(Editor’s note: The proposed death penalty is off the table this year. It failed to advance in the Senate after The Catholic Messenger went to press.)
(This is the first in a series of editorials on obstacles to human dignity and flourishing.)
At press time, Iowa lawmakers were debating whether to advance legislation that would reinstate the death penalty, 53 years after it was abolished. Iowa’s Catholic bishops, compelled by church teaching on the dignity of all human life, issued a statement last week that “the cycle of violence can be broken without taking life.” (Read the statement on Page 1.)
Whether or not State Senate Bill (SSB) 3134 advances in the Iowa Legislature discussion of the death penalty merits our participation because of its impact on the dignity and flourishing of every human being. It symbolizes the ice cap of the flaws in our societal institutions that we must expose and remedy.
Iowa’s bishops point out that the application of the death penalty in the U.S. is deeply flawed because of racial bias, the conviction of innocent people, the expense and lengthiness of the process, and the perpetuation of violence. More than 160 persons nationwide have been found innocent on death row. How many more innocent inmates have been executed?
The Death Penalty Information Center reports that 41 percent of death row inmates are black and 13 percent are Hispanic. U.S. Census figures show that 13.3 percent of the population is black or African American while 17.8 percent of the population is Hispanic or Latino. White persons represent 76 percent of the U.S. population, but 42 percent of death row inmates.
“Over 75 percent of the murder victims in cases resulting in an execution were white, even though nationally only 50 percent of murder victims are generally white,” the Death Penalty Information Center states. Why are people of color more likely to be executed?
Iowa’s proposed death penalty bill would be limited to persons who kidnap, sexually abuse and murder a child; kill a peace officer in the line of duty; or kill more than one person. If the death penalty is justifiable, why exclude the killers of other victims?
At present, Iowa is one of 19 states that do not impose the death penalty; 31 states do. Catholic Mobilizing Network, declaring that the death penalty contradicts the Catholic Church’s pro-life teaching and is unjust, launched the National Campaign to End the Death Penalty last year. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops made a $50,000 grant toward the campaign.
Consider reflecting this Lent on Catholic Mobilizing Network’s observation: “The prolonged nature of the death penalty process can perpetuate the trauma for victims’ families and prevents the opportunity for healing and reconciliation called for in the message of Jesus Christ.”
Consider the words of Pope Francis, who believes the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s discussion of the death penalty needs to be even more explicitly against capital punishment. He said the death penalty is contrary to the Gospel, that all lives are sacred in the eyes of the Creator and that God is the true judge and guarantor.
Take the National Catholic Pledge to End the Death Penalty (catholicsmobilizing.org), which commits us to educating, advocating and praying for the end of the death penalty. We need to learn about the injustices of the death penalty, including the ways it risks innocent life, fails victims’ families, and contradicts the Catholic Church’s pro-life teaching. We need to advocate for the dignity of all life, including those who are on death row and awaiting execution, and work to keep the death penalty out of Iowa and abolish it in the United States.
Visit the Iowa Legislature website at legis.iowa.gov to read the death penalty bill and to contact your state legislators to oppose it. Go to the Iowa Catholic Conference website at iowacatholicconference.org for insights on the issue and action alerts. View the USCCB website at usccb.org for church teaching and resources on the death penalty.
Pray for mercy and healing for all who are involved in the criminal justice system: victims of crime and their families, those in prison and on death row, communities where crimes are committed, and all who work in the legislative system.
Iowa has the means to keep us safe from convicted killers. We, as people of faith, believe that God is the author of life and values each one, no matter the circumstances. That’s why the death penalty must not return.
Editor Barb Arland-Fye