“[T]he dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made … for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.”
On April 2, 1999, two months after Pope John Paul II spoke those words in St. Louis, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued its Good Friday Appeal to End the Death Penalty. Such an abolition, the bishops said, is essential if we are to confront the culture of death all around us and build a culture of life in its place.
Two years later, it would appear that, while some change in public sentiment may be evolving, we are still a long way from changing the minds and hearts of Americans — including Catholics — toward the dignity of every human life.
Catholics' divided opinions on the death penalty probably owed, in no small part, to apparent ambiguity in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church: Both pro-and anti-death penalty Catholics used it to support their positions.
The revised Catechism, released in 1997, should have set the matter straight. It stressed that, “if nonlethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.”
This was consistent with the teaching laid out by Pope John Paul II in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), in which he called for a consistent pro-life stance — including the abolition of the death penalty in the modern world. “The nature and extent of punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and 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,” wrote the Holy Father. “Today, however, as a result of steady improvement in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”
In light of the rapid prison expansion witnessed over the past 30 years, America clearly has the resources to abolish the death penalty.
Further support for the abolition of the death penalty has come from 30 years of evidence provided by both the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and criminal-justice academics researching the efficacy of capital punishment. The two approach the issue from disparate perspectives, yet they have reached similar conclusions.
Looking to the vast resources America has available today, we do in fact have a strong alternative to the death penalty for the worst offenders, and that is the sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole. A number of public-opinion polls have shown that, when this alternative is available, support of the death penalty becomes a minority viewpoint. In addition, research has proven time and time again that, despite conventional wisdom, committing criminals for life does not cost more than administering the death penalty, because of the exorbitant appeals that often come with capital cases. Research has also shown that early release of these prisoners (by pardon or commutation) is very rare, and escape rarer still.
Nor should Catholics fail to note ample research showing the death penalty to be discriminatory based on class, gender and race. The poor are more likely to be sentenced to death than the rich; men are more likely to be sentenced to death than women. Also, while more whites are sentenced to death than blacks, blacks committing crimes against whites are twice as likely to be executed than in the cases of white-on-white crimes, and four times more likely to be executed than in the case of white-on-black crimes.
For their call to end the death penalty, the U.S. bishop chose the day of Christ's crucifixion.
Other evidence spanning the past 30 years has consistently demonstrated that the use of the death penalty does not deter criminals at large.
And recent evidence, gained with the application of DNA technology, has revealed that the number of wrongly convicted individuals sentenced to be executed stands at just over 90 people. Had the DNA evidence not been available, how many of these individuals would have been executed?
Finally, the use of the death penalty in America, as related to the rest of the industrialized world, is unique, as America is the only nation still employing executions. And the application of the death penalty here is inconsistent, varying widely from state to state, and thus discriminatory. Of the 650 executions carried out between January 1977 and July 2000, all have occurred in 31 of the 40 jurisdictions in which the death penalty is an option; most of these have held fewer than ten executions. In addition, nearly 70% of all executions have taken place in six states and more than half (53%) have occurred in just three states — Texas, Virginia and Florida. If
not for these few hard-line localities, the death penalty would be much rarer today.
Still God's Children
Why, then, do we keep it?
There are two primary reasons that America continues to apply the death penalty and they result from public opinion and symbolic politics.
Public opinion, overall, continues to support the death penalty and has a profound distrust for life without parole. A majority of Americans do not believe that prisoners would actually serve their full sentence. Catholics, who make up a large portion of the American population, often express this sentiment.
(An intriguing aside to this point: Research shows Catholics who attend Mass regularly, and demonstrate a consistent pro-life belief — by opposing abortion, euthanasia and so on — tend to be overwhelmingly in favor of the abolition of the death penalty.)
The second reason for America's continuing embrace of the death penalty is derived from the advocacy of the death penalty by politicians who use it as a litmus test to see who can be the “toughest on crime.” Presidents, governors and legislators at all levels continue to advocate for the death penalty as a way to send a signal to their constituents that they will be tough on crime.
On the second anniversary of the bishops' Good Friday appeal, Catholics should reexamine their views of the death penalty in light of Catholic social doctrine and the evidence available regarding executions. This is an opportunity for Catholics across America to take a more active role in moving the country toward a more consistent ethic of life.
It should be clear that the bishops picked Good Friday to make their appeal two years ago for a purpose. They picked the day Jesus Christ was executed. That day in Jerusalem, the death penalty was ordered and administered by those who “knew not what they do”. Will we stand by as our country makes the same mistake against God's other children?
Willard M. Oliver is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Radford, Virginia.