A Catholic Call to Abolish the Death Penalty

The following statement, first published on the website CatholicMoralTheology.com, is signed by a number of Catholic theologians, church leaders and other scholars, in an effort to speak out against capital punishment. Br. Dan Horan, OFM, of DatingGod.org, is among those who signed the statement. Here is the full text:

There were two state-sanctioned executions in the United States on September 21, 2011. In Georgia, Troy Anthony Davis, an African American man, was put to death for the 1989 murder of Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail. In Texas, Lawrence Brewer, a white supremacist, was executed for his participation in the racist hate crime dragging murder of James Byrd in Jasper in 1998. As theologians, scholars, and social justice advocates who participate in the public discussion of Catholic theology, we protest the state-sanctioned killings of both of these men, and we call for the abolition of the death penalty in the US.

Davis’ execution is particularly troubling for it shines a stark light upon many longstanding concerns about capital punishment in the US. We mourn the death of Officer MacPhail and express our deepest sympathies to his family for their tragic loss. However, we believe that a grave miscarriage of justice took place with Davis’ execution. As many legal experts have pointed out, including former FBI Director and federal judge and prosecutor William S. Sessions, serious doubt remains about Davis’ guilt. Until his last breath he maintained his innocence. The failure of the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, a Federal Appeals Judge, the Georgia Supreme Court, and the U.S. Supreme Court to grant Davis a new trial reveals a deeply flawed justice system. We therefore call upon lawmakers and President Obama to immediately repeal the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which created the legal conditions for executing a man whose guilt was not established beyond reasonable doubt.

Even those who do not share our faith convictions ought to recognize, as Justice William J.  Brennan put it, “the death penalty is imposed not only in a freakish and discriminatory manner, but also in some cases upon defendants who are innocent.” The horrific legacy of lynching in the US casts its evil shadow over current application of the death penalty. Studies have shown that black defendants are more likely to receive the death penalty. In many states with capital punishment, defendants are from 3 to 5 times more likely to be executed if their victim was white. In states that retain the death penalty, 98 percent of district attorneys are white and only 1 percent are black. Execution is also irrevocable, and innocent people have likely been victims of it. Since 1973, 138 persons have been exonerated from death row, most of whom were people of color and economically poor.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops stated that “the sanction of death, when it is not necessary to protect society, violates respect for human life and dignity…Its application is deeply flawed and can be irreversibly wrong, is prone to errors, and is biased by factors such as race, the quality of legal representation, and where the crime was committed. We have other ways to punish criminals and protect society.” In earlier eras, Roman Catholic tradition acknowledged the necessity of capital punishment, in rare cases, to protect citizens from threats to the common good. In recent times, with more secure prison facilities that give us the means to offer such protection without executions, our church leaders have affirmed the need to eradicate the death penalty.

There are, moreover, theological reasons for this stance, and here we speak especially to our sisters and brothers in faith. In calling for the abolition of the “cruel and unnecessary” death penalty, Blessed Pope John Paul II argued that “[t]he new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate, and serve the Gospel of life in every situation. 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.” Our theological tradition recalls that our Lord Jesus Christ was unjustly and brutally nailed to a cross to die. The great 20th century theologian Karl Barth put the matter this way: “Now that Jesus Christ has been nailed to the cross for the sins of the world, how can we still use the thought of expiation to establish the death penalty?” The Eucharistic celebration calls Catholics to remember all crucified people, including the legacy of lynching, in light of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His Gospel message of forgiveness and love of enemies presents a difficult challenge, especially to those who have lost love ones at the hands of a murderer. Yet, the Gospel teaches us how to become fully human: love, not hatred and revenge, liberates us. We need to forgive and love both in fidelity to the Gospel and for our own well-being. The experience of groups like Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, who advocate against the death penalty, attests to this.

Therefore, in concert with our recent popes and bishops, we oppose the death penalty, whether a person on death row is guilty or innocent, on both theological and practical grounds. While we especially deplore and lament the killing of Troy Davis, we also decry the death sentences of the more than 3,200 inmates on death row and the 1,268 executions since the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976. We urge our nation to abolish capital punishment, and we also implore our churches to work unwaveringly to end it as well as all other threats to human life and dignity.

