While pointing out that its moral gravity is different from that of always-evil acts like abortion and euthanasia, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has overwhelmingly approved a new statement, which calls for an end to this country’s use of the death penalty in a 237-4 vote.
The Bishops, who are currently meeting in Washington for their semi-annual plenary assembly, released the statement Tuesday evening, calling it a renewal of the group’s first official appeal--made 25 years ago--to abandon capital punishment in the U.S.They said that their major concern at this “new moment” is to clarify the Catholic Church’s true teaching on the subject and faithfully apply it.
The statement noted that the decision to rethink the death penalty first came about at the urging of the late John Paul II, who wrote in his 1995 Gospel of Life encyclical that, punishment “ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity…when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.
”Today however, he said that cases like this “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” The bishops explained that long-held Catholic teaching permits the state to impose the death penalty “upon criminals convicted of heinous crimes, if this ultimate sanction is the only way to protect society from a grave threat to human life.”Denver’s Archbishop Charles Chaput however, echoed the late John Paul when he said recently, that "In modern industrialized states, [like the U.S.] killing convicted murderers adds nothing to anyone’s safety. It is an excess."
Pastoral responsibilityThe bishops went on in the statement to say that morally speaking, the death penalty is intrinsically different than acts like abortion and euthanasia, which, the Church teaches, are wrong in any and all circumstances.They also took care to clarify that “as pastors,” they “share the justified anger and revulsion at terrible and deadly crimes.” “In calling for an end to the use of the death penalty”, they wrote, “we do not seek to diminish in any way the evil and harm caused by people who commit horrible murders.”They pointed out however, that “standing with families of victims does not compel us to support the death penalty…The pain and loss of one death, cannot be wiped away with another death.”Citing the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the bishops wrote: “if…non-lethal means are sufficient to protect and defend people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and…the dignity of the human person” (2267).
They also pointed to statistics which cite the surprising number of wrongfully executed offenders over the last three decades, and said that issues of racism, poverty and an inadequate penal system combine to make the death penalty unjust in the U.S.