Robert Dunham 0:01

Hello and welcome to Discussions with DPIC. I’m Robert Dunham the Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Today we have the pleasure of speaking with Cardinal Blase Cupich, the ninth Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Cardinal Cupich and I recently participated on a panel at the American Bar Association annual meeting in which we discussed the death penalty and its application across the United States. On the same day as the panel, Pope Francis formally revised the Catholic Church’s catechism deeming the death penalty inadmissible in all cases. During the panel Cardinal Cupich said quote, “God’s work, which we must make our own, is about bringing people together toward a more profound level of human inner communion and shared life, so we have to do all we can to make sure that no one is excluded and we are especially to be attentive to those who live in the margins of society, the poor, the vulnerable, the weak, those whose lives are at risk including those on death row because God’s plan is to bring people to together and leave no one behind.” Thank you so much for joining us today, Cardinal Cupich.

Cardinal Cupich 1:04

Good to be with you.

Robert Dunham 1:06

Cardinal you were ordained as a priest in 1975 and served as the Bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota and Spokane, Washington before becoming the Archbishop of Chicago.

Cardinal Cupich 1:16


Robert Dunham 1:17

Throughout your career, you’ve spoken out on variety of social justice and racial justice issues. What prompted your interest in those issues, and, specifically, in the death penalty?

Cardinal Cupich 1:28

I’ve always believed that it’s part of the gospel to make sure that human dignity is at the center of all that we say and do. It is the gospel that we proclaim of Jesus taking on our flesh and that way, reminding us that human life is unique in its own dignity, and that we are made in the image and likeness of God. So anything that jeopardizes human dignity would be against the plan of God, and against the core of our faith.

Robert Dunham 2:03

Now, early in your in your tenure as Bishop of Rapid City, you had some experience with death row prisoners, including one who waved his appeals and asked to be executed, would you tell our audience about that and how it affected your views about capital punishment?

Cardinal Cupich 2:19

Yes, it involved a crime against a very helpless victim who was abused by three individuals. And it really was a very heinous crime where the man was tortured, and then killed. The youngest of the three was a young man who had a history in his own family of being abused, prostituted out by his mother, in fact, when he was a child, and really severely emotionally damaged. He was, perhaps, the least responsible for the death itself, for the others were kind of the ringleaders. He had a real death wish, and decided that instead of going before a jury, he would go before a judge asking, in fact, for the death penalty itself, which was given to him. The other two got life imprisonment through a jury trial. At that time, it just seemed the mitigating circumstances, even if you were for the death penalty, should have had society stop for a moment and consider, do they really want to be a part of state assisted suicide, because that’s what this was and particularly in view, the fact that the other two got different punishments and we’re more culpable. That, to me, really threw into stark relief the inequity in our system, first of all, with regard to the death penalty, but also how we as a society didn’t take into consideration that we were talking about an individual whose life was totally disrespected from his early years that society fails and protecting him. So it just was, for me a textbook case of putting forward the inequity in the death penalty system, but also the lack of human dignity that were shown this young man throughout his whole life. And those two issues came together and it very compelling way for me, to try to get the governor to lift the death penalty. And also to consider whether or not we really, as a society, we’re going to be better or worse off by doing this. That also is complicated by the fact that the so called cocktail that was going to use was found to be not regular and so they had to delay the execution until they got it right. But then after the governor stopped it and they look at it again, then they did put him to death finally and it was very sad moment for for the state of South Dakota.

Robert Dunham 4:55

And that seems to go to the core of what Pope Francis said when on August 2 of this year, he formally changed the Catholic teaching on the death penalty, changed the Catechism, and he called capital punishment and attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.

Cardinal Cupich 5:12

Yes, and he said too, he said, one has to strongly affirm that condemnation to the death penalty is an inhuman measure that humiliates personal dignity in whatever form it is carried out and it is of itself contrary to the gospel because it, it is freely decided to suppress the human life that is always sacred in the eyes of the Creator and which in the final analysis, God alone is the true judge and guaranteer. So he’s quite dramatic and clear about what’s at issue here and in many ways he is in continuity with his predecessors, but he’s taken the next step. And you know, just like any equation that has a number of elements where you add them up, he’s now drawn the line and said, “Okay, this is what all this adds up to. This is what we believe.”

Robert Dunham 6:08

And I’m was going to ask you about that. How does the church’s opposition to the death penalty fit into its broader teachings about social justice as a whole and the sanctity of life?

Cardinal Cupich 6:21

What it really comes down to is that people because of their education, or physical or mental capabilities, the color of their skin, where they live and come from their age or health condition, all enjoy the same level of human dignity that all of us do. And as he says, nobody can be excluded. When we do begin to exclude some people, for whatever reason, we diminish our own personal dignity. I think we understood that during the Second World War, during the Holocaust, where an entire group of people was considered unworthy of human dignity and life itself. And that is a reminder to us that whenever one group is marginalized in such a way, that we all are impoverished. I think the Holocaust has taught us that the Jewish community surely suffered a great injury, but so did all of humanity. And I think that the more that we promote human respect for human life and human dignity, the greater the chances are that no one group, no particular part of the population will ever again to be isolated and say, “You don’t belong.”

