Globe November 16, 2005
WASHINGTON — The US Conference of Catholic Bishops yesterday overwhelminglyapproved a new statement of opposition to capital punishment, asserting that it contributes to a culture of death and violence in the United States.
It was the bishops’ first comprehensive statement on the death penalty in 25years, and coincided with the debate in the Massachusetts House of Representatives on a proposal to reinstate capital punishment in the Bay State. Massachusetts is one of 12 states in which the death penalty is prohibited.
The bishops, who are holding their annual meeting in Washington, said their longtime opposition to capital punishment is being renewed and strengthened by new teachings and new support for abolition of the death penalty growing out of the Gospel of Life encyclical issued by the late Pope John Paul II.
Citing John Paul’s teachings, the bishops declared that ”the death penalty is not intrinsically evil, as is the taking of human life through abortion or euthanasia,” but ”in contemporary society, where the state has other, nonlethal means to protect its citizens, the state should not use the death penalty.”
Archbishop Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, who has strongly opposed the restoration of capital punishment in Massachusetts since Governor Mitt Romney proposed reinstating it last year, said in an interview that a ”seachange” is occurring among Catholics, who in the past have shown strong support for the death penalty.
”I think the abortion issue raised this up,” O’Malley said. ”As people began realizing that the dignity of human life was being diminished by abortion, it caused them to consider other ways in which the dignity of human life was being diminished.”
Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of the Diocese of Brooklyn, who led the effort to formulate the new bishops’ statement on the death penalty, told the assembly in Washington that the statement ”is a call to reject the tragic illusion that we can demonstrate respect for life by taking life, that we can teach that killing is wrong by killing those who kill others.”
He and other bishops argued that polling results, recent declines inexecutions, and parallel decreases in death sentences are evidence thatpublic and political sentiments are turning against capital punishment. Hesaid the exoneration of more than 100 people who have been proven innocent after being condemned to die was bringing home to the public the flawed andbiased nature of capital punishment.
The bishops drew a strong distinction between the church’s stance on capital punishment and its absolute opposition to abortion and euthanasia, stating that the death penalty was an issue on which ”people of good will can disagree.”
At a news conference following the passage of the statement, DiMarzio said ”there would not even be a question of refusing Communion” to Catholic politicians who advocate or enforce the death penalty.
Demonstrators have appeared periodically outside the hotel where the bishops are meeting with posters urging priests to ”bravely refuse Holy Communion”to Catholic US senators who depart from church teachings on abortion. Their posters name, among others, Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, and Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut.
– – – – -Charles A. Radin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.