WASHINGTON — With the fewest number of convicted criminals being executed last year since the early 1990s and public opinion turning against capital punishment, the death penalty seems to be on the decline in the United States.

The nation’s Catholic bishops, meanwhile, have continued to speak out against the death penalty. Bishops in South Carolina and Ohio have recently restated the Church’s opposition to capital punishment, with convicted murderers in those states being sentenced to death.

“Statements like those … are affirmations of our call as pro-life Catholics to uphold the dignity of all life. These statements, and their opposition to the death penalty, are not isolated examples,” said Karen Clifton, executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network to End the Death Penalty.

Clifton noted that Popes St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, as well as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have all been “very vocal” over the last 20 years in their calls to abolish capital punishment.

“As a Church, we are called to promote a culture of life, and the death penalty does not respect the life and dignity of each and every human person as created in the image and likeness of God,” Clifton told the Register.

Arguably the most recent high-profile capital-punishment case is that of Dylann Roof, a 22-year-old South Carolina man and an avowed white supremacist who shot and killed nine black churchgoers during a Bible study in their Charleston, South Carolina, church on June 17, 2015.

In December 2016, a jury in federal court convicted Roof of all 33 hate-crime charges stemming from the shooting. On Jan. 10, jurors deliberated for about three hours before sentencing Roof to death by lethal injection.

Against the backdrop of the racially charged trial and sentencing, Bishop Robert Guglielmone of Charleston, South Carolina, reiterated the Catholic Church’s recent teaching in opposition to capital punishment.

“Sentencing Dylann Roof to death conflicts with the Church’s teaching that all human life is sacred, even for those who have committed the most heinous of crimes. Instead of pursuing death, we should be extending compassion and forgiveness to Mr. Roof, just as some of the victims’ families did at his bond hearing in June 2015,” Bishop Guglielmone said in a prepared statement.

The bishop also offered his prayers and support for the victims of the Emanuel AME Church massacre and their families. Said the bishop, “We commit ourselves to walk with these family members, as well as the survivors, as they continue to heal from the trial and this tragedy.”

 

Development in Doctrine

For a particularly heinous capital murder case such as the Charleston church spree, the government uses the death penalty as a form of retributive punishment, which for centuries the Church understood as a legitimate use of capital punishment by public authorities. But in 1995, St. John Paul II changed the focus of moral debate around proper use of the death penalty from punishment to self-defense. Writing in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), the Pope said society could execute convicted criminals if it was the only way to protect society against an unjust aggressor.

The Catechism teaches, “Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. If, however, 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 to the dignity of the human person. Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm — without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself — the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically nonexistent’” (2267).

“Yes, the Church has not said that capital punishment is intrinsically evil, but John Paul II made it quite clear that killing [someone like] Dylann Roof would not be considered a morally justified use of capital punishment,” said Jesuit Father James Bretzke, a moral theology professor at Boston College who has studied the death penalty in the United States.

Father Bretzke told the Register that St. John Paul II effectively “took away” retributive justice as a valid basis for capital punishment. Father Bretzke suggested arguments often cited in defense of the death penalty — that it serves as a deterrent or spares the state from paying to incarcerate the criminal — fall short.

 

Declining Support for Death Penalty

Whether or not the general public finds the Church’s modern teaching on capital punishment to be compelling, the fact is that Americans’ support for the death penalty is declining. A Pew Research Center survey released in September 2016 found that Americans’ support for capital punishment dipped below 50% for the first time.

Observers say some possible factors for the declining support could be the headlines in recent years concerning “botched” executions, where condemned inmates suffered excruciating pain from drugs used in lethal objections. Those drugs were increasingly obtained from unregulated compound pharmacies because previous suppliers stopped providing drugs for executions.

Several studies have also questioned how racial and socioeconomic factors influence how the death penalty is applied in the United States. According to the NAACP, black people make up 13% of the population, but they make up 42% of death-row inmates and 35% of those executed.

Also, more than 150 people on death row since 1973 have been exonerated due to new evidence, such as DNA analysis.

“Due to these and other serious moral objections, the public has come to understand that the death penalty is a broken system,” said Clifton, of the Catholic Mobilizing Network to End the Death Penalty.

Meanwhile, only five states carried out executions in 2016: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Missouri and Texas. Last year, the states executed 20 people, down from 28 in 2015, and significantly lower than the 98 people who were executed in 1999, the peak year since the 1950s, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Legislators in Washington state and Nebraska have recently said they will file legislation to repeal the death penalty in their states.

There have been setbacks for opponents of the death penalty, however. Despite the Texas bishops’ statement that capital punishment is a pro-life issue, Texas carried out the first execution of 2017 on Jan. 11. Last November, voters in Oklahoma, Nebraska and California decided to keep the death penalty legal in their states.

“Although these referendum measures failed, November’s electoral results did little to slow down the serious decline of the death penalty in the U.S.,” said Clifton, who described the failed referendums as “blips on an otherwise clear trajectory” away from the death penalty.

 

The Bishops’ Perspectives

“I would hope that these trends are borne of people contemplating the reasons for abstaining from execution, even in the case of murder, which is where the Church has been,” said Michael O’Rourke, a policy adviser with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Domestic Social Development.

O’Rourke told the Register that the bishops’ reference point when discussing the death penalty is the belief that all human life has dignity and is created in the image and likeness of God.

Said O’Rourke, “It’s through that lens that you look at the question of the death penalty, and this is how the Church has concluded that the death penalty ought to be abolished, particularly in light of the conditions of modern society.”

Bishop Daniel Thomas of Toledo, Ohio, highlighted those same principles when he wrote a letter in December 2015 to Ohio Gov. John Kasich asking him to end the death penalty in that state. The bishop wrote his letter as Ohio prepared to resume executions in 2017, following a two-year moratorium.

Said Bishop Thomas, “Our Catholic faith tradition’s opposition to the death penalty does not condone gravely sinful crimes and attacks on human life perpetrated by the convicted. Yet we do affirm the sacredness of all life, including the life of those who have committed heinous crimes.”

 

Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.