A Statement on Capital Punishment
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The beginning of the Third Millennium of Christianity calls us to
reflect on our culture and how we as a Church can make a significant
impact on that culture based on our love for Jesus and our desire to
live out the teachings of Jesus.
In 1994, in a pastoral message, Confronting a Culture of Violence,
the Bishops of the United States wrote, "Increasingly, our society
looks to violent measures to deal with some of our most difficult social
problems." That document addressed the evil of violence in our
society expressed in many forms. An example of accepted violence in our
culture is the death penalty. Our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, has
raised this issue to a level of international attention which warrants
discussion by Catholics and all people of good will. Furthermore, in our
own Commonwealth, the resumption of executions and the State's growing
death row population call us as Bishops of Pennsylvania to restate our
opposition to the use of the death penalty and to clarify our reasons
for doing so.
We invite you to read with care "The Death Penalty: Choose
Life." If you are struggling with this issue, we ask that you
prayerfully reflect on the rationale presented and the wisdom of the
Church. It is our sincere hope that through this document, many people
will come to a fuller understanding and appreciation of the Church's
commitment to upholding the dignity and sanctity of every human
life-even the life of a person convicted of a most heinous crime.
With every prayerful best wish, we remain,
Sincerely yours in Christ,
The Bishops of Pennsylvania
Why are the Catholic Bishops of Pennsylvania making a statement now?
"Increasingly, our society looks to violent measures to deal
with some of our most difficult social problems. ... Violence is not the
solution; it is the most clear sign of our failures."-Confronting a Culture of Violence 1
Much has changed since we, the Catholic Bishops of Pennsylvania,
addressed the issue of capital punishment in 1987. 2
More men and women have been put to death in the United States since
January 1, 1996, than in the previous 20 years. 3 After more
than 30 years of inactivity, Pennsylvania's own death chamber has been
put to use again. 4 With the changes in federal and state laws,
the number of executions in this Commonwealth-and nationwide-is poised
to increase dramatically in the near future.
We, the Catholic Bishops of Pennsylvania, join the Holy Father in
calling for a re-examination of the death penalty. At the dawn of a new
millennium, Church teaching calls all people to grow in respect for
human life and to express this respect by abolishing the death penalty
as the state's most severe punishment. Our Holy Father, Pope John Paul
II, has increasingly spoken out against the use of the death penalty in
homilies, through personal intervention in pending executions, and
particularly in his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of
Life). 5 In his most recent visit to our country, he said,
"I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas  for a
consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and
unnecessary." 6 The National Conference of Catholic
Bishops reaffirmed its historic opposition to capital punishment in 1999
in its statement, A Good Friday Appeal to End the Death Penalty.
We believe it is crucial to continue the proclamation of the teaching
of the Catholic Church on the fundamental sanctity of all human life.
What does the Catholic Church teach about the death penalty?
"The sacredness of life gives rise to its inviolability, written
from the beginning in man's heart, in his conscience."-Evangelium Vitae 8
The Catholic Church has always taught that all human life is sacred
because we are created by God and in God's own image. Therefore, all
people share the duty to protect and defend human life at all times and
in all circumstances. Moreover, because human life is a gift from God,
all people share the duty to nurture and enhance it. Accordingly, there
is a moral presumption against human beings killing other human beings.
The Catholic Church has also consistently taught that it is the
legitimate right of government to protect society by punishing
wrongdoers. The Church even went so far as to express an exception to
its presumption against taking human life; it adopted Saint Thomas
Aquinas' principle that in some circumstances execution of the offender
was necessary to preserve the common good. 10
The teaching of the Catholic Church on the use of capital punishment
is constantly being refined, becoming ever more explicit as the Church
grows in experience and wisdom. In 1997, the Catechism of the
Catholic Church was revised to express a more precise understanding
of the propriety of the death penalty. First articulated by Pope John
Paul II in Evangelium Vitae, this principle declares that
modern society has the means of protecting itself and preserving the
common good without the necessity of capital punishment. The Holy
Father's words are more a development in the use of the state's right
rather than a change in the teaching of the Church on the state's right.
The Catechism states:
If ... non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect 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 more in conformity with the dignity of the human person. 11
Does capital punishment protect society?
"Violence is a lie for it goes against the truth of our faith,
the truth of our humanity."-Pope John Paul II 12
Law enforcement officials concede that the death penalty has no
effect in dissuading others from committing murder. 13 This
conclusion is supported by numerous studies comparing murder rates in
states with and without the death penalty. We believe that moral
education, effective police work, and genuine efforts to address the
causes of crime are the most effective remedies for violent crime.
Not only does the death penalty fail to protect us; it inflicts great
harm on individuals and society.
