Forming Catholic Consciences: Bishops Note Trump’s Resumption of Federal Executions
The major-party U.S. presidential platforms take opposing sides on capital punishment, Trump in support and Biden newly opposed.
Editor’s Note: The Register’s Election 2020 series covers a range of key issues, including abortion, economy, education, environment/energy, marriage/family and religious liberty.
The 2020 Republican National Convention was marked by Catholic speakers singing President Donald Trump’s pro-life praises.
On the convention’s third night, for instance, Sister Deidre Byrne called Trump “the most pro-life president this nation has ever had, defending life at all stages,” drawing a stark contrast between Trump’s record on abortion and the records of those on the opposing ticket, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
But while Church leaders have celebrated the president’s defense of the unborn, they’re also asking their fellow Catholics to note a troubling policy turn under the Trump administration: the resumption of federal executions after a 17-year moratorium on the practice. Three men convicted of murder were executed in July, while two more were put to death the same week as the RNC convention.
“The Church’s opposition to the death penalty is clear, and we have made many requests that the federal government should not resume these executions,” said Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, in an Aug. 27 joint statement.
“Remembering the Lord’s call for mercy, we renew our plea: Stop these executions!” the bishops added, noting that two more federal inmates are scheduled to be put to death in September.
The Trump administration’s decision to resume federal executions, first announced by U.S. Attorney General William Barr, who identifies himself as Catholic, in July of 2019, comes amid recent emphasis in Church teaching on the unacceptability of capital punishment in the modern context.
In August 2018, Pope Francis revised the Catechism to teach that the death penalty is “inadmissible” and that the Church “works with determination for its abolition worldwide,” in what was described by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith as an “authentic development of doctrine.”
The Catechism, drawing from Pope St. John Paul’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, had previously acknowledged that, while “the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty,” the contemporary cases in which the death penalty could be justified “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent,” especially in countries where alternative means of protecting society from an unjust aggressor exist.
While there remains debate among theologians about whether recent changes to the Catechism should be received as definitive declarations on the nature of capital punishment as intrinsically evil or rather as pastoral guidance based in prudential reasoning, the U.S. bishops firmly teach that the practice must be ended in the country where they exercise spiritual governance.
“Our nation’s continued reliance on the death penalty cannot be justified,” say the bishops in the most recent edition of the USCCB’s “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” which advises Catholics to study the Church’s social teaching and apply it in their communities through civic action.
In an election year, the bishops’ conference encourages Catholics to include the candidates’ stated positions and actions related to the death penalty as one factor among many in the process of determining who will most effectively promote the common good.
Capital punishment does not have the same moral weight relative to an issue like abortion, which Forming Consciences describes — and the bishops forcefully reiterated at their fall 2019 gathering — as the “preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself, because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family, and because of the number of lives destroyed.” But the bishops also teach that it would be an error to “dismiss or ignore other serious threats to human life” that are less preeminent, such as the death penalty, when forming one’s conscience and assessing the candidates.
“The numbers of deaths via the death penalty of course pale in comparison to those of abortion, but Catholic teaching doesn’t defend human dignity on the basis of raw numbers,” Fordham University moral theologian Charles Camosy told the Register. “Whenever human dignity is assailed by violence, we must speak up and be heard. Human life doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to God.”
Policies and Platforms
In terms of the 2020 presidential election, the two major-party candidates have starkly different positions on the death penalty. President Trump’s support for capital punishment goes beyond his decision to resume federal executions.
In 2015 while campaigning, Trump promised that, if elected, he would enforce mandatory executions for convicted cop-killers; there has been no progress toward that goal, which legal experts say is unconstitutional.
Trump also has a long history of publicly calling for the death penalty in certain cases, a practice that has continued since his inauguration.
For instance, in 2017 the president tweeted, “Should move fast. DEATH PENALTY!” regarding Sayfullo Saipov, the man charged with killing eight people with a truck on Halloween of that year in Lower Manhattan.
Former Vice President Biden, meanwhile, recently shifted to oppose the death penalty, in a move that matches falling national support for the capital punishment, which reached an all-time low of 49% in 2016 before ticking back up to 54% in 2018, according to Pew Research.
As a senator, Biden supported the death penalty, and was the chief author of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. The legislation added 60 new offenses eligible for the death penalty under federal law.
Biden’s reversal on his long-standing support became official in June 2019, just before the Trump administration’s resumption of federal executions. Biden’s campaign website now calls for the elimination of the death penalty, basing this position largely on the prevalence of cases in which an individual is executed, only later to be found not guilty.
Requests made to the Biden campaign and two co-chairs of Catholics for Trump for further explanation of their candidate’s position were not met.
The two major parties’ platforms mirror their presidential candidates on this issue. After officially calling for the abolition of the death penalty for the first time in their 2016 platform, the Democratic Party reemphasized their stance in the platform put forward at this year’s convention.
The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, didn’t adopt a new platform this year, but instead offered an endorsement of President Trump’s “America-first agenda” and referenced its 2016 platform. That version noted the constitutionality of the death penalty before condemning “the Supreme Court’s erosion of the right of people to enact capital punishment in their states.”
Despite the differences between presidential candidates and party platforms, Catholic advocates for ending the death penalty note bipartisan support at the state level, where there have been significant gains in repealing the practice.
Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, executive director of Catholic Mobilizing Network, points out that in 2019 Republicans sponsored repeal bills in 10 separate states. In the past 11 years, Murphy says, eight states have abolished capital punishment while the governors of three more states have stopped enforcing the practice. Currently, there are 22 states and the District of Columbia that don’t legally allow the death penalty.
Others are trying to join that list. In Wyoming, Deacon Mike Leman says 2019 legislation to repeal the death penalty passed the House but came “a couple votes short” in the Senate during the state’s last non-budgetary legislative session. The deacon, who serves as the legislative liaison for Wyoming’s lone Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne, says the issue will be in play this coming session, as concerns about the $775,000 cost to keep the practice available, despite the fact that the state hasn’t executed anyone in decades, may bolster the anti-death penalty coalition.
“We want to get it off the books, so that our laws actually represent the values we hold,” said Deacon Leman, noting that “prudential excuses” to diverge from the Church’s pastoral guidance on the inadmissibility of capital punishment don’t apply in a place like Wyoming, where there are maximum-security options for violent criminals.
Beyond Election Day
Those advocating for an end to the death penalty like to acknowledge that, when it comes to voting, Catholics may have difficulty identifying candidates who uniformly follow Church teaching, respecting the dignity of all human life. Still, they encourage Catholics to take seriously the call to incorporate teaching on the death penalty as part of their conscience formation.
“Political and policy matters are certainly challenging, but it is also the place where Catholics can witness to our deeply-held beliefs and live out our faith in the public square,” said Murphy. “This is part of our sacred Catholic tradition. Seeking the common good is part of our rights and responsibilities in participating in democracy.”
Deacon Leman encourages Catholics to do their best on Election Day, but to also invest more energy into advocating on issues like repealing the death penalty the rest of the year.
“It’s a much bigger picture than ‘A’ or ‘B’ on one day in November,” he said. “We have to be integrated so that we can influence things, to hold our own party or whoever we vote for accountable.”
Register correspondent Jonathan Liedl writes from Minnesota.
Capital Punishment in the U.S.
While the death penalty is enforced at the federal level, the following states have abolished the practice:
District of Columbia