Vatican Says Death Penalty Is “Affront to Human Dignity”

In a position paper issued this month during the World Congress Against the Death Penalty in Paris, the Vatican said that the death penalty “is not only a refusal of the right to life, but it also is an affront to human dignity.” Echoing the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the paper noted that while governments have an obligation to protect their citizens, “today it truly is difficult to justify” using capital punishment when other means of protection, such as life in prison, are possible. The Vatican also gave support to all international campaigns to proclaim a moratorium on the use of capital punishment and the abolition of the death penalty worldwide.

“The Holy See takes this occasion to welcome and affirm again its support for all initiatives aimed at defending the inherent and inviolable value of all human life … . Consciences have been awakened by the need for a great recognition of the inalienable dignity of human beings and by the universality and integrity of human rights, beginning with the right to life,” the Vatican stated. The Holy See added that the death penalty carries “numerous risks,” including the danger of punishing innocent people, and that capital punishment promotes “violent forms of revenge rather than a true sense of social justice.” The paper concluded that the death penalty contributes to a “culture of violence” and that for Christians it shows “a contempt for the Gospel teaching on forgiveness.” (Catholic News Service, February 7, 2007)

Leading Baptist Theologian Calls for National Halt to Executions

Professor David Gushee, Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, called for a national halt to executions because the death penalty as a public policy “fails the most basic standards of justice.” Prof. Gushee, writing for the Associated Baptist Press, stated that the recent moratorium in Tennessee surrounding lethal injection problems should be extended to review the entire application of the death penalty, and that other states should take similar action.

Prof. Gushee wrote:

In a move that received very little attention, Gov. Phil Bredesen recently suspended all executions in Tennessee until May, pending a full review of what he called our “sloppy” execution procedures. The governor is to be commended for this brave and wise decision.

But I suggest that he take this opportunity to review not just the execution procedures, but the entire application of the death penalty in this state. That will take far longer than a few months. We need a death penalty moratorium—not just in Tennessee but in all states.

When the Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that states could resume executions, they mandated that any state doing so must apply this ultimate penalty in a fair and consistent, rather than arbitrary and capricious, manner. No one can honestly look at the current application of the death penalty in Tennessee and believe that we have met that test.

Tennessee’s death-penalty sentencing is rife with error. Half of all death sentences in our state are overturned on appeal due to serious constitutional error, according to a study by the Tennessean. That number does not include those sitting on death row who are, in all likelihood, innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. One example is Paul House, awaiting execution for over 20 years despite uncontested DNA evidence that he did not rape the woman he was accused of murdering (rape being the state’s theory of the crime). In June 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court found that “viewing the record as a whole, no reasonable juror would have lacked a reasonable doubt.”

Then there’s the way that race affects the use of the death penalty. It is really no coincidence that public-opinion polling finds far less support for capital punishment among blacks than among whites. National studies repeatedly find both race-of-perpetrator and race-of-victim bias in death-penalty sentencing. In Tennessee and most states, racial/ethnic minorities are vastly over-represented on death row, and a full quarter of African-Americans on Tennessee’s death row were sentenced by all-white juries.

Besides race, social class is another distorting factor in the use of the death penalty. If you don’t have money for an attorney, your goose is cooked. In Tennessee, nearly every one of the 102 people on death row could not afford an attorney at trial. With all due respect to our public defenders, if my life were on the line I would want the best private attorney that money could buy. But that is not an option for almost anyone who faces this situation in our state—with predictable results.

We have to be careful and systematic in our thinking here. It is not logical to respond to this evidence by affirming one’s visceral support for the principle of life-for-life. Fine, for argument’s sake, let’s grant that for a moment. Would not such a passion for justice also require the fair application of this penalty? Would we not also want to assure such basics as the actual guilt of the people we are executing, the class-blind and color-blind application of this penalty and the opportunity for adequate legal representation? Would we also want to be sure that the people we are executing are morally responsible for their actions, rather than clinically insane, as are a number of our death row inmates?

