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Zeal to end death penalty growing


The death of the death penalty may occur in Rome July 9. On that Sunday the pope will visit a prison in Rome and, as a part of the Jubilee Year, call for a moratorium on the death penalty and issue a condemnation of inhumane prison conditions.

The “Jubilee Day for the Imprisoned” will be replicated throughout the world with the participation of bishops and prison chaplains.

Pope John Paul II has also strengthened the condemnation of the death penalty by removing from the words in Section 2266 of the Catholic Catechism the statement that the death penalty could be imposed “in cases of extreme gravity.” The pope calls executions “cruel and unnecessary.”

In the United States activities against the death penalty by Catholics at every level are intense. In Pennsylvania, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, speaking for all the bishops of his state, testified on behalf of a state Senate resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty. Republican Gov. Tom Ridge, who has signed almost 200 death warrants in his five years in office, opposes the bill. The testimony of Bevilacqua reinforces a resolution of the Philadelphia City Council that called for a moratorium on executions in Pennsylvania by a tally of 12-4.

In a statement, the three Catholic bishops of the state of Washington conceded, “Some Catholics may not be aware of how the church’s teaching about capital punishment has developed.” The two Catholic bishops of North Carolina issued a similar statement on Good Friday. In a dramatic confrontation, the Catholic bishops of Texas have asked Gov. George W. Bush to suspend executions. The bishops pointed out that there are 463 persons sentenced to death in Texas and that “there are strong claims that some of them have not had full access to the courts.”

Death penalty opponents have stressed not only the basic wrongness of capital punishment, but have pointed out that while 610 people have been executed throughout the nation since 1976, during that same period 85 persons have been released from death row. This phenomenon may well mean that a significant number of convicts who have not committed murder are executed.

Other anti-death penalty actions are gaining momentum. In Oregon, the organizers of a campaign to hold a referendum on the death penalty on the November ballot feel confident that they will have the necessary 89,000 signatures before the July 7 deadline. Philippine President Joseph Estrada, in response to a request by the country’s Catholic bishops, has imposed a moratorium on all executions until January 2001. The Moratorium 2000 movement was organized with the hope that 1 million signatures will be on a petition to be delivered by Sr. Helen Prejean to the United Nations on Human Rights Day, Dec. 10.

A new study on the death penalty by the National Jewish/Catholic Consultation urges its abolition. The joint document results from an extensive study of the collective wisdom of Judaism and Catholicism. Cardinal William Keeler released the document, expressing the hope that “it will be studied, prayed over and used on occasion for dialogue leading toward joint interreligious witness to society as a whole.”

The bad news is that apparently the Clinton White House will not allow the death penalty to become an issue in the campaign. This, despite the fact that Attorney General Janet Reno said Jan. 20, “I have inquired for most of my adult life about studies that might show that the death penalty is a deterrent. And I have not seen any research that would substantiate that point.”

Reno, a life-long prosecutor, has conceded that there is no evidence for the argument based on deterrence. Can we conclude therefore that the myth of deterrence is a front that serves as a cover for the primal urge for revenge?

More information on the amazing development in the way Catholics look on the death penalty is covered in the news notes of Catholics Against Capital Punishment on their Web site (http://www.igc.org/cacp).

The pope’s new pronouncements to come July 9 may not receive significant world attention. But they will reinforce and supplement his own striking words in his letter, “The Gospel of Life,” in which he affirmed, “Not even the murderer loses his personal dignity.”

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

National Catholic Reporter, June 16, 2000