Killing is Bad So Stop Killing People
Catholic Bishops Seek End to Death Penalty
By Gustav NiebuhrIn their first statement in 19 years focusing exclusively on opposing the death penalty, the nation's Roman Catholic bishops have issued a call to "all people of good will, and especially Catholics," to work to end capital punishment.
The statement reflects a growing concern about capital punishment among the bishops, as well as the continuing impact of Pope John Paul II's denunciation of the death penalty during his pastoral visit to St. Louis in January.
Roger Cardinal Mahony, Archbishop of Los Angeles, said in a telephone interview that the Pope's words helped prompt the statement, written by the bishops' 55-member Administrative Board, which represents the National Conference of Catholic Bishops between the group's twice-yearly meetings.
"One of the things we're trying to do is expose the myth that we as a society gain something through the death penalty," said the Cardinal, who is chairman of the bishops' Committee on Domestic Policy.
Polls suggest a majority of Americans, and a majority of Catholics among them, support the death penalty. But twice in the last 14 months, calls by prominent religious figures to spare a convict from execution have touched off wide debates over the uses of capital punishment.
In February 1998, the conservative so-called religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, along with others, unsuccessfully urged Texas officials to spare the life of Karla Faye Tucker, a murderer who had become a born-again Christian in prison. But more dramatic was Pope John Paul's successful appeal to Gov. Mel Carnahan of Missouri to show mercy to Darrell J. Meese, a murderer who was to have been executed two weeks after the Pope's visit.
On Jan. 28, the morning after the Pope spoke to the Governor at an interfaith service in St. Louis, Carnahan, a Democrat who had approved 26 previous executions, commuted Meese's sentence to life without parole. The Governor said the decision meant no change in his support for capital punishment.
But the Pope's actions inspired the bishops.
In March, as Massachusetts legislators considered a bill to allow capital punishment, Bernard Cardinal Law, the Archbishop of Boston, and the bishops of the state's three other dioceses issued a toughly worded response that although murder must be punished, the death penalty "must be rejected as unworthy of us as a civilized people."
As a national body, the bishops have opposed the death penalty for three decades. In 1980 they said that while it would be "morally unsatisfactory and socially destructive" for criminals not to be punished, the death penalty was unjustified.
In yesterday's statement, the bishops said they were concerned about the size of the nation's death row population and the increasing pace of executions as condemned prisoners exhaust their appeals.
"Throughout the states, more than 3,500 prisoners await their deaths," the bishops wrote. "These numbers are deeply troubling. The pace of executions is numbing. The discovery of people on death row who are innocent is frightening." The bishops said they also hoped to convince people that capital punishment "is often applied unfairly and in racially biased ways."
Cardinal Mahony said the bishops' statement represented a long-term recognition in Catholic moral theology that society's ability to protect itself from crime had become so effective that capital punishment was unnecessary.
That view, he said, was made clear in Pope John Paul's encyclical "Evangelium Vitae" in 1995, in which the Pontiff said cases in which a government would need to apply the death penalty were "practically nonexistent." In St. Louis, the Pope preached that modern society "has the means of protecting itself" without denying prison inmates a chance to reform.
Speaking of the bishops, Cardinal Mahony said, "As disciples of Christ and the Gospel, we have always said we have never overcome violence by inflicting violence," adding, "If you want any example, just look at Kosovo."
The Cardinal said the bishops remained concerned about the victims of crime. The statement urged Catholics to support the families of crime victims "as they struggle to overcome their terrible loss and find some sense of peace."
The bishops' statement drew praise from Jim Wallis, an evangelical Protestant who is a central figure in Call to Renewal, an antipoverty movement among urban evangelicals and Catholics.
Wallis, editor in chief of the religious magazine Sojourners, said the statement would have an impact among moderate evangelicals, some of whom, he added, have been re-thinking the death penalty since Ms. Tucker's execution.
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