Nationally, the application of the death penalty is about as rational and orderly as who wins the lottery. Thousands of people murder and are murdered each year. A small number of (mainly southern) states execute the great majority of those convicted of murder. Evidentiary requirements vary. Which particular types of murder are eligible for capital sentencing vary. Appeals processes vary. Quality of legal representation varies. In the end, a small percentage of convicted murderers get the death penalty, and an even smaller group is actually executed. And more and more, across the country, DNA evidence is showing up to exonerate a significant minority of those executed. How many innocent executed persons is too many?

It would take another column to review the biblical arguments, which in the South are a profound factor in support for the death penalty. Even if we were to take the Old Testament alone as our guide, it requires the eyewitness testimony of two or three witnesses (Deut. 17:6), a stricter standard than our own. It also requires that the justice system “not show partiality” (Deut. 16:19) and therefore that every accused person be treated similarly. And this is not even to consider the profound issues raised by the New Testament’s focus on mercy.

As of now, at least, the death penalty is a public policy that fails the most basic standards of justice. It is time for a moratorium and a comprehensive review. (Associated Baptist Press, February 8, 2007).

Catholic Bishops Invoke Holy Day in Calling for End to Executions

In a letter issued prior to Easter, the Catholic Bishops in Missouri called for an end to executions in the U.S. and urged parishioners to “build a culture of life.” The letter noted that violence “is not a solution to society’s problems,” and it summarized church teachings regarding capital punishment and highlighted a campaign by U.S. Catholic Bishops to end the use of the death penalty. “(Christ) was unjustly sentenced to death and executed on a cross, the cruelest form of capital punishment at the time… . [R]ecent court interventions have focused attention on the inhumaneness of executions. As Catholics who believe in the sacredness of life, the use of state-authorized killing in our names diminishes us all,” the Bishops wrote. In the letter, the Bishops urged Catholics to contact their elected officials to advocate for a halt to executions. (St. Louis Review, April 7, 2006). Read the Bishop’s Letter on the Death Penalty.

New Resource from Death Row Chaplain

In Florida, Catholic Lay Chaplain Dale Recinella (pictured), who serves as a spiritual advisor to those on death row, has initiated a new Web resource at Dale and his wife, Susan, a clinical psychologist and Catholic lay minister to the families of the executed, use the site to post weekly articles about capital punishment and about their experiences ministering to those facing execution and their families. See the Web Site.

United Methodist Church Marks 50th Anniversary of Stance Against Death Penalty

Marking the 50th anniversary of the United Methodist Church’s public call for an end to the death penalty, the church’s General Board of Church and Society recently issued a statement echoing the sentiments of the church’s original call for abolition and urging all United Methodists “to practice transformative love, to comfort the victims of crime, to humanize those convicted of crime, and to advocate for an end to the death penalty in our criminal justice system.” The statement comes five decades after the historic 1956 United Methodist General Conference, during which the church officially stated, “We stand for the application of the redemptive principle to the treatment of offenders against the law, to reform of penal and correctional methods, and to criminal court procedures. We deplore the use of capital punishment.”

In the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society’s 2006 statement recognizing the 50th anniversary of church opposition to the death penalty, the Board noted:

We celebrate this prophetic statement and the fact that The Methodist Church was one of the first denomination’s in the United States to formally come out against the death penalty. The United Methodist Church maintains a strong stand against capital punishment as exemplified in the Book of Discipline,

We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings. The United Methodist Church is deeply concerned about crime throughout the world and the value of any life taken by a murder or homicide. We believe all human life is sacred and created by God and therefore, we must see all human life as significant and valuable. When governments implement the death penalty (capital punishment), then the life of the convicted person is devalued and all possibility of change in that person’s life ends. We believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and that the possibility of reconciliation with Christ comes through repentance. This gift of reconciliation is offered to all individuals without exception and gives all life new dignity and sacredness. For this reason, we oppose the death penalty (capital punishment) and urge its elimination from all criminal codes.

In Matthew 25:38-39, Jesus pointedly refutes revenge as a basis of justice and commands his followers to compassionately serve even their enemies. In John 8:1-11, Jesus exonerates and redeems the woman caught in adultery who was to be put to death. Jesus refuses to uphold the use of the death penalty and as his followers we are called to do the same.

