Catholic Bishops Join 1,000 Faith Leaders to Oppose Federal Executions

Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City, who chairs the U.S. bishops’ domestic justice committee, has also called for the government to stop the executions.

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Several U.S. bishops, along with clergy and religious brothers and sisters from around the country, have signed a statement opposing federal executions that are scheduled to resume this month.

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Bishop William Medley of Owensboro, Kentucky, Bishop Oscar Solis of Salt Lake City, Bishop Thomas Zinkula of Davenport, Iowa, and Bishop Richard Pates who is the apostolic administrator of Joliet, Illinois, all joined more than 1,000 faith leaders in calling for a stop to scheduled executions of four federal death row inmates.

“As faith leaders from a diverse range of traditions, we call on President Trump and Attorney General Barr to stop the scheduled federal executions,” the statement read.

Catholic priests and religious, deacons, and lay leaders signed on to the statement, as well as members of Christian denominations, Reform Judaism and Conservative Jewish congregations, and Buddhist leaders, among others.

“As our country grapples with the COVID 19 pandemic, an economic crisis, and systemic racism in the criminal legal system, we should be focused on protecting and preserving life, not carrying out executions,” the faith leaders stated.

Bishop Pates issued his own statement in addition to the joint letter, saying that “[t]he Church believes that just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.”

Last summer, Attorney General William Barr instructed the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to resume execution of federal prisoners on death row for the first time since 2003.

The inmates scheduled for execution are Daniel Lewis Lee, Lezmond Mitchell, Wesley Ira Purkey, Dustin Lee Honken, and Alfred Bourgeois, convicted of the murders of children and adults and, in some cases, torture.

Four of the inmates—Lee, Purkey, Honken, and Bourgeois—challenged the execution protocol, and in November a federal judge granted them an injunction so they could appeal to the Supreme Court.

The BOP had not conducted an execution since 2003, after the Obama administration decided to review the old three-drug execution protocol for lethal injection. Although Barr proposed a one-drug execution method of pentobarbital, the inmates challenged the new protocol.

The D.C. Circuit Court ruled against the inmates and vacated the injunction in April, and the Supreme Court on June 29 declined to hear their appeal, allowing for the executions to continue. The first of four executions has been scheduled for July 13, and the last on August 28.

The executions are scheduled to occur in Terre Haute, Indiana, within the archdiocese of Indianapolis. Archbishop Charles C. Thompson of Indianapolis opposed the executions on June 18, noting his jurisdiction with regard to the location of Terre Haute federal prison and stating that “the supreme law of the Church, the salvation of souls, demands that I speak out on this very grave matter at hand.”

“Since the pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II, it has been the Catholic position that today’s prison system is quite adequate to protect society from inmates escaping or being unlawfully set free,” he said. While the crimes of the federal inmates cannot be ignored, he said, “humanity cannot allow the violent act of an individual to cause other members of humanity to react in violence.”

“While the Church is certainly concerned with the soul of every person, including those on death row, I make this plea against the death penalty out of ultimate concern for the eternal soul of humanity,” he said.

Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City, who chairs the U.S. bishops’ domestic justice committee, has also called for the government to stop the executions.

He noted that Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis have all called for an end to the death penalty, and that the U.S. bishops’ overwhelmingly voted in favor of Pope Francis’ new language in the Catechism calling the death penalty “inadmissible.”

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