Signed:

1. Gerald J. Beyer, Associate Professor of Christian Social Ethics, Saint Joseph’s University

2. Alexander Mikulich, Research Fellow, Jesuit Social Research Institute, Loyola University New Orleans

3. Emily Reimer-Barry, Assistant Professor of Theology & Religious Studies, University of San Diego

4. Tobias Winright, Associate Professor of Theological Ethics, Saint Louis University

5. Maria Pilar Aquino, Professor of Theology & Religious Studies, University of San Diego

6. Karen Teel, Assistant Professor of Theology & Religious Studies, University of San Diego

7. Gerard Mannion, Professor of Theology & Religious Studies, University of San Diego

8. Meghan Clark, Assistant Professor of Theology, Saint John’s University (NY)

9. Dana Dillon, Assistant Professor of Theology, Providence College

10. Charles Camosy, Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics, Fordham University

11. Julie Hanlon Rubio, Associate Professor of Christian Ethics, Saint Louis University

12. Stephen B. Wilson, Associate Professor of Theology, Spring Hill College

13. Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco, O.P., Associate Professor of Biology, Providence College

14. Kathryn Getek Soltis, Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics, Villanova University

15. Vincent J. Miller, Gudorf Chair in Catholic Theology & Culture, University of Dayton

16. Jana Bennett, Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics, University of Dayton

17. Terrence W. Tilley, Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ, Professor of Catholic Theology, Fordham University

18. M. Shawn Copeland, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology, Boston College

19. Todd David Whitmore, Associate Professor of Theology, University of Notre Dame

20. John Sniegocki, Associate Professor of Christian Ethics, Xavier University

21. Nancy M. Rourke, Associate Professor of Moral Theology, Canisius College

22. James F. Keenan, SJ, Founders Professor in Theology, Boston College

23. Nancy Dallavalle, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Fairfield University

24. John Inglis, Professor of Philosophy, Cross-Appointed in Religious Studies, University of Dayton

25. Dennis Doyle, Professor of Religious Studies, University of Dayton

26. Nancy Pineda-Madrid, Assistant Professor of Theology, Boston College

27. Daniel C. Maguire, Professor of Moral Theology, Marquette University

28. Anthony J. Godzieba, Professor of Theology & Religious Studies, Villanova University

29. J. Milburn Thompson, Professor of Theology, Bellarmine University

30. Susan Paulik Babka, Assistant Professor of Theology & Religious Studies, University of San Diego

31. Holly Taylor Coolman, Assistant Professor of Theology, Providence College

32. Kelly Johnson, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, University of Dayton

33. David O’Brien, University Professor of Faith & Culture, University of Dayton

34. Ronald Modras, Professor of Theology, Saint Louis University

35. Edwin L. Lisson, SJ, Associate Professor of Moral Theology, Saint Louis University

36. John F. Kavanaugh, SJ, Professor of Philosophy, Saint Louis University

37. June-Ann Greeley, Associate Professor of Theology & Religious Studies, Fairfield University

38. Jennifer Beste, Associate Professor of Theological Ethics, Xavier University

39. Elena Procario-Foley, Driscoll Professor of Jewish-Catholic Studies, Iona College

40. Carl Procario-Foley, Director, Center for Campus Ministries, Iona College

41. Daniel Finn, Professor of Theology and Professor of Economics, St. John’s University (MN)

42. Bryan N. Massingale, Associate Professor of Theological Ethics, Marquette University

43. Marie Dennis, Director, Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, Co-President, Pax Christi International

