Death Penalty Target of Catholic Leaders

By Drinan, Robert F. | National Catholic Reporter, May 16, 1997 | Go to article overview
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Death Penalty Target of Catholic Leaders


Drinan, Robert F., National Catholic Reporter


The vigor of the opposition to the death penalty from the Holy See down to diocesan officials constitutes one of the most dramatic developments in recent Catholic teaching and practice. Catholic authorities continue to be active and articulate on the subject.

Cardinal Fiorenzo Angelini, 80, outgoing president of the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers, called the death penalty "barbaric." It is an "unacceptable contradiction," he said, for opponents of abortion to support the death penalty. This position fortifies the Holy Father's opposition to the death penalty as expressed in his 1995 encyclical "The Gospel of Life." L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's official newspaper, echoed that teaching when, in writing about a convict on death row in the United States, it described capital punishment as "immoral." The article supported Pope John Paul II's plea for clemency for Joseph O'Dell, whose execution in Virginia has been postponed by the U.S. Supreme Court. L'Osservatore wrote that the death penalty fails to deter criminal acts and violates human dignity and the "universally proclaimed inviolable right to life."

America's bishops have in the recent past protested the death penalty in a variety of ways. Archbishop Elden F. Curtiss of Omaha, Neb., asserted that the church's developing opposition to the death penalty derives from "our deep sense that all human life is always sacred." Archbishop William B. Friend of Shreveport, La., asserted that, since the abolition of the death penalty in no way leads to an increase in crime, one of the principal arguments for capital punishment collapses.

The bishops of Kentucky are working to prevent the revival of the death penalty in their state after a 35-year hiatus. They have reissued their 1984 pastoral against capital punishment. Louisville Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly, OP, wrote: "No human life, no matter how wretched and how miserable, is without worth."

Bishop Joseph V. Adamec of Altoona-Johnstown in Pennsylvania, the prelate for the city were all executions in that state are carried out, argued that the death penalty undermines the objectives of the penal system: correction and rehabilitation. The only purpose for the death penalty, he reasoned, is revenge and retribution, motivations that cannot be morally justified.

Catholic bishops, Catholic state conferences and Catholic newspapers are actively engaged in campaigns in several states to halt executions or prevent resumption of the death penalty.

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