Therefore, we urge all United Methodists in their churches to practice transformative love, to comfort the victims of crime, to humanize those convicted of crime, and to advocate for an end to the death penalty in our criminal justice system. (General Board of Church and Society Statement on the 50th Anniversary of the United Methodist Church’s Opposition to the Death Penalty, April 23, 2006).

Religious Leaders of Wisconsin Issue Statement on Death Penalty

A broad spectrum of religious leaders from Wisconsin issued a joint statement regarding their views on the death penalty on October 14. The statement follows:

‘Simply put, we cannot support the death penalty’

Posted: Oct. 14, 2006

There are many articulate and compelling arguments for rejecting the death penalty referendum on the Nov. 7 ballot.

We will not rehearse those arguments here. As religious leaders, we wish to present a straightforward, values-based argument. We believe that it is important to go beyond the electoral and political aspects of this issue and focus on the deeper moral, ethical and religious questions raised by capital punishment.

Simply put, we cannot support the death penalty. Some religious traditions believe that capital punishment is simply wrong. Others of us believe that either it is not needed in a modern society or it cannot be applied justly.

We are deeply concerned about the possibility that the death penalty might be restored in Wisconsin.

Our state has been without the death penalty for 153 years. We do not believe that reinstating the death penalty will bring healing to our communities nor address the serious concerns we all share regarding violence and its impact on all of us.

As religious leaders, we know that our congregations and clergy see the tremendous pain that the injustice of violence causes in our society.

We know that the grief and hurt can seem unbearable for families who have lost someone to violence.

We are all sickened by the violent behavior that plagues our society, and we mourn with all who have suffered violence or lost someone to violence.

All of us in society are vulnerable to feelings of revenge and retribution when we are angered. We cannot let such feelings, often very personal feelings, dictate public policy.

While we recognize that there is a difference of opinion between thoughtful, faithful people on this topic, we simply do not believe that a death penalty is necessary nor will it prevent violent crime.

We also believe that policy making around issues as significant as the death penalty, even when a proposed referendum is only advisory, should be very deliberate and thorough.

Surely our state legislators have their own views on capital punishment.

We are also all aware of numerous public opinion polls that reveal general support for the death penalty (although this support declines when life without parole is an option, as it is in Wisconsin).

We then must ask why our state Legislature felt it was necessary to place this referendum on the November ballot.

If, as people of faith, we believe that each person is created by God, we cannot sanction an unjust and unfair system of punishment that involves the calculated and deliberate killing of a person who would otherwise be incarcerated and removed from society, no matter how offensive and heinous his or her crime.

We specifically question whether the death penalty can be administered justly since, as human beings, we are incapable of creating any system or structure that is perfect.

We urge people of faith to give serious consideration to this important topic.

In recent years, we have seen our state face very serious social issues. We have also seen a trend toward a less compassionate approach to vexing issues such as poverty and violence.

It is our hope and prayer that this state can find ways to address violence without resorting to the use of violence ourselves. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Oct. 15, 2006).

Connecticut Archbishop Asks Parishoners to Protest the Death Penalty

As Connecticut prepares to carry out its first execution in over 40 years, Catholic Archbishop Henry J. Mansell of Hartford called on local parishes to sign a Church petition that calls for an end to capital punishment. “The death penalty offers the tragic illusion that we can defend life only by taking life,” Mansell wrote in a letter that will be read during Masses on January 8 and 9. Other bishops in Connecticut are taking similar actions prior to the scheduled execution of Michael Ross on January 26. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has called for a complete rejection of the death penalty, in accordance with Catholic teaching to uphold the human dignity of all persons. Archbishop Mansell is part of a broad spectrum of religious leaders and groups seeking to halt executions in the state. Many of these leaders will hold a press conference publicly calling for the abolition of the death penalty on January 12 on the state Capitol steps. (Hartford Courant, January 6, 2005).