44. James T. Bretzke, SJ, Professor of Moral Theology, Boston College School of Theology & Ministry

45. Maura Ryan, John Cardinal O’Hara CSC Assoc Prof of Christian Ethics, University of Notre Dame

46. Francine Cardman, Assoc Prof of Historical Theology, Boston College School of Theology & Ministry

47. Delores Christie, Independent Scholar

48. Daniel P. Horan, OFM, Franciscan Friar, Holy Name Province (New York)

49. MT Dávila, Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics, Andover Newton Theological School

50. John Renard, Professor of Theological Studies, Saint Louis University

51. Laurie Johnston, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Emmanuel College

52. Nicholas P. Cafardi, Dean Emeritus & Professor of Law, Duquesne University School of Law

53. Christopher Pramuk, Assistant Professor of Theology, Xavier University

54. Bruce T. Morrill, SJ, Edward A. Malloy Prof of Catholic Studies, Vanderbilt Univ Divinity School

55. Matthew A. Shadle, Assistant Professor of Moral Theology, Loras College

56. Michael E. Lee, Associate Professor of Theology, Fordham University

57. Kenneth Parker, Associate Professor of Historical Theology, Saint Louis University

58. Mary Dunn, Assistant Professor of Modern Christianity, Saint Louis University

59. James Caccamo, Associate Professor of Christian Social Ethics, Saint Joseph’s University

60. Most Rev. John Michael Botean, DD, Bishop of the Eparchy of St. George, Canton, OH

61. Ronald Mercier, SJ, Associate Professor of Christian Ethics, Saint Louis University

62. Thomas J. Reese, SJ, Senior Fellow, Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University

63. David Cloutier, Associate Professor of Theology, Mount Saint Mary’s University

64. Thomas Massaro, SJ, Professor of Moral Theology, Boston College School of Theology & Ministry

65. M. Therese Lysaught, Associate Professor of Moral Theology, Marquette University

66. Randall S. Rosenberg, CSJ Endowed Chair in Catholic Thought, Fontbonne University

67. Vincent M. Smiles, Professor of Theology, College of St. Benedict & St. John’s University (MN)

68. David Meconi, SJ, Assistant Professor of Patristic Theology, Saint Louis University

69. Mark J. Allman, Associate Professor of Christian Social Ethics, Merrimack College

70. Susan A. Ross, Professor of Theology, Loyola University Chicago

71. Christine Firer Hinze, Professor of Theology, Fordham University

72. Brian W. Hughes, Associate Professor of Theology, University of Saint Mary

73. Tim Muldoon, Assistant to the Vice President for University Mission & Ministry, Boston College

74. Carey Walsh, Associate Professor of Theology, Villanova University

75. Maureen O’Connell, Associate Professor of Theology, Fordham University

76. William T. Cavanaugh, Professor of Catholic Studies, DePaul University

77. Paul Lakeland, Alloysius P. Kelley SJ Professor of Catholic Studies, Fairfield University

78. Bradford Hinze, Professor of Theology, Fordham University

79. Mary Ann Hinsdale, IHM, Associate Professor of Theology, Boston College

80. John Langan, SJ, Cardinal Bernardin Chair in Catholic Social Thought, Georgetown University

81. William L. Portier, Mary Ann Spearin Chair of Catholic Theology, University of Dayton

82. Paulette Skiba, BVM, Professor of Religious Studies, Clarke University

83. John R. T. Berkman, Associate Professor of Moral Theology, Regis College, Univ. of Toronto

84. Michael Patella, OSB, Professor of Theology, Saint John’s School of Theology-Seminary

85. Una M. Cadegan, Associate Professor of History, University of Dayton

86. James B. Ball, Associate Professor of Theology, Saint Mary’s University (TX)

87. Mary Jo Iozzio, Professor of Moral Theology, Barry University

88. Christopher Steck, SJ, Associate Professor of Christian Ethics, Georgetown University

89. Beth Haile, Assistant Professor of Moral Theology, Carroll College

90. J. Matthew Ashley, Associate Professor of Theology, University of Notre Dame

91. Franklin T. Harkins, Assistant Professor of Theology & Medieval Studies, Fordham University

92. Angela Kim Harkins, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Fairfield University

93. Joseph A. McCartin, Associate Professor of History, Georgetown University

94. Anthony B. Smith, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, University of Dayton

95. Lisa Sowle Cahill, Monan Professor of Theology, Boston College

96. Joe Holland, Professor of Philosophy & Religion, St. Thomas University

97. Dorian Llywelyn, SJ, Associate Professor of Theological Studies, Loyola Marymount University

98. G. Simon Harak, SJ, Director, Marquette University Center for Peacemaking

99. Mary Doak, Associate Professor of Theology & Religious Studies, University of San Diego

100. Stephen Schneck, Director, Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, Catholic University of America

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3 Responses to “A Catholic Call to Abolish the Death Penalty”

  1. I am against capital punishment, but I find this call to abolish the death penalty largely unconvincing by itself because it leads with and emphasizes two murderers. Use of Troy Davis as an example and as an argument that capital punishment is “prone to errors” is a bad approach because I honestly do not think he was innocent (I researched his case and blogged about it here: http://thenullspace.wordpress.com/2011/09/26/on-capital-punishment-troy-davis-media-bias/). I also find the “prone to errors” and similar arguments generally unconvincing (and I imagine many of my fellow conservatives would as well) since abolishing capital punishment does not solve the (alleged) root problem — it would simply mean innocent men would be unjustly thrown into prison for the rest of their lives rather than executed.

