Where the Catholic Church Stands
A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH
WHERE THE CATHOLIC CHURCH STANDS
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 crimes.
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 circumstances.
"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 than good."
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 unnecessary."
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 execution."
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 than death."
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 law-and-order politician."
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.
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