Catholic Bishops Oppose Expansion of Federal Death Penalty for Terrorism

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick (pictured), the Catholic Archbishop of Washington and acting as Chairman of the Domestic Policy Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, has urged House and Senate conferees working on anti-terrorism legislation to report out a final bill that would not expand the federal death penalty for terrorists. McCarrick wrote a letter to House and Senate leaders crafting their final version of the National Intelligence Reform Act (S. 2845). The House version of that bill contains provisions to expand the federal death penalty, but the Senate version does not. McCarrick wrote:

“The cowardly acts of September 11 and their tragic human costs still haunt our nation. There can be no diminishing the horror of terrorism or the responsibility of those who employ wanton violence on the innocent. As you know, the bishops of the United States oppose the use of the death penalty in any instance. Catholic teaching on capital punishment is clear: If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person (Catechism of the Catholic Church). Congress need not go any further. Secondly, we feel strongly that terrorists are not going to be deterred by the death penalty. In fact, many terrorists believe that if they die committing an act of terrorism they will become martyrs. At the very least, it would seem that executing terrorists could make them heroes in the minds of other like-minded advocates of terror. As pastors, we believe that the use of the death penalty under any circumstances diminishes us as human beings. As we said in Confronting a Culture of Violence: ‘We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing,’” (October 25, 2004, Statement from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops)

New York Religious Leaders Unite Against Death Penalty, Call for Moratorium

New York religious leaders representing a range of faiths and regions recently united to voice their opposition to the death penalty and to encourage a moratorium on executions so that issues of fairness and accuracy may be addressed. A statement issued by the group noted:

“[O]ur nation’s continued reliance on the death penalty is extremely costly, ineffective in fighting crime, unequally applied, and handed out with alarming frequency to defendants who are later proved to be innocent. Even most death penalty proponents now agree that there are serious problems with its implementation. We in the religious community now step forward to set the moral tone for the debate on this issue, promote serious and thoughtful reflection, and make known the reasons why we believe executions will not solve the problem or violent crime in the State of New York. We believe that:

Retribution is proper in society; revenge is not.
All people are capable of atonement and forgiveness.
The death penalty is not a deterrent to violent crimes.
The death penalty is not, and probably cannot be, applied equitably and fairly.
The death penalty is not the source of healing for the families of murdered victims…

“In the interim, we endorse a moratorium on the death penalty in New York as an attractive, fair, and moral position to assume regarding state executions. It affords an opportunity to examine both the purpose of the penalty and its perceived effectiveness, and can save the lives of the falsely condemned. Because we recognize that people of good will may disagree about the ultimate morality of capital punishment, a moratorium can represent common ground for people on both sides of the issue who care about justice. The time to study New York’s death penalty law is now.” (New York Religious Leaders Against the Death Penalty, May 2004)

Texas Baptist Commission Calls for Moratorium

The Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission has joined the call for a moratorium on the death penalty. Declaring the state’s capital punishment system “broken” and “unfair,” the organization issued a capital punishment report examining the death penalty from biblical, historical and social justice perspectives. The report, which includes concerns about racial and socio-economic bias in how the death penalty is applied in Texas, concludes: “In the final analysis, biblical teaching does not support capital punishment as it is practiced in contemporary society.” Moreover, the report stated, “The practice of capital punishment in our nation and state is an affront to biblical justice, both in terms of its impact on the marginalized in society and in terms of simple fairness.” (Business Wire, January 13, 2002) For more information about the report, contact Becky Bridges or Kenneth Camp at the Baptist General Convention of Texas Communications Center (214-828-5229).

Former Death Row Chaplain Decries Capital Punishment

Rev. Carroll Pickett, who served as chaplain on Texas’ death row in Huntsville for 20 years, recently stated that the death penalty is akin to legalized murder. During a talk at Texas A&M University, Pickett said that capital punishment degrades society and caters to the lowest human impulse. He also pointed out that the death penalty system lacks equity, noting that someone who is wealthy, has an education, and is the right race will not be put to death. (The Battalion of Texas A&M University, November 5, 2002).

