ARLINGTON, Va. (CNS) — While standing outside the prison that housed Virginia’s execution chamber, Gov. Ralph Northam signed legislation abolishing the death penalty in the state March 24.
Legislators and anti-death penalty advocates joined the signing ceremony outside Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, where 101 people have been executed since 1991.
“Over our 400-year history, Virginia has executed more than 1,300 people,” said Northam. “(Today) we join 22 other states in saying the government will not take a life, the government will no longer execute people.”
Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Arlington and Bishop Barry C. Knestout of Richmond, Virginia, welcomed the new law. “We embrace this hope-filled new beginning,” they said in a joint statement March 24.
Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, also welcomed the repeal, calling it “a bold step toward a culture of life.” He, too, noted that Virginia became the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty, “and I urge all other states and the federal government to do the same,” he said.
In their statement, Bishops Burbidge and Knestout quoted the pope from his latest encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti, on Fraternity and Social Friendship”: “As Pope Francis states, ‘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.'”
“Through our Virginia Catholic Conference, we supported this historic legislation as it progressed through the General Assembly because all human life is sacred,” they said. “We are grateful to those who worked to make this a reality.”
“Our dioceses also continue our prayers for families of victims of horrific crimes and renew our commitment to provide for their pastoral support. We stand ready to accompany them in their journey to find healing and peace.”
During the ceremony in Jarratt, many people praised the Catholic conference’s advocacy, including bill-sponsor state Sen. Scott A. Surovell, a Democrat from Fairfax, Virginia, who thanked the conference and several priests for their work. “I can’t tell you how much that has helped,” he said.
Earlier this year, Catholics welcomed the news that both houses of the legislature passed bills abolishing capital punishment.
“It’s an incredible moment for Virginia,” said Bob More, a parishioner of St. John Neumann Church in Reston, “to finally uphold the dignity of every person including those who offended against society in a serious way, and to recognize the death penalty has not been applied in a fair and defensible manner, and that people need an opportunity for rehabilitation and repentance.”
More, who previously participated in evening prayer vigils to end executions, made the comments in an interview with the Arlington Catholic Herald, the diocesan newspaper.
“The end of Virginia’s death penalty signifies the growing consensus that capital punishment is a flawed and morally bankrupt system that violates the sanctity of human life,” said Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, executive director of Catholic Mobilizing Network.
“From the pews to the pulpit, many Virginia Catholics were persistent advocates who paved the way for the commonwealth’s abolition of the death penalty,” she said in a March 24 statement.
A news release from the network said the modern U.S. death penalty system is “a direct byproduct” of the legacy of racial violence — slavery, lynching and systemic racism — in Virginia as the former “home of the Confederacy.”
“We are hopeful that Virginia’s repeal will signal to other Southern states that the death penalty is an immoral and racist relic,” said Vaillancourt Murphy. “By removing the most broken and punitive of punishments, we can refocus on cultivating more just, equitable and life-affirming responses to harm.”
Maraist is a staff writer at the Arlington Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington.
In a time to build, CatholicPhilly.com connects people and communities
As society emerges from the loss and separation of the pandemic, CatholicPhilly.com works to strengthen the connections between people, families and communities every day by delivering the news people need to know about the Catholic Church, especially in the Philadelphia region, and the world in which we live.
By your donation in any amount, you join in 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