WASHINGTON — After hearing from a man who was found innocent while waiting on death row, the nation's bishops called for an end to the death penalty.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, at their annual fall meeting in Washington Nov. 15, voted 237-4 to approve their first comprehensive statement on the death penalty in 25 years.

“We're fallible as human beings, and this was someone whose life was almost taken, who was totally innocent,” Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, N.Y., said of the man who testified. “The use of the death penalty is not necessary today as it was in the past, when society couldn't be protected against murderers,” he told the Register at their annual fall meeting.

The statement, devised by Bishop DiMarzio's Domestic Policy Committee, describes capital punishment as a continuing sign of a “culture of death” in the United States. He said any Catholic support for the death penalty serves to undermine more serious battles against abortion and euthanasia.

“It is time for our nation to abandon the illusion that we can protect life by taking life,” the statement says. “When the state, in our names and with our taxes, ends a human life despite having non-lethal alternatives, it suggests that society can overcome violence with violence. The use of the death penalty ought to be abandoned not only for what it does to those who are executed, but what it does to all of society.”

In his encyclical The Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II insisted that punishment “ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.”

There were four bishops who rejected the statement in secret ballot voting. One observer at the meeting told the Register he hopes the statement doesn't confuse people into believing that Catholics are forbidden to support the death penalty under any circumstance. Unlike abortion, he said, Catholics can disagree on this subject.

“I would never preach what's in that document from the pulpit,” said Father Jerry Pokorsky, a finance administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb. “It encroaches too much on the rights of the faithful to form their own opinions about this important issue.”

Bishop DiMarzio said his committee took great care to make certain the statement would accurately educate readers about Church teaching. “Abortion and euthanasia are intrinsically evil, meaning we can never allow anyone to do these things,” he told the Register. “The death penalty is something different. It is not intrinsically evil. It's the state's right to protect the common good, to protect others. We're saying that the state should not use that right because it's not necessary, and they can protect society in other ways that don't involve killing.”

Death Row Witness

In a Nov. 13 study session on the statement, bishops heard from Kirk Bloodsworth, who was convicted of the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl. Bloodsworth spent almost nine years on death row before advanced DNA testing proved him innocent.

He told bishops that his story exemplifies the problems in the death penalty system.

“The same systemic flaws that led to my wrongful conviction, such as mistaken identification, inadequate representation, prosecutorial misconduct and basic human error plague the cases of innocent people in prison and on death row,” Bloodsworth said.

Bishops also heard from Mary Bosco Van Valkenburg, whose brother and sister-in-law were murdered.

“We wanted this murderer in prison for life so he could never hurt another person,” Van Valkenburg said. “Every time the state kills a person, human society moves in the direction of its lowest, most base urges.”

Archbishop Alfred Hughes of New Orleans questioned a statistic in the statement that says 119 people on death row have been exonerated.

“Is it exoneration, or is it situations in which people have been released on procedural grounds?” Archbishop Hughes asked.

“These are people who have been found innocent, not because of some procedural issue, but because they are truly innocent,” Bishop DiMarzio said.

Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City supported the statement but expressed concern during open debate that some anti-abortion Catholics, who favor the death penalty, might feel they're being lumped into the “culture of death” with the strong statement against the death penalty.

“I think by associating those who do not see our point of view, at this moment, with the ‘culture of death’ is not helpful to bringing them along,” Archbishop Naumann said. “Some of the pushback we receive comes from people who have a very thoughtful position on the other side. We acknowledge that there have been, and could be, circumstances in which the death penalty might be appropriate to protect society. It's a much different position than that of someone who supports an intrinsic evil.”

Bishop DiMarzio said the “culture of death” terminology in association with the death penalty comes from Evangelium Vitae.

Clear Distinction

Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb., told the Register he supported the statement because he felt it clearly identified abortion and euthanasia as intrinsic evils, unlike the death penalty.

“One can disagree with the bishops’ teaching about the death penalty and still present himself for holy Communion, but one cannot disagree with a teaching about abortion and euthanasia and present himself for holy Communion, and our Holy Father, as Cardinal Ratzinger, made that clear,” Bishop Bruskewitz said. “I'm satisfied that this document accurately reflects that.”

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, agreed that the document does a good job of segregating the death penalty from abortion and euthanasia while still calling the faithful to counter capital punishment.

“It doesn't say it's intrinsically evil to support the death penalty, but it's an effort to lead Catholics who support the death penalty to another position,” Archbishop Chaput said.

Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colo., who has said Catholics who support abortion and euthanasia should not present themselves for communion, supported the anti-death penalty statement.

“It's a call,” he told the Register, “for people to realize the death penalty accomplishes nothing, and it simply feeds into the culture of death.”

Wayne Laugesen is based in Boulder, Colorado.