WASHINGTON (CNS) — The Catholic Church’s opposition to the death penalty stems from its view on the sacredness of human life and the value of mercy, said U.S. bishops in a roundtable discussion about capital punishment Oct. 10.
The discussion, which was livestreamed by Catholic News Service, took place on the World Day Against the Death Penalty and highlighted not only the consistency of church teaching against capital punishment but also what Catholics could do to learn more about what the Catholic Church has to say on this issue.
The panelists were Archbishops Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City and Wilton D. Gregory of Washington and Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida. Bishop Dewane is chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development and Archbishop Coakley is its chairman-elect.
“The death penalty is wrong, I believe, in many different ways,” but particularly because it is “coarsening society,” said Archbishop Coakley, who stressed that capital punishment is “not a way forward” and instead is compounding the violence already present in this country.
When the bishops were asked how opposition to the death penalty can be seen as a pro-life issue, Archbishop Gregory said: “It makes us violent to do violence against another human being” whether that person is waiting to be born, has reached the end of life or has committed a serious crime. They all “belong to God’s creation,” he said.
“Our positions are very consistent in affirming human life and human dignity at every stage of life,” added Archbishop Coakley.
Bishop Dewane similarly echoed the point about the sacredness of human life and said that “when it is violated, when it is attacked,” we are called to step in and “become the voice for those who can’t speak” for their own lives.
The bishops also spoke about problems with the death penalty. Archbishop Gregory mentioned cases where plaintiffs of color were not given a jury of their peers and also when DNA results have exonerated death-row prisoners. Bishop Dewane mentioned that many on death row include people of color or those in poverty or suffering from mental illness and said society needs to look at these factors and consider not just punitive but redemptive measures.
Archbishop Coakley said his state of Oklahoma still has the death penalty and he thinks this is in part because of the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 when one bomb in just seconds killed 168 people.
He also stressed that when Catholic leaders talk about abolishing the death penalty, they must acknowledge the very real suffering endured by victims and their families. He has spoken with the father of a young girl who died in the Oklahoma City bombing and who is now an advocate against the death penalty. He said this father only came to this point after wrestling with the idea and coming to finally recognize that the death penalty could not bring healing and comfort. Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, was executed in 2001.
Ultimately, the archbishop said, the only thing to bring these victims’ families healing or comfort is “mercy: being willing to forgive.”
Archbishop Gregory echoed this thought, saying that compassion often follows a tragedy, such as the Oklahoma City bombing or the shooting at Mother Emanuel, the church in Charleston, South Carolina, where nine people were killed by Dylann Roof in 2015.
Roof is currently one of 62 inmates on federal death row. This summer the federal government rescinded its 16-year moratorium on executing federal inmates.
Archbishop Gregory said the victims’ families often “offer a wonderful witness of mercy when from the depths of their hurt, the depths of their sorrow they find it in their heart to forgive.” That act of forgiveness, he said, is the “antidote to the violence that seems to surround us.”
When the bishops were asked about Catholic opinion of the death penalty — 53% are in favor of it, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center poll — Archbishop Coakley said: “It’s really important for our Catholic people to really dig into and learn, study, read the teachings of the magisterium of the church” on this issue.
He said with the popes — St. John Paul II and Popes Benedict and Francis — there has been “a steady movement toward a greater clarity in terms of the morality and the inadmissibility of the death penalty.”
“I would encourage Catholics to dig in and learn what our church is teaching and the reasons for what our church is teaching as we see the development of this doctrine over the years rather than taking soundbites from our favorite cable news station, whatever that might be,” he added.
Archbishop Gregory similarly stressed that Catholics need to understand what is at stake for the nation as a whole with its continuing use of capital punishment.
“We need to find a way to make sure that our people understand that the Gospel calls us to mercy and that is a nonnegotiable dimension of our faith,” he said. He also acknowledged that this isn’t an easy message to follow.
“Mercy is never cheap,” he said. “Mercy has a price, but the price of not being merciful is more destructive than most people will understand.”
In a time of crisis CatholicPhilly.com keeps the information flowing
During the current coronavirus crisis, you can help CatholicPhilly.com deliver the kind of news people need to know about the Catholic Church, especially in the Philadelphia region, and the world in which we live ― every day.
Budgets are tight at this time, and CatholicPhilly's is no different than those of most families. We make sure your donation in any amount will go a long way toward continuing our mission to inform, form in the Catholic faith and inspire the thousands of readers who visit every month.
Here is how you can help:
- A $100 gift allows us to present award-winning photos of Catholic life in our neighborhoods.
- A $50 gift enables us to cover a news event in a local parish, school or Catholic institution.
- A $20 gift lets us obtain solid faith formation resources that can deepen your spirituality and knowledge of the faith.
- A small, automated monthly donation means you can support us continually and easily.
Won't you consider making a gift today?
Please join in the church's vital mission of communications by offering a gift in whatever amount that you can ― a single gift of $40, $50, $100, or more, or a monthly donation. Your gift will strengthen the fabric of our entire Catholic community.
Make your donation by credit card here:
Or make your donation by check:
222 N. 17th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103