Catholic Bishops of Colorado Back Death Penalty Repeal

S.B. 20 is expected to pass the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives and be signed into law by Democratic Gov. Jared Polis.

Colorado State Capitol.
Colorado State Capitol. (photo: Shutterstock)

DENVER, Colo. — The Catholic bishops of Colorado have backed a bipartisan bill to repeal the death penalty that appears set to become law, after five previous attempts failed.

“I urge all Coloradans to support the effort to repeal the death penalty and help bring about a culture in our state that respects all life,” Bishop Stephen Berg of Pueblo said in a statement to the Pueblo Chieftain newspaper.

“The Catholic Church has long taught that every person, whether they are unborn, sick, or sinful, has a God-given dignity that cannot be erased or taken away. Yes, it can be marred, but it cannot be blotted out in the eyes of God,” Bishop Berg said.

On Jan. 31 the Colorado Catholic Conference said its bishops have been “active in their support for this bill.” The conference praised the State Senate for passing the repeal bill.

S.B. 20 is expected to pass the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives and be signed into law by Democratic Gov. Jared Polis. The legislation would end capital punishment for crimes committed on or after July 1.

The bill would not affect the death sentences for the three inmates currently on death row, but Polis has said he would commute their sentences if the bill passes, the Colorado Sun reports.

A key preliminary vote of 19 to 15 on Jan. 30 was split largely along party lines. Republican State Sens. Kevin Priola, Jack Tate, and Owen Hill, all co-sponsors of the bill, voted in favor. Democratic Sens. Rhonda Fields and Jessie Danielson voted against it.

The final vote, held Jan. 31, passed 19 to 13.

Tate said he thought the death penalty is ineffective and expensive and risks “executing an innocent person.” Priola cited the principle of “protecting life from conception to natural death,” Colorado Public Radio reports.

Other co-sponsors of the bill were Democrats Sen. Julie Gonzales and Reps. Jeni Arndt and Adrienne Benavidez.

In his comments to the Pueblo Chieftain, Bishop Berg cited his experience as a priest in Texas and Colorado ministering to prisoners.

“Indeed, I have witnessed the return to the faith of the most hardened criminals,” he said. “The death penalty, while it might offer a sense of short-term justice, only adds to the cycle of violence and takes away this opportunity for conversion.”

Bishop Berg also cited Pope Francis’ revision to the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 2018.

“Today there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes... Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” the pope said.

In spring 2019 the Democrat-controlled Senate was set to debate a bill to repeal the death penalty, but backers appeared to lack enough votes and asked the bill to be withdrawn.

Previously, state legislators have tried to repeal the death penalty five times since 2000. There has not been an execution under Colorado law since 1997.

Auxiliary Bishop Jorge Rodriguez of Denver, speaking for the Colorado Catholic Conference, testified in favor of the repeal at a Jan. 27 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“The Catholic Church, many other Christians and many other people of faith believe that human life is sacred from conception until natural death,” he said. “We believe that, because God made us in his image and likeness, it is not possible to lose the dignity that confers to our lives. We are, as Jesus said, his brothers and sisters, even if we have committed great crimes or sins.”

Bishop Rodriguez told the Senate committee the death penalty “only adds to the cycle of violence.”

“If we as a society accept the idea that it’s possible for someone to lose their human dignity and be executed, then it is only a short step to say that certain classes or types of people belong to this less-than-human group,” he said. “History has shown that this is not outside the realm of possibility.”

Bishop Rodriguez cited the Christian imperative to visit those who are in prison, adding: “even those who committed horrible crimes and are in prison are not outside of Christ’s mercy.”

The inmates now on Colorado’s death row are Nathan Dunlap, who murdered four people at a children’s restaurant, and Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray, who both had been involved in the murder of a young engaged couple, Javan Marshall Fields and Vivian Wolfe. Fields was set to testify against Ray in court on charges Ray was an accomplice in a murder case.

The murders of Fields and Wolfe helped inspire Fields’ mother, Aurora Democratic Sen. Rhonda Fields, to become active in public life. Fields was one of the strongest critics of the bill in 2019, objecting to the speed with which it passed through committee consideration.

She was again critical in Jan. 30 debate on the bill.

“What side of history do you want to be on? Who are you serving? Who are you protecting?” she said. Fields detailed her son’s murder and the court case that followed, the Denver Post reports.

“My son was innocent!” she said.

“Either we’re for public safety, or we’re not,” she added.

Bishop Rodriguez and Bishop Berg both discussed crime victims and their families.

“It is understandable that the family of a victim might feel like justice is being served by the murderer being executed, but the reality is that only God can offer true justice in eternity,” Bishop Rodriguez said.

Bishop Berg said victims and their families also can have “conversion and healing.”

“It is tempting to hold on to hatred for those who hurt you so deeply, but it consumes the lives of those who let it remain in their hearts,” he said. “Instead, when the cycle of violence is interrupted by forgiveness and faith, the opportunity exists for healing and growth in charity for victims and their families. God is able to take a great evil and transform it into an even greater good.”

Some defenders of the death penalty sought other ways to oppose repeal.

Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, proposed an amendment to send the death penalty repeal to the voters. The amendment failed to pass. State Rep. Dave Williams, R-Colorado Springs, has said he would do whatever he could to block the bill without a popular vote, including legislative obstruction tactics like filibustering and asking bills to be read at length.

There are 21 U.S. states and the District of Columbia that have abolished the death penalty. The governors of California, Oregon, and Pennsylvania have placed moratoria on executions, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Both Pope Francis and his immediate predecessors have condemned the practice of capital punishment in the West.

St. John Paul II called on Christians to be “unconditionally pro-life” and said that “the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.” He also spoke of his desire for a consensus to end the death penalty, which he called “cruel and unnecessary.”

And Benedict XVI exhorted world leaders to make “every effort to eliminate the death penalty” and told Catholics that ending capital punishment was an essential part of “conforming penal law both to the human dignity of prisoners and the effective maintenance of public order.”

In August 2018, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a new draft of the catechism's paragraph regarding capital punishment.

Quoting Pope Francis’ words in a speech of Oct. 11, 2017, the new paragraph states, in part, that “the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

Reasons for changing the teaching, the paragraph says, include: the increasing effectiveness of detention systems, growing understanding of the unchanging dignity of the person, and leaving open the possibility of conversion.

Fr. Thomas Petri, O.P., a moral theologian at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., told CNA at the time that he thinks this change “further absolutizes the pastoral conclusion made by John Paul II.”

“Nothing in the new wording of paragraph 2267 suggests the death penalty is intrinsically evil. Indeed, nothing could suggest that because it would contradict the firm teaching of the Church,” Fr. Petri continued.