Robert Dunham 7:48

Cardinal, what do you think the effects of the change in the Catechism has been, and the effect of the Pope’s statements about the death penalty and the dignity of the person? And what do you foresee will happen because of it?

Cardinal Cupich 8:05

Well, my hope would be that we would convince our people first of all, on the Catholic Church of why this is a core value for us in our faith. I have to be honest, that this teaching against the death penalty is not shared by everyone who comes to church on Sunday, in a Catholic Church, we have some work to do. But as the Pope has said, many times, our tradition is a living reality. And we have to realize that we continue, we have to grow not only in our teaching, but have our people grow step by step. And keep moving them along and keep teaching about about what the Word of God is moving us to understand about human dignity. So we do have some challenges ahead of us, we have to make sure that we don’t overlook the fact that are, there are any number of people within the catholic church who don’t agree with the pope on this. So that’s one point. The second is, we also have to make the case for him to be just as forcefully that we do in other areas for the poor, for the unborn, for people who are near death, those who who have a few resources really just to exist in life, people who are marginalized in terms of being a refugee, all of those, all of the advocacy that we do for all of these people has to have a social or civic or political dimension to it because laws are enacted in such a way that protect human dignity. And so we have to look for ways in which we enact laws to create a culture by which people have as a point of reference in law reminder of what human dignity is about. You can’t legislate everything I understand that but laws do shape the way people think, especially in this country. And we have to have laws that point the direction for us to refer to as we reflect and live out a call to respect human dignity. So my hope would be that in time laws will change and we should advocate for that.

Robert Dunham 10:29

In the short run, you mentioned how not all Catholics share the Pope’s view on capital punishment. Some of the most vigorous opposition to his statements have come from Catholic prosecutors and I just want to read you the statements that came from two of these prosecutors and get your response to that. Joe Deters who was a district attorney in Hamilton County, Ohio, where Cincinnati is, said, and I’m quoting, “My dear friends who are priests don’t understand what we’re dealing with. There is evil in this world and there comes a point where society needs to defend itself.” And then in Louisiana, Attorney General Jeff Landry attacked Pope Francis himself, saying that the pope had quote “a socialist bent” and he suggested that the Pope’s declaration the death penalty’s inadmissible doesn’t actually change church doctrine. How do you respond to those?

Cardinal Cupich 11:24

Well the first one I would say I agree with the man in Cincinnati that society not only has a right, but an obligation to be protected. However, John Paul II himself said that people can be protected, society can be protected by permanently imprisoning someone without killing them. And to the point where he said it’s hard to imagine the cases that society would not be able to protect itself this way without imposing the death penalty. So I do agree with him, the society should be protected. But there are ways to do that without killing somebody. And the second, with this other individual from Louisiana if in fact, it is in the catechism, it is a teaching of the Church. And I think that for a person to say this no matter what his status in society to pretend to say what the Church teaches and what it doesn’t as official doctrine, I think he’s he’s just misinformed. If it’s in the Catechism, then we do believe it. And it’s part of the teaching doctrine of the Church.

Robert Dunham 12:31

You know, I think many people find it curious and you yourself mentioned this, that given the church’s historical emphasis on social justice and respect for life that some of the most pro death penalty judges and some of the most pro death penalty Supreme Court justices are Catholic. Why do you think that is, and why do so many Catholics seem to struggle with the morality of capital punishment?

Cardinal Cupich 12:54

It may be that we do want people to be accountable for their actions and I think that’s a good thing. We have, for instance, in the Sacrament of Penance, an aspect that we call a firm purpose of amendment, that people are going to learn from their mistakes, that they’re going to be held accountable. But I think that it is a distortion of that very important aspect of our church life to then conclude that you’re going to be accountable by giving your life for a life that you’ve taken. But let’s be honest, no life can ever be replaced that’s taken away by taking another life. We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing and there really is no replacement for the loss of life and murder, that the death of the person who committed the crime is going to repair or replace. So I think we need again to keep teaching people about what the gospel is about, why we teach it, and once you begin to erode human dignity by the state coming in and taking a life what you’re doing is taking that life out of God’s hands. God maybe needs more time to bring about salvation and conversion in the life of that person who killed and for us to intervene with that seems to me to be playing God.

Robert Dunham 14:23

One of the striking things about the change in the official church policy, it’s changing the Catechism and Pope Francis’s statements about it is that the pope is now committed the church, not just to preaching against the death penalty, but to actively working to abolish it worldwide. As a practical matter, how do you see that changing what representatives of the church do in seeking to end the death penalty in the United States and elsewhere in the world?