It has been well-documented that innocent people are wrongly
convicted and sentenced to death. In one state, the governor suspended
all executions because more people had been exonerated and released from
death row than had been executed. 14 Evidence discovered after
conviction, such as DNA test results, evidence of perjury by witnesses,
confessions by others, errors or misconduct by police, prosecutors,
judges, or defense counsel, among other things, have freed more than 85
people from death row since 1973, including two in Pennsylvania. They
did not commit the crime for which they were convicted and awaiting
execution. 15 Moreover, the danger of more mistaken
convictions-and possible executions-rises dramatically with the changes
in the law that accelerate the execution timetable by restricting review
by the courts or intervention by the governor. 16
Reliance on the use of the death penalty creates a greater harm to
society by reinforcing the idea that violence is a solution to society's
problems. The death penalty will not overcome violent crime any more
than abortion will end the problem of unwanted pregnancy or euthanasia
will solve the problems of aging and illness. As was stated in the
pastoral letter of the American bishops, Confronting a Culture of
"A society which destroys its children, abandons its old and
relies on vengeance fails fundamental moral tests. ... We are losing our
respect for human life. How do we teach the young to curb their violence
when we embrace it as the solution to social problems?" 17
There is a widely held belief that only public executions can
demonstrate that society will not tolerate such offenses against the
sanctity of life. This is a contradiction. This is an attempt to teach
that killing is wrong by killing. Rather than increasing reverence for
life, society's acceptance of the death penalty erodes it; rather than
creating a sense of security, reliance on the death penalty nurtures
hatred and violence. The state's preference for the use of the death
penalty permits elected officials to ignore the real causes of
crime-such as poverty, lack of opportunity for education and employment,
broken homes, substance abuse, and the availability of weapons. Rather
than reducing the level of crime and violence in our society, the death
penalty as a tool for societal problem-solving only makes matters worse.
What about those who have been touched by crime?
"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth
for a tooth.' But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil
... love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you."-Matthew 5:38-39, 44
Our opposition to the use of the death penalty should not be
construed as a lack of compassion for those who have been touched by
violent crime. In testimony before the Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary
Committee, Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua, speaking on behalf of the
Catholic Bishops of Pennsylvania, said,
"Those who suffer unimaginable grief as a result of the
senseless murder of one dear to them deserve the love and support of
everyone, of their families, friends and churches, as well as the
compassion and care of the communities in which they live. They have a
right to expect that justice will be done and that the perpetrator of a
crime will be punished swiftly and effectively." 18
Speaking as pastors, we must point out that the survivors' well-being
cannot justify demands for vengeance. True emotional, spiritual, and
even physical healing is found in the compassionate embrace of Jesus,
who practiced forgiveness and teaches us to do the same.
What is the alternative to capital punishment?
"Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may
As our Holy Father has stated, modern societies can imprison and
isolate offenders for long periods of time to promote the safety of
their citizens. Thus, society can appropriately protect and punish
without having to rely on execution. Pennsylvania long ago accepted this
principle; state law provides life imprisonment as the only alternative
sentence available in a death penalty case.19 Life imprisonment
in Pennsylvania means confinement without the possibility of parole. 20
A sentence for life may be a life-giving sentence. A sentence for
life can release these victims to begin their healing. A sentence for
life also provides the time for the offender to repent for his crime, to
attempt to become a productive member of his community, and, we pray, to
reconcile with the family and friends of his victim. It gives the
community the opportunity to see the possible healing of victims and
offenders. A sentence for life can end the confusion and stress of
personnel of the Department of Corrections who, striving to help all
offenders change their behavior, are called on to support or participate
in a process that often denies the condemned offender sufficient time to
What are we called to do?
"Every Catholic is a missionary of the Good News of human
dignity redeemed through the cross."-Living the Gospel of Life 21
Let us be clear: We believe the use of the death penalty should be
abolished. We envision no circumstances in modern American society that
could justify its continued use.
We wholeheartedly support legislation for a moratorium as well as a
study of the theory and practice of capital punishment in Pennsylvania.
It is incumbent upon the state, in the interest of promoting the good of
all, to examine the manner in which this or any penalty is being
applied. We believe such a comprehensive examination, conducted in a
fair and balanced manner, will benefit both opponents and supporters of
the death penalty by providing a better understanding of the issues
We sincerely hope and pray that such an examination will naturally
lead Catholics and all people of good will to become consistent
witnesses to the sanctity of life and the dignity of every human being.
Through ministry to family and friends of victims and offenders, as
well as corrections personnel and the community, we can touch the hearts
of those who are affected by violent crime, as Jesus taught us to do.