    The strongest argument against capital punishment, in my opinion, is that it is unnecessary, but that point isn’t made until later in the call. I think the argument is much better if it leads and further expounds upon this point.

  2. As we enter into Respect Life month, then let us also pray for the end of abortion and the sancity of marriage. Both issues were also brought to the forefront this week by Cardinal DiNardo http://www.usccb.org/news/2011/11-180.cfm and Cardinal Burke respectively. Cardinal Burke submitted the following letter to Mr. Obama. http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/marriage-and-family/marriage/promotion-and-defense-of-marriage/upload/dolan-to-obama-doma-letter-sept-20-2011.pdf.

    Let’s us pray therefore for ALL the victims of abuse & violence, and in reparation for the sins and atrocities commited against mankind.
    PAX et vivat Iesus!

  3. William R. Snaer, D.D.S. Says:

    This is the text of my column on this subject from the July 17, 2011 Desert Sun (Palm Springs.) It offers a practical view of the consequences that some must suffer to achieve the goal of the idealists. It has a Catholic connection.

    DEATH PENALTY DETERS PROSPECTIVE CRIMINALS

    Some arguments are never over. In 1972, California voters passed Proposition 17 to firmly establish the death penalty. In his first turn as governor, Jerry Brown vetoed a measure expanding the list of crimes for which the death penalty could be imposed. His veto was overridden by Proposition 7 in 1978. In the 1986 election, Chief Justice Rose Bird and Associate Justices Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin were denied reconfirmation largely because of their rulings overturning death penalty convictions.

    In a 1986 Field Poll, 83 percent of Californians supported the death penalty. A 2006 Field Poll registered only 67 percent, but another Field Poll in 2010 showed a rise to 70 percent support.

    With this forty year history, overturning the California death penalty does not look promising, but Senator Loni Hancock (D-Oakland) has introduced a measure in the California Senate to do just that. If passed by the Legislature, signed by the governor and affirmed by voters in 2012, it would eliminate future impositions of the death penalty and convert all past death penalty sentences to life without parole.

    The proponents, newly in touch with their inner deficit hawk, claim that California’s budget woes make the cost of enforcing the death penalty untenable. Opponents say that cost can be solved by streamlining the appeals process. But, the debate should not be about dollars. How much would we be willing to pay in taxes to avoid the killing of a teenage rape victim or an abducted child?

    Opponents of capital punishment deny its potential for prevention. Sister Helen Prejean spoke at a March, 2011 meeting in Brea. She is known for her book, “Dead Man Walking,” that recounts her spiritual guidance of Elmo Patrick Sonnier before his execution. The movie, in which Prejean was played by Susan Sarandon, blended Sonnier and another similar murderer.

    The San Bernardino Diocese newspaper reported that “Sr. Prejean spoke excitedly about the recent repeal of the death penalty in Illinois and urged California Catholics to push for the same in their state.”

    Less than a month later, Jitka Vesel was murdered in Illinois. DuPage County State’s Attorney Robert Berlin revealed that, “The defendant did indicate that he researched whether Illinois had a death penalty and the defendant was aware that the death penalty had recently been abolished, so he knew then that he could go through with this plan.”

    The Sonnier case makes an especially bad poster child for abolition activists. After raping a teenage girl, Sonnier and his brother killed them because Sonnier did not want to go back to prison. He risked his life for that extra chance of avoiding apprehension. He represents the segment of criminals for whom the death penalty is not a deterrent. But the killer of Jitka Vesel represents the segment for whom the death penalty is a deciding factor. Is it not obvious that, without the death penalty, more rape victims and abducted children would be killed to improve the perpetrators’ chances of avoiding arrest?

    The abolitionists have one good argument – the remote possibility that an innocent person could be sentenced to death because he was found guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This problem could be resolved by changing the standard to “beyond any doubt.” Some murderers would then escape execution, but the lifesaving deterrence of the death penalty would be retained, and the fear of its unjust application would be removed.

    In the end, it’s a trade-off. Whose life should pay for a vicious murder, the murderer’s, or that of an innocent victim like Vesel who would have been spared if the death penalty had not been abolished?

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