Bishops urge mercy on World Day Against the Death Penalty

shutterstock 2847541 Gallows in Tombstone, Arizona. | Natalia Bratslavsky/Shutterstock

The death penalty is outdated and promotes a culture of violence, three bishops said during a livestream conversation on Oct. 10, marked as World Day Against the Death Penalty. 

Archbishops Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City and Wilton Gregory of Washington were joined by Bishop Frank DeWane of Venice (FL) for the roundtable discussion facilitated by Catholic News Service. DeWane is the current chairman of the USCCB's domestic justice committee, and will be succeeded by Coakley in a few weeks' time. 

"There's no question that we are living in an age where violence has captured the hearts and minds of a lot of people," said Gregory, offering that social media in particular has put "despicable" human carnage on display. 

On Wednesday, the day before the livestream, an anti-Semitic attack on a synagogue in Germany resulted in the murder of two people. The attack was broadcast over the streaming site Twitch. 

"What the Church wants us to understand is that taking a life, even the life of one who may have been guilty of a horrendous crime, is itself a continuation of violence," said the Washington archbishop.  

"It makes us violent to do violence against another human being" regardless of the circumstances, Gregory said. 

October is also Respect Life Month, during which the Church makes special efforts to promote its teachings on the sanctity of life, something Coakley said is "foundational" to the Church's teachings on human dignity and which, he emphasized, is not granted by a government, but endowed by the creator.

The Church's positions are "very consistent in affirming human life and human dignity at every stage," he said.

DeWane concurred with Coakley, saying that throughout the entirety of a person's life, "we have to see that life is sacred."

Catholics, said DeWane, have a moral obligation to "say something" when life is not being respected, especially in instances that involve people who cannot speak for themselves. 

Coakley pointed out that there is another side of the death penalty debate that is often forgotten: the victims of violent crime and their surviving friends and relatives. While it is important to champion the rights of accused, and even convicted criminals, Coakley stressed, it is important of acknowledge that some survivors--as well as those in the community--want to see the death penalty carried out in as a form of justice. Their desire for justice, Coakley said, cannot be ignored, even while accepting that the death penalty is not the answer.

"I think in our conversations about the death penalty, even though we're speaking out in favor of abolition of the death penalty, we have to affirm and acknowledge--not just give lip service--to the suffering of victims as well," said Coakley, noting that his archdiocese is home to the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in this country's history. 

As a result of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Coakley said that many within his archdiocese remain supportive of capital punishment. 

Speaking to CNA after the discussion, Coakley developed his point. 

"Revenge is not the same as justice," said Coakley. "And as even William Shakespeare said, 'mercy seasons justice,' I think just as many people who maybe see the perpetrator of a violent crime executed, would acknowledge that it did not bring them the release and the relief and the peace that they expected that it might."

During the roundtable, DeWane also questioned the common assertion that executions bring any sense of relief to the families of victims. Instead, he said, the act of taking a life in an execution hurts society as a whole, while observing that there is little evidence that the death penalty serves as a deterrent against crimes. 

Gregory also highlighted the many cases in which a person is released from death row having been exonerated by either new evidence or modern DNA testing.  

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"With the death penalty, there are no re-tries. It concludes and ends a life that may have been wrongly [convicted]," Gregory said. The Washington archbishop went on to point out the significant racial disparity in the application of the death penalty in the United States.

At the same time, Gregory said that favoring the abolition of the death penalty does not mean any lessening of the requirement to keep society safe. The choice, he said was not between killing or releasing the most violent offenders. Instead, "our society has the capacity to take violent personalities and put them away so they don't harm others," he said.  

"The Gospel calls us to mercy. Mercy is never cruel," said Gregory. 

"I think our Church has to be a voice that is faithful to the call of the Gospel, which calls us to love our enemy and pray for those who persecute us," Coakley told CNA after the livestream. 

"I think that's incumbent upon us -- because we have to affirm the dignity of human life, that every person has been created in the image and likeness of God--even for the person who was guilty of heinous crimes. They don't forfeit their human dignity as a result of their criminal activity." 

The World Day Against the Death Penalty was first observed in 2003. This year, the theme is "Children, Unseen Victims," which is focused on increasing awareness of the children whose parents were executed or have been sentenced to death.

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