April 1, 2005


Abolish the death penalty

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have launched a new initiative to end the use of the death penalty in the U.S.

As reported in the March 18 issue of The Criterion, the bishops’ new campaign is given significant impetus by a recent poll by the Zogby International Polling organization that shows a precipitous “plunge” of support for capital punishment among U.S. Catholics.

The Zogby poll, which surveyed nearly 1,800 Catholic adults, found that less than half (48.5 percent) of the Catholic adults surveyed support the death penalty, while 48.4 percent oppose it. In the past, Catholic support for the death penalty has been as high as 68 percent.

The poll also indicated that the intensity of support for the death penalty has fallen by half, from a high of 40 percent to 20 percent in the recent survey.

At a press conference called at the National Press Club to introduce the new campaign, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington and a former supporter of the death penalty, said, “We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing. We cannot defend life by taking life.”

Cardinal McCarrick also pointed out that while the present campaign is a new initiative, the cause itself is not new. The conference of bishops has opposed the death penalty for 25 years.

Opposition to the death penalty is higher among Catholics who attend Mass often and among younger Catholics. One-third of the Catholics surveyed who once supported the death penalty—like Cardinal McCarrick—now oppose it.

The cardinal pointed out that the application of the death penalty in the U.S. is “deeply flawed.” Present at the press conference was Kirk Bloods­worth, who spent nearly nine years on Death Row in Maryland. He was released after DNA testing proved that he was innocent of the crime for which he was convicted and condemned to death.

“Since 1973,” Bloodsworth said, “more than 100 people have been exonerated from Death Row after being cleared of their charges.”

We welcome these recent survey results with a sense of hope. This newspaper has been vocal and forthright in its support of the Church’s teaching on the death penalty—that the direct killing of anyone is only justifiable in a case of self-defense when there is absolutely no other way to protect oneself, another innocent person or society in general from violence or death. We believe that in this day and age, life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is an action sufficient to protect society from murderers. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting Pope John Paul II, says that “cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically non-existent’” (#2267).

Any number of solid reasons exist for doing away with the death penalty—the innate dignity of human life, the chance of repentance and reform of the guilty, the possibility of executing the innocent, the paradox of defending life by taking life, our own call to forgiveness and reconciliation, the need to control our own urge for revenge and retribution. The abolition of the death penalty is above all entirely consistent with the Church’s stand in support of all human life—from the very moment of conception until natural death.

As Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein has often pointed out, capital punishment does not honor the victims themselves, and it does not bring about true closure or freedom to the victims’ families and loved ones. Only forgiveness can do that.

The U.S. bishops’ renewed effort to abolish the use of the death penalty in our country deserves the prayerful and thoughtful consideration of Catholics and all persons of goodwill.

The United States, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia account for more than 80 percent of the executions recorded by Amnesty International. It is time that our beloved country joins the rest of the civilized world, where the majority of countries have eliminated the death penalty in law or in practice.

Now is the time. †

— William R. Bruns

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