Former Texas Death Row Minister Now Opposed To Capital Punishment

Carroll Pickett, who spent 15 years as chaplain of Texas’s death row, is now speaking out about the death penalty. “The more I worked for the Texas prison system, the more I began to see there is not total justice in punishment,” said Pickett. “At one point, I did support capital punishment. I was wrong.” Pickett, who appeared on National Public Radio’s “Witness to an Execution,” has co-written the soon to be released book, “Within These Walls: Memoirs of a Death House Chaplain,” with Carlton Stowers. The book will be issued in May. (Houston Chronicle, 3/18/02)

Pope Expresses Death Penalty Opposition to President Bush

Pope John Paul II admonished President Bush for his support of capital punishment, saying the death penalty does not belong in “a free and virtuous society.” At his summer residence in Castelgondolfo, the pontiff told the visiting President, “In defending the right to life, in law and through a vibrant culture of life, America can show the world the path to a truly humane future.” The Pope, an ardent opponent of the death penalty, told Bush that America “must reject practices that devalue human life.” (Agence France Presse, 7/23/01)

Union of the Orthodox Jewish Congregations Supports Moratorium

The Union of the Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization representing nearly 1,000 synagogues nationwide, announced its support for efforts to impose a nationwide moratorium on executions. The organization endorses the creation of a commission to conduct a comprehensive review of how the death penalty is administered in America’s courts. (The Union of the Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, Press Release, 6/13/00) See also, Statements and Resolutions from Religious Organizations and Leaders

Bush’s New Head of Faith-Based Initiatives Opposes the Death Penalty

The director of the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, John J. DiIulio, Jr., says he once favored the death penalty as “a substantive tool of crime control.” DiIulio, who will aid President Bush’s efforts to help religious groups provide social services, now says he opposes capital punishment. Citing the Catholic catechism, DiIulio believes “[p]revention is the only reasonable way to approach these problems.” (New York Times, 2/9/01)

U.S. Catholic Bishops Reiterate Opposition to the death penalty

“[W]e join with those who are working to end the death penalty - in their witness at prisons as people are executed, in state capitals across our land, in courtrooms and prisons around the nation, and in Congress, where efforts to abolish or limit the death penalty are being debated. We support calls for a moratorium on executions and welcome the courage of leaders who have implemented or are working to address the clear failings of the death penalty.”

- Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice, United States Catholic Conference, November 2000. Read the entire statement.

Cardinal Urges California Governor to Impose a Moratorium on Executions.

Cardinal Roger Mahony, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles, has urged California Gov. Gray Davis to impose a moratorium on executions and to conduct a “comprehensive and objective study” of the state’s “fatally flawed” death penalty system. In a letter to Davis, who is Catholic, Cardinal Mahony stated, “I believe that an objective study will provide substantial factual data to support moral and ethical questions raised by the Catholic bishops of California and the United States regarding the death penalty.” Citing the moratorium in Illinois and the New Hampshire Legislature’s vote to abolish the death penalty, Cardinal Mahony wrote that “California has no less an obligation to conduct a thorough assessment of its system in order to identify the inequities, weaknesses, and biases of the process used to try those charged with capital crimes and administer the death penalty.” (New York Times, 5/27/00) California has the largest feath row in the nation, with 568 inmates as of April 1, 2000.

Pope John Paul II, speaking in Missouri, called for an end to the death penalty: “I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.” His appeal was directed at the U.S., where over 500 people have been executed since 1976. “A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil,” he told a gathering of 100,000 people in St. Louis. (Reuters, 1/27/99). (For other Catholic statements on capital punishment, see National Conference of Catholic Bishops) Despite the Pope’s pleas, the Oklahoma executed the first 16-year-old offender in 40 years.

The Catholic Bishops of Connecticut recently issued a statement opposing the death penalty. The Bishops expressed their particular concern about the danger of executing innocent people and the prevalence of the “poor, young and minorities” on death row. They concluded: “while conceding that the state has the duty to maintain public order and the right to punish convicted criminals, we express our considered opposition to the death penalty in the State of Connecticut at this time.” (Nov. 1998, see CACP News Notes). (For a collection of some of the 100 official Catholic statements on capital punishment, see National Conference of Catholic Bishops.)

A recent issue of Catholics Against Capital Punishment newsletter illustrated the growing religious opposition to the death penalty: Bishop Edmond Carmody of Texas said the death penalty “is hurtful to us and it diminishes us. We become more and more desensitized. Where do we stop? How do we decide who lives and who dies? We have put ourselves on a very slippery slope.” There are also statements from the bishops of Washington State and Florida, and from the leadership of women and men’s religious communities opposing the death penalty.” (CACP, Oct. 23, 1998)