Cases Calling for Death Are "Practically Non-existent"
INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana, 26 MAY 2001 (ZENIT).
For some time the Catholic bishops of the United States have
expressed their opposition to the death penalty. In November 1980 the
National Conference of Catholic Bishops published a "Statement on
Capital Punishment" calling for the abolition of the death penalty.
The bishops affirmed that such a move would promote values that are
important for Christians and could promote the idea that "we need
not take life for life." The statement argued that doing away with
capital punishment manifests the belief in the "unique worth and
dignity of each person from the moment of conception."
The 1995 encyclical "Evangelium Vitae" formally confirmed the
Church's resistance to the use of the death penalty. In No. 56 of the
document John Paul II observed the growing tendency to limit or abolish
the death penalty.
The encyclical did not declare that capital punishment in itself is
unacceptable. However it is seen as an extreme measure that should not
be done except "in cases of absolute necessity." This would be
the case when it is impossible to defend society without putting the
prisoner to death, the Pope explained. But these cases, he noted,
"are very rare, if not practically non-existent."
The Catechism of the Catholic Church was amended to take into account
the Pope's words. No. 2267 now includes the teaching of "Evangelium
Vitae" and explains that while the Church does not absolutely
exclude the death penalty, non-lethal means are preferred when they are
sufficient to defend people's safety.
In a lengthy article in the April edition of First Things, Cardinal
Avery Dulles explained that the Church still teaches that the state has
a right to impose capital punishment on people convicted of very serious
Cardinal Dulles explained, however, that even in the past "the
classical tradition held that the state should not exercise this right
when the evil effects outweigh the good effects." So the question
as to whether the death penalty should be carried out in today's
conditions is a prudential determination based on an analysis of the
"The Pope and the bishops, using their prudential judgment,"
explained the noted American theologian, "have concluded that in
contemporary society, at least in countries like our own, the death
penalty ought not to be invoked, because, on balance, it does more harm
Since the publication of the encyclical, John Paul II has repeatedly
called for an end to the death penalty. He has also sent numerous
messages to U.S. governors calling for clemency to be exercised. In
January 1999, during his visit to St. Louis, Missouri, the Pope appealed
for an end to the death penalty, saying it was "both cruel and
The Pope sent a letter to President George W. Bush asking him to spare
the life of the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh. A White House
spokeswoman said that Bush had no intention of trying to grant clemency,
the Associated Press reported April 29. Claire Buchan explained that
while "the president has great respect for the Pope and this is a
tragic situation, he also had no intention of stopping McVeigh's
American bishops appeal for clemency
A number of bishops have also appealed for clemency for McVeigh.
Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein of Indianapolis, Indiana, a member of the
Pro-Life Activities Committee of the U.S. bishops' conference, published
a statement May 15 in which he affirmed that the death penalty is no
longer an apt way for society to protect itself from criminals.
Archbishop Buechlein argued that capital punishment devalues human life
and does nothing to advance society. Executing McVeigh only
"continues the cycle of violence" and is not a solution for
the anger and grief of the victims, he stated.
In an April 5 statement, the archbishop had expressed his horror at
McVeigh's crime and noted that "many believe no criminal is more
deserving of the death penalty."
Yet, he argued: "In recent times, the death penalty does more harm
than good because it feeds a frenzy for revenge, while there is no
demonstrable proof that capital punishment deters violence." Such
revenge "neither liberates the families of victims nor ennobles the
victims of crime." The most honorable way to commemorate McVeigh's
victims, concluded Archbishop Buechlein, "is to choose life rather
Signs of change
The sustained opposition by many to the death penalty is having an
effect in the United States. The Chicago Tribune reported May 6 that
Illinois Governor George Ryan is opposed to continuing the death
penalty. Just two months after starting as governor in 1999, Ryan
reluctantly gave the go-ahead to the death penalty for Andrew Kokoraleis.
In January 2000, Ryan suspended executions in the state, because of
concerns over errors in the prosecutorial system. Last month, during a
speech to law students at Loyola University, the governor said that he
personally "couldn't throw the switch" on McVeigh. Ryan also
raised questions about whether he could execute anyone even under a
"flawless" death-penalty system.
According to the Tribune, Ryan's change of heart over the death penalty
is notable given his reputation as a Republican "conservative
In general, U.S. public support for capital punishment is dropping,
while doubts about the credibility of court evidence are increasing,
according to an analysis published May 22 by the Wall Street Journal.
The number of people annually sentenced to death in the United States
has fallen in three of the last four years for which statistics are
available, to 272, in 1999, since peaking at 319 in 1994 and 1995.
In the states of Arkansas and North Carolina, authorities have tightened
up standards and augmented public funds for the legal costs of those
accused of crimes liable to the death penalty. Florida this year became
the 15th state to bar the execution of mentally retarded inmates. And
Governor Jim Gilmore of Virginia, whom President Bush made chairman of
the Republican National Committee earlier this year, has signed a
statute to improve defendants' access to DNA testing.
Just last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Texas House
voted to create the state's first standards for court-appointed lawyers.
And the U.S. Supreme Court this fall will consider whether to bar the
execution of mentally retarded inmates.
In the apostolic letter "Novo Millennio Ineunte," published
Jan. 6, John Paul II repeated his call for a "new
evangelization" (No. 40) that is needed to proclaim the Christian
message. This should be done "in such a way that the particular
values of each people will not be rejected but purified and brought to
their fullness." The continuing debate over the death penalty is
just one of many challenges awaiting Christians in this mission.