and offers opportunities for healing and transformation. Catholics should find comfort and inspiration in the vision of justice that Pope Francis imagines.
In such a world, legal systems would center the people and relationships impacted by crime and harm, rather than solely focusing on the laws or rules that are broken. The voices and needs of victims would be heard, and the dehumanizing rhetoric about those who cause harm would be silenced. No longer would the word “justice” be tragically mistaken for a method of retribution and punishment. Nor would forgiveness be seen as a sign of weakness, or incompatible with accountability, but as a creative act of possibility and grace.
“It is a patient effort to seek truth and justice,” Pope Francis writes, “to honor the memory of victims and to open the way, step by step, to a shared hope stronger than the desire for vengeance” (“Fratelli Tutti,” No. 226).
Catholics can and should allow “Fratelli Tutti” to serve as a springboard for cultivating approaches to justice where a Gospel-centered view of right relationship is the ultimate goal.
May our church be increasingly emboldened and strengthened by this prophetic invitation, and may we recommit to building up systems of justice that evoke Jesus’ reconciling way. The collapse of the U.S. system of capital punishment is visible on such a horizon.