Utah’s governor will soon decide whether to approve a bill allowing the death penalty to be carried out by firing squad in his state, if lethal drugs aren’t available to do the job. A month from now, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in an Oklahoma case addressing the issue of lethal injection as cruel and unusual punishment. And, on March 4, a Vatican official addressed the Human Rights Council in support of a global moratorium on the use of the death penalty. These developments warrant our attention and action, even in Iowa, which abolished the death penalty a half-century ago.
We cannot accept our country’s callousness toward the dignity of every human life – guilty or innocent. We cannot remain silent when Utah lawmaker Paul Ray describes execution by firing squad as “a back-up” plan to lethal injection (www.theweek.co.uk). We can flood the Utah Legislature with messages that legislative and judicial practice must always be guided by the primacy of human life and the dignity of the human person, as Pope Francis has said.
Earlier this month, the editors of four diverse Catholic journals — America, National Catholic Register, National Catholic Reporter and Our Sunday Visitor — published an editorial urging readers, the whole U.S. Catholic community and people of faith “to stand with us and say, “Capital punishment must end.”
The March 5 editorial stated that “The Catholic Church in this country has fought against the death penalty for decades. Pope St. John Paul II amended the universal Catechism of the Catholic Church to include a de facto prohibition against capital punishment. Last year, Pope Francis called on all Catholics ‘to fight…for the abolition of the death penalty.’ The practice is abhorrent and unnecessary. It is also insanely expensive as court battles soak up resources better deployed in preventing crime in the first place and working toward restorative justice for those who commit less heinous crimes.”
National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty reports that 32 states still allow the death penalty. However, 30 states have not carried out an execution in the last five years. Iowa is one of just 18 states that banned what Pope Francis has also called “deliberate homicide.” Publicity about the agonizing deaths of several death-row inmates in recent years, and the fact that 150 innocent people have been freed from death row, caused at least a couple of states to declare a moratorium on executions.
Tom Chapman, executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference, says even though Iowa has no death penalty, the issue arises perennially in the Iowa Legislature. Earlier this session, a bill was introduced to reinstate the death penalty, but it had no traction. “There’s always a group of legislators who support bringing back the death penalty,” Chapman said. They truly believe that justice requires capital punishment in the case of someone who committed a heinous crime.
But the Catholic Church teaches that existing penal systems protect the public from dangerous criminals and make the death penalty unnecessary. In a 1998 statement, Iowa’s bishops said, “We oppose reinstatement of the death penalty to send a message that we can break the cycle of violence, that we need not take life for life. We oppose the reinstatement of the death penalty to manifest our belief in the unique worth and dignity of each person, made in the image and likeness of God. We oppose the reinstatement of the death penalty to give further testimony of our conviction that God is indeed the Lord of life. We oppose the reinstatement of the death penalty to follow the example of Jesus, who both taught and practiced the forgiveness of injustice.”
Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, in a statement thanking Pennsylvania’s governor for calling a moratorium on the death penalty, said: “killing the guilty does not honor the dead nor does in ennoble the living. When we take a guilty person’s life we only add to the violence in an already violent culture and we demean our own dignity in the process.”
Pray for abolition of the death penalty. Contact legislators and governors of the states that still allow the death penalty to advocate for its abolition, and thank God for the mercy granted to each of us every day.