By REBECCA RAKOCZY, Special To The Bulletin | Published October 16, 2008
“It is one of the most difficult issues facing the faithful—but one of the most important life issues. It has caused a deep division within our church,” said Phillip Thompson, director of the Aquinas Center of Theology, as he introduced the night’s speaker and topic.
The “difficult issue” is the death penalty; the speaker was Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory who addressed a crowded Tull Auditorium at Emory University Law School Oct. 7. Archbishop Gregory’s talk, “The Catholic Church and the Death Penalty” kicked off the university’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion Decalogue lecture series, “When Law and Religion Meet.” The event was co-sponsored by the Aquinas Center of Theology. The lectures are designed to provide a forum for religious leaders to discuss difficult legal, moral and ethical issues facing their religious communities, said John Witte Jr., CSLR director.
“I came to present the rational stance of the church … I’m here not as an expert on civil jurisprudence, nor as a specialist in criminal justice, but as a pastor and teacher of the Catholic Church of Atlanta,” Archbishop Gregory told the crowd.
But as the head pastor of North Georgia’s 650,000 Catholics, the archbishop proceeded to give his audience a succinct history lesson about the biblical and Mosaic underpinnings of the church’s historical stance on capital punishment, with the prevalent theme of life, not death.
“The Catholic moral tradition shows an unambiguous preference to preserve life even when the order of justice is threatened and the safety of innocent life is at stake. While acknowledging the moral and legal prerogative of the state to execute criminals in strictly limited circumstances, the church pleads for restraint in the exercise of that prerogative. The moral requirement to protect the innocent stands alongside the imperative to stem the cycle of violence that keeps individuals and communities enslaved to vengeance,” he told the rapt audience.
The archbishop noted that since the 1970s, when the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. bishops have issued statements against the death penalty at least four times.
But it was 11 years ago, when the revised edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church was issued for 1.1 billion Catholics worldwide, that has caused the most debate among the faithful, he said.
That could be because the revised Catechism does not include the longstanding historical reference to the use of capital punishment as restitution to public order. It also minimizes the idea that capital punishment acts as a deterrent to others who might commit similar acts, he said.
“The Catholic Church approved in 1992 its first universal catechism in over four centuries. In the short span of time between the first edition of the text and the final official Latin version issued in 1997, some readers were surprised to discover that the purpose of capital punishment as restitution of public order had been removed from discussion,” the archbishop said. The 1997 version also reduced the “corresponding notion of capital punishment as deterrence to further capital crimes.”
The change in the catechism was probably due to the influence of Pope John Paul II and his encyclical, “On Human Life,” (Evangelium Vitae, 1995), which took up a number of moral issues related to the defense of human life and dignity, including the death penalty, Archbishop Gregory said.
The late pontiff claimed that the death penalty is “morally permissible only in those rare instances where it would not be possible otherwise to incarcerate someone safely and keep them from harming society.”
And today “such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent,” Archbishop Gregory said.
Still, the debate continues on the effectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrent to future crimes, even notably between two prominent Catholics, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ. Their 2002 articles in the Catholic magazine First Things, looked at both the pro and con views of capital punishment within the Catholic context.
“Much of our attention continues to focus on deterrence since the aspect of the debate continues to be central to the public debate,” the archbishop said.
He added that the “bishops conceded the death penalty defends society from the particular prisoner who committed the grave offense for which capital punishment was prescribed, yet registered serious doubt as to the deterrence value of executions in relation to those who might commit heinous crimes in the future. We bishops have also pointed out the alarming number of mistaken convictions of men and women on death row who were later exonerated. … We (U.S. bishops) are on record to say that the argument that executions deter potential offenders from capital crimes lacks empirical support.”
The archbishop has personally pleaded for clemency for death row inmate Troy Davis. Davis’ appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court for a review of his case was rejected Oct. 14, paving the way for his execution.
“The church cannot and must not replace the state but cannot remain on the sidelines. Our faith must stand as a reasonable voice to promote a culture of life, which means every human being is recognized to have an innate and inalienable value.”
After the talk, the archbishop answered questions candidly from the audience. One questioner asked why there was still a “window” for the death penalty within the church’s teaching. While acknowledging that window, the archbishop also noted the church’s universality and the sometimes limited means of other countries to safeguard their own populations as reasoning behind the use of capital punishment.
One questioner asked why more Catholics still have not embraced the pope’s teachings on the death penalty. Archbishop Gregory said, “I take the responsibility (in North Georgia) … in teaching, and I have not been universally successful and have not moved the hearts of the faithful.” He added that he has “received a lot of mail, asking why the church isn’t putting more emphasis on this issue.”
Archbishop Gregory noted that the church “can lay out its moral principles, but the application of capital punishment is in the legal world.”
“Currently 70 to 80 percent favor capital punishment; 50 percent favor life in prison without parole,” he said. “I think one thing that would prompt people to change … is what seems to be the cavalier sentencing in our judicial system. There doesn’t seem to be a consistency. There is a question, is a life sentence really a life sentence?”
“The church’s mission and teaching responsibility is something that we all share,” he told the audience. “The letters from concerned laity about justice and inequities and the penal system—the fact that laypeople are invested in it—is a source of comfort to me as bishop.”
He added that as is the case so many times, it is laypeople who are inspired and driven to implement the work of justice.
“The ultimate implementation of social change is going to come from laity and teachers.”
Amanda Brown, a first-year Emory clinical psychology graduate student, who attends the Catholic Center at the school, was drawn to the archbishop’s talk. “It is rare these days that religious arguments are brought out in a public setting, especially the relationship between law and religion. I thought I knew the church’s position, but clearly there are nuances I also was made aware of,” she said.
Paul Dusseault, a St. Thomas More parishioner, enjoyed the account of the history of the church’s position on capital punishment.
“The archbishop brought up important and salient points that were consistent with the church position, and the evolution of that position,” Dusseault said.
As co-facilitator of the Just Faith program at the Cathedral of Christ the King, Leslye Colvin discusses social justice issues. “The archbishop’s presentation related to what we were doing,” she said. “He brought a fresh perspective to the concept of the culture of life.”
Cathy Crosby of Pax Christi Atlanta said she also already knew the church’s position on the death penalty but was appreciative of the archbishop’s talk.
“It was good to hear him go through the entire tradition (of the treatment of capital punishment within the church’s teaching) but also show he is very aware that it is difficult and nuanced. This is real—these are the issues we grapple with as Catholics and as human beings.”
CSLR director Witte said he was pleased with the lecture and the group’s response.
“We chose Archbishop Gregory to open this series because of his unimpeachable record of moral courage, theological clarity, pastoral grace and creative thinking about the fundamental questions of life and death, crime and punishment. He certainly vindicated his high reputation and gave his audience a good sense of the wisdom of the Catholic tradition on the hard questions of capital punishment. He has set a high standard for the Muslim, Episcopal, Jewish and Native American leaders who follow him to the lectern.” The lectures will take place over a two-year period.
A Death Penalty Timeline
1974—The United States Catholic Conference declares its opposition to capital punishment.
1976—U.S. Supreme Court reinstates the death penalty.
1976—The Papal Commission on Justice and Peace expresses opposition to the use of capital punishment.
1980—The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issues “The Statement on Capital Punishment.”
2000—USCCB issues “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice.”
2005—USCCB institutes the educational “Catholic Campaign To End the Use of the Death Penalty.”
An edited text of Archbishop Gregory’s lecture will be available at the Catholic News Service documentary site, www.originsonline.com.