While there are many in our Church who still support the use of the
death penalty, through discussion and teaching we can build popular
support for change of attitude and policy. Through advocacy efforts
aimed at legislators and local district attorneys, we can establish a
public policy that is rooted in a consistent ethic of life-the abolition
of the death penalty and the implementation of a penal system that
serves the dignity of all through rehabilitation. Finally, we are called
to work to remedy the causes of crime.
Abolition of the death penalty is not a solely religious issue, but
an issue that affects the common good. As human beings, we are committed
to defend the gift of life that God has given all people, including
those who inflict great harm upon us. Therefore,
We oppose capital punishment not just for what it does to those
guilty of horrible crimes but for what it does to all of us as a
society. Increasing reliance on the death penalty diminishes all of us
and is a sign of growing disrespect for human life. We cannot overcome
crime by simply executing criminals, nor can we restore the lives of the
innocent by ending the lives of those convicted of their murders. The
death penalty offers the tragic illusion that we can defend life by
taking life. 23
"The Lord God says, 'I take no pleasure in the death of the
wicked man, but rather in the wicked man's conversion, that he may
1. Confronting a Culture of Violence (Washington, DC: National
Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1994), 5, 6.
2. Does Taking One Life Justify the Taking of Another? Pennsylvania's
Catholic Bishops Speak Out Against Capital Punishment (Harrisburg, PA:
Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, 1987). On-line at: http://www.pacatholic.org/bishops/death.htm
3. "Number of Executions by State Since 1976" (Washington,
DC: Death Penalty Information Center, 2000). On-line at: http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/dpicexec.html
4. "History of the Death Penalty in Pennsylvania"
(Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, 2000). On-line
See also: "Information on the Execution Process" (Harrisburg,
PA: Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, 2000). On-line at:
5. Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae (Vatican City, 1995). On-line
6. Pope John Paul II, Papal Mass, St. Louis, MO, 27 Jan. 1999.
On-line at: http://www.nccbuscc.org/sdwp/national/criminal/stlouissmt.htm
7. A Good Friday Appeal to End the Death Penalty (Washington, DC:
National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1999). On-line at: http://www.nccbuscc.org/sdwp/national/criminal/appeal.htm
8. Evangelium Vitae, #40.
9. Catechism of the Catholic Church (Washington, DC: United States
Catholic Conference, 1997), #1700, 2258, 2270, 2274.
10. Summa Theologica, II-IIae, q. 64, a.2.
11. Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2267.
See also: "New Language in the Catechism of the Catholic Church on
the Subject of the Death Penalty" (Arlington, VA: Catholics Against
Capital Punishment). On-line at: http://www.igc.org/cacp/catechism.html
12. Pope John Paul II, "Address in Killineer, Ireland,"
13. "Reno Finds No Evidence That Death Penalty Deters
Crime," Reuters, Jan. 20, 2000. On-line at: http://www.aclu.org/news/2000/w012400a.html
See also: CACP News Notes (Arlington, VA: Catholics Against Capital
Punishment) 14 Mar. 1994, 4.
14. "A Slow Death for the Death Penalty in Illinois?" Time
14 Feb. 2000. On-line at: http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,38488,00.html
15. Richard C. Dieter, Innocence and the Death Penalty (Washington,
DC: Death Penalty Information Center, 1997), 1, 2, 13, 30. On-line at: http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/inn.html
See also: "Recent Cases of Innocence and Possible Innocence"
(Washington, DC: Death Penalty Information Center, 2000). On-line at:
16. Innocence and the Death Penalty, 3-6.
See also: Hugo A. Bedau, The Case Against the Death Penalty (Washington,
DC: American Civil Liberties Union, 1997), 5. On-line at: http://www.aclu.org/library/case_against_death.html
17. Confronting a Culture of Violence, 6.
18. Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua, testimony before the Pennsylvania
Senate Judiciary Committee, Harrisburg, PA, 22 Feb. 2000. On-line at:
19. 18 Pa. CSA s1102, 42 Pa. CSA s9711(c)(1)(v).
20. 61P.S. s331.21(a).
21. Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics
(Washington, DC: National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1998). On-line
22. "Persons Sentenced to Execution in Pennsylvania as of March
29, 1999" (Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania Department of Corrections,
See also: "Persons Sentenced to Execution in Pennsylvania as of
January 31, 2000" (Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania Department of
Corrections, 2000). On-line at: http://www.cor.state.pa.us/execution%20list.pdf
See also: "Race of Defendants Executed Since 1976"
(Washington, DC: Death Penalty Information Center, 2000). On-line at: http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/dpicrace.html
See also: The Case Against the Death Penalty, 7-10.
23. A Good Friday Appeal to End the Death Penalty.
Used with permission of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference