Come out against death penalty

  • December 21, 2007

For Catholics and other Christians concerned with the advancement of justice, human rights and peace, 2007 has hardly been a year of encouragement. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on. The agony of Africa, afflicted by disease, war and famine, continued. And despite the pronouncements issued by the much-ballyhooed Bali conference, the world’s worst industrial polluters seemed as willing as ever to inflict long-term environmental damage in the interests of short-term economic gain.

Yet as the year was ending, some glimmers of hope appeared on the horizon. They were only glimmers — but they could also be openings toward brighter things in the new year and beyond.

One of these was the repeal, in mid-December, of the death penalty law in the U.S. state of New Jersey. It was the first such repeal by an American state in a generation. The move was immediately hailed by Catholic Bishop John M. Smith of Trenton, the state’s capital city, who said that legislators had shown “a great deal of courage” in taking a stand against the death penalty. In an interview with Catholic News Service, Smith said he hoped New Jersey’s repeal move would encourage other states to pass similar measures.

Smith also said he had been pleased to be a part of the repeal effort, and he noted that “there is confusion in the church” over the issue.

But how much “confusion” is there? Most Catholics in the United States seem to have made up their minds. A poll of American Catholics conducted in 2005 for the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops found that 48 per cent of those who responded favoured the death penalty, with 47 per cent opposed. These statistics are sobering. They suggest that, for roughly half of America’s resolutely pro-life Catholics, being pro-death is acceptable under certain circumstances. I see no “confusion” here — only more evidence that, on certain matters, American Catholics are prepared to ignore the clear teaching of the church and support the pro-death penalty stance that has long been popular in the United States.

Unfortunately, this position is the official policy of the current administration in Washington. In November, the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee approved a draft resolution calling for a global moratorium on executions. In the roll call of nations, 99 nations voted yes, 52 were opposed and 33 abstained. The United States was among the opponents, along with China, where the course of justice is unreliable and where executions go on at an industrial scale. Though not legally binding on member states, the resolution calls on the world community to restrict the use of the death penalty and to launch a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing them.

The resolution also urges member states that have abolished the death penalty not to re-introduce it. The good news here is that, since the Second World War, dozens of countries with many millions of people — including the nations of the European Union, Canada and Mexico — have outlawed the death penalty outright; and none of these places has shown much inclination to reverse its decision.

But even in the United States, the taste for capital punishment seems to be slipping. The U.S. watchdog group Catholics Against Capital Punishment reported last year that, according to an independent poll, “more Americans support alternative sentences of life without parole over the death penalty as punishment for murder.” Death sentences are at a 30-year low, and the number of people on death row has gone down. In several states, the death penalty has been ruled unconstitutional or been suspended for other reasons.

Whether the New Jersey initiative is an anomaly, or the start of a trend, remains to be seen. But the state’s decision comes as fresh encouragement to Catholics who are pro-life right down the line, with respect both to the innocent and to the guilty. Perhaps 2008 will see the beginning of a new movement to abolish the death penalty in the United States and everywhere else. It’s something to hope and pray for.

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