Catholics Emboldened to Abolish the Death Penalty

New Hampshire became the 21st state to formally end the death penalty, after its legislature overrode the governor’s veto.

New Hampshire State Senate President Donna Soucy announces the tally following a vote on the death penalty at the State House in Concord, N.H.,May 30. New Hampshire, which hasn't executed anyone in 80 years and has only one inmate on death row, became the latest state to abolish the death penalty when the state Senate voted to override the governor's veto.
New Hampshire State Senate President Donna Soucy announces the tally following a vote on the death penalty at the State House in Concord, N.H.,May 30. New Hampshire, which hasn't executed anyone in 80 years and has only one inmate on death row, became the latest state to abolish the death penalty when the state Senate voted to override the governor's veto. (photo: AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

MANCHESTER, New Hampshire – A bipartisan legislative majority, supported by the Catholic Church, overturned a gubernatorial veto May 30 to make New Hampshire the 21st U.S. state to formally abolish the death penalty.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Catholics, along with fiscal and pro-life conservatives, played a vital role in creating the overwhelming majority to end the practice in the Granite State.

Within the year following Pope Francis’s revision to the Catechism of the Catholic Church declaring the death penalty to be morally “inadmissible” in the modern era, one state, California, has imposed a moratorium on capital punishment, and now New Hampshire has joined Washington state in striking capital punishment from its books.

Meredith Cook, the chancellor of the Diocese of Manchester and its former public policy director, told the Register that the death penalty repeal had been two decades in the making for Catholics in New Hampshire.

“Catholics, lay and ordained, joined together in this effort that is a positive step toward building a culture that upholds the sacredness of all human life,” she said.

In the case of New Hampshire, Cook said, Pope Francis’s change to the Catechism “simply reflected what already was the general view on this issue among the faithful in New Hampshire,” that had formed due to the Church’s teaching on the death penalty in the last few decades.

Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, the executive director of Catholic Mobilizing Network, told the Register the Catholic Church has played an important role in abolishing the death penalty, with Pope St. John Paul II calling the practice “cruel and unnecessary,” and Benedict XVI declaring “society’s leaders should make every effort to eliminate [the death penalty].”

The U.S. bishops also voted June 13 by an overwhelming 194-8 margin in favor of new language in the U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults that conforms to Pope Francis’s revision to the universal Catechism. The text has not been revealed publicly, but Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, who chairs the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis, indicated June 11 at the summer assembly in Baltimore that the language reflects much of the explanation provided by Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In an explanatory letter last year to bishops, Cardinal Ladaria communicated that the Catechism change is an “authentic development of doctrine,” building on the teaching of Pope St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Catholic News Service reported that, according to Bishop Barron, the proposed language for the U.S. catechism stresses “the irreducible dignity of all people, even those accused of terrible crimes,” the developments within civil society that render capital punishment morally inadmissible, and the serious risk of the “gross misapplication” of the death penalty.

Murphy noted that Washington and New Hampshire abolished the death penalty within the year since Pope Francis declared the death penalty “inadmissible,” and that Gov. Gavin Newsom had also imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in California.

“The momentum created by the Church’s clarified teaching on the death penalty is impossible to ignore,” she said.


What Effect Will the Catechism Have?

Pope Francis’ revision to the Catechism declaring the death penalty to be morally “inadmissible” came at a time when the Pew Research Center found an uptick of support for the death penalty.

Despite St. John Paul II’s teaching in the 1994 encyclical Evangelium Vitae and change to the Catechism in 1997 declaring the moral application of the death penalty as social self-defense “practically non-existent” in modern societies, Pew found a majority of Catholics (53%) support the death penalty, while 42% are opposed.

Catholic Church leaders in Nebraska watched the state Legislature’s ban on capital punishment overturned in 2016 by a referendum campaign funded in part by the family fortune of the state’s Catholic governor, Pete Ricketts.

The California Catholic Conference and other death penalty abolitionists in California saw a similar reversal in 2016 after succeeding in bringing a measure to abolish the death penalty to the ballot. The initiative not only lost, but Californians approved a ballot measure to speed up the process instead. Newsom’s March 2019 moratorium on the death penalty, however, means that the Catholic Church has a second shot to prevent capital punishment from being practiced in the state.

Andrew Rivas, the executive director of the California Catholic Conference, told the Register that there was “more momentum than ever” to educate the public and end the death penalty following the governor’s moratorium.

“Moving forward, we are so grateful for the Holy Father’s emphasis in the Catechism on preserving life,” he said. “The clarification of Church teaching should be a tremendous help in keeping our message focused on the issue of ending the use of capital punishment rather than what it costs to run political campaigns.”


Catholic Debate Continues

Edward Feser, a Catholic philosopher at Pasadena City College and the co-author of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, told the Register that he doubted the revisions of the Catechism on the death penalty would have much practical effect on public policy.

“It might have a minor impact insofar as it will give a ‘talking point’ to politicians who are already opposed to capital punishment for other reasons, and who will use the Pope’s revision as a rhetorical weapon against Catholics who oppose abortion and euthanasia but not capital punishment,” he said.

Feser said the Catholic debate on the death penalty is not closed, but is “just beginning,” on the basis that the Holy Father’s language “trades on ambiguity.”

“It is simply not clear from the wording whether he is saying that capital punishment is intrinsically immoral, or whether he is saying instead that while it is not intrinsically immoral, it is prudentially ill-advised,” he said. 

For Feser and other Catholics who support the death penalty, their concern is that calling the death penalty “intrinsically immoral,” as opposed to prudentially ill-advised, would foment “a doctrinal crisis.” 

“While every Catholic certainly has the right to oppose capital punishment in practice, no Catholic has the right to claim that it is always and intrinsically evil, because this would contradict the clear and consistent teaching of Scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and every pope up to Benedict XVI,” he said. “If the Church could be that wrong for that long about something that serious, then there is no limit to what else she might be wrong about. The issue is that serious.”

However, these views and the nature of what is at stake with the death penalty, have been challenged by other orthodox Catholic philosophers, such as E. Christian Brugger and Robert George among others. They argue capital punishment was not an infallibly taught doctrine, that the present teaching in the Catechism is a legitimate development of doctrine in line with the apostolic age, and that opposing the direct killing of human beings by the state reflects a pro-life ethic.


What is Next?

Pope Francis’ catechesis on the subject has at the very least raised morale and energy for Catholic death penalty abolitionists. Murphy said the Catholic Mobilizing Network has seen “a surge in parishes, dioceses, and Catholic ministries that are seeking out ways to lift up this historic development in Church teaching, and to engage more deeply in this critical piece of the pro-life movement.”

She expected the USCCB’s overwhelming confirmation of the revision to the U.S. Catechism would bolster the effect.

“This is an incredible opportunity to form the American faithful in the Church’s unequivocal opposition to capital punishment,” she said, “and to embolden them to build a culture that is, in the words of St. John Paul II, ‘unconditionally pro-life.’”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.