Cardinal Cupich 14:54

I think that, first of all, the bishops need to be, we need to come together with an actual strategy and pastoral plan locally, regionally, state by state, but also nationally, to to make sure that we not only embrace this teaching wholeheartedly, but we look for a pathway to bring about legislation to see that it’s abolished. Really, we’re the only really the only country in the world, modern country in the world, that still has the death penalty. Many, many other nations throughout the first world, especially abolished it long time ago. So I think it is a stain on our country to continue with it. And again, we just have to keep at it realizing that it will take time, but we should be resolute about it.

Robert Dunham 15:48

Do you think that will involve things like lobbying prosecutors as well as legislatures?

Cardinal Cupich 15:53

I think you need legislative acts with regard to abolishing the death penalty or surely, prosecutors, but also in the appeal process. We’ve been successful with some appeals to have a sentences commuted by a governor for instance. So I think, I think a broad area where you think you need some intermediate steps and some short term steps if you’re not going to get a legislation abolishing it, that would minimize the possibility of the death penalty being imposed. But I think the long term solution has to be maybe even a Supreme Court decision that would outlaw in terms of cruel and inhumane punishment, that it is that it is something that goes against human dignity that that the Supreme Court would outlaw or maybe legislation itself.

Robert Dunham 16:44

You know, one of the interesting and maybe interesting is the wrong, wrong word, but interesting clashes between the law and religion comes up every time a prosecutor attempts to panel the death penalty jury. Most people think of the juries and capital cases and all cases as jurors of their peers. But in death penalty cases, juries go through a questioning period where they’re asked if they have moral or religious or philosophical views about the death penalty that would prevent them from imposing it in a particular case. And that question, if you don’t swear that you’re willing to cast the first stone, you’re excluded from service on a death penalty jury. Many people have said that that is religiously discriminatory and it seems that anyone who follows the church’s teaching now would be disqualified for serving on a capital case. How should Catholics respond to that?

Cardinal Cupich 17:45

I do think that’s ill-advised and maybe even unjust, because if in fact, we’re talking about a jury of our peers, then surely our peers would include people within society who have different views about the death penalty. So how is it that they can’t be a part of that decision to be reflective of the people in the population? So I think that that is a greater principle, it’s not whether or not there is going to be the death penalty imposed, but the real question to me is, do we really have a system of peer review that’s reflective of the entire population?

Robert Dunham 18:26

When we started this interview, we talked a bit about your experience in in South Dakota, and you talked about the case where the death penalty appeared to be arbitrarily imposed against the person who is less culpable than the other people who are really responsible for the murder since that time, have you seen other things about the death penalty that undermine your confidence in the individual states’ ability to carry it out fairly?

Cardinal Cupich 18:56

Yes, just look at a number of cases that every year we see people who, through DNA testing, have been cleared of the crime and they were on death row or convicted of a crime that was imposed capital punishment was imposed on them. So it’s clear that that’s why, for instance, we had the commutation by a Governor here in Illinois a number of years ago that he just said, “I can’t I can’t in justice allow the death penalty be imposed when we have such a record of folks who have been convicted and then cleared.” What does it mean for the state to put to death an innocent person, and, if that happens, and and has happened and continues to happen, then it throws into question the equality under the law which we have, we have proclaimed as a tenant of our country.

Robert Dunham 19:50

And just in the last month, there was another exoneration in Florida bringing it to 164, the number of people who are wrongly convicted and sentenced to death who have been exonerated just since 1973.

Cardinal Cupich 20:04

I think your your point is, is right on. So I just think that it is also when you look at the people who are in death row in terms of what were their resources for self defense, for their defense in court, where they were perhaps had a lawyer imposed by the court on them, because they didn’t have any resources, as opposed to those who have a great deal of resources who commit capital crimes. So there, the injustice and the inequality in the system should make us pause for a moment and say, “What are we doing here?”

Robert Dunham 20:41

And that’s Sister Helen Prejean’s famous line that “it’s called capital punishment, because if you don’t have the capital, you get the punishment.”

Cardinal Cupich 20:49

Well, yeah, she’s not too far off the mark, and a very admirable person and advocate.

Robert Dunham 20:56

Well I’m sorry to say that because of our limited time we are, we’re running out of time here. But before we go, I was wondering, is there anything else on the topic of capital punishment that you’d like to share with our listeners.

Cardinal Cupich 21:08

Well I think that we want to build a more just and human society, humane society and it doesn’t mean that we don’t hold people accountable. But it does mean that we respect human dignity, so much so that the state is not going to be a part of taking the life of another person, we’re not going to teach that killing is wrong by killing. That is maybe something we need to talk to our children about in our schools and religious education programs. Maybe that’s what it’s going to take a whole new generation of education and I’m willing to do my part that way.

Robert Dunham 21:48

Thank you so much for being here with us today, Cardinal Cupich, for this edition of Discussions with DPIC.

Cardinal Cupich 21:53

Thanks, good to be with you.

Robert Dunham 21:54

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