Justice: Denied Magazine is honored to present an article by Bishop Fiorenza about the Catholic Church stance on the death penalty. We thank Bishop Fiorenza and the Knights of Columbus Supreme Council for permission to reprint this article from Columbia Magazine in January 2000. Columbia is the official magazine of the Knights of Columbus, the 118-year-old, 1.6-million member Catholic fraternal organization. The article was subtitled "Living the Gospel of Life Means Accepting Church Teaching on Capital Punishment." Author Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza is president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and Bishop of the Diocese of Galveston-Houston, Texas.

Our readers differ in opinions about some stands of the Catholic Church but unite with it in regard to the death penalty. JD takes no position on abortion or other matters properly left to individual conscience, for the abolitionist community has supporters on both sides. The Catholic position, as we understand it, is founded on the "seamless web" argument about respect for life under all conditions.


By Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza

With increasing clarity, the Church is calling all believers to live fully a "Gospel of life." In my address to you at last August's 117th Annual Supreme Council Meeting, I applauded your leadership in the fight against the violence of abortion. Few Catholic groups have done more for this cause than the Knights of Columbus.

I also asked for your help in ending the death penalty in the United States. In this brief article, I wish to share with you both the Church's teaching on this matter and a powerful story of love and forgiveness.

In 1995, Pope John Paul II issued an important pro-life encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life). Early in that document, the pope proclaims that all human life is under the Church's "maternal care." He reminds us that there remain age-old threats to life -- poverty, hunger, endemic diseases, violence and war -- as well as new threats including abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide.

The Holy Father also recounts in his encyclical the first murder: that of Cain against his brother Abel. God's punishment of this horrible crime was not death but banishment, allowing Cain time to come to grips with his crime and to overcome his anger and envy. God even went so far as to "put a mark on Cain" to protect him from those who would want to avenge Abel's death. "Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity," says John Paul II.

Yet today we live in an age when dignity is denied the thousands of men and women who live on the nation's death rows. Yes, these people have committed atrocious crimes. I fully realize that the surviving victims of those murdered continue to face enormous pain and loss over the murder of a loved one. The Church must accompany them through a painful journey from deep sorrow, anger and despair to some measure of peace. This journey can take years, but we must, as people who believe in a loving and comforting God, walk with them every step of the way.

But the Church must also walk with those who have caused such terrible pain. They, too, are made in the image and likeness of God. This work can be very difficult because many of them may never come to grips with the horrible crimes they have committed and the lives they have destroyed. Yet the Church's teaching about human life and human dignity call us to compassion and love.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus teaches us again and again about a God who is merciful and kind and who wants us to live life in abundance. The consistent thread throughout the Gospels is that of love, not hate; justice, not vengeance. Jesus Christ our Savior, himself the victim of the death penalty, did not condemn his executioners, but forgave them.

This past summer, at a gathering of 3,500 Catholics in Los Angeles, I heard a man speak about his own pain and suffering over the loss of his 23-year-old daughter in the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh. Bud Welch recalls his daughter Julie with the love that only a father could have for his child. Julie worked as a Spanish interpreter in the Social Security office and, according to experts, was probably only a few steps away from safety when the bomb exploded. She was one of the last victims pulled from the rubble.

As Welch explains it, there were months after the loss of Julie that, given the chance, he would have killed McVeigh himself. So deep and raw were his emotional wounds that he called this period of time "temporary insanity." But there was a voice in the back of his head -- Julie's voice -- saying that the death penalty was not the answer to his loss.

You see Julie had, in her young life, already come to the conclusion that the death penalty is revenge, and revenge is counter to God's message of love. On a drive one afternoon she had told her father as much. Even in her death, she reminded her dad that death is not the answer.

As Bud Welch began to surface from his despair, he came to the conclusion that the hatred he was feeling toward Timothy McVeigh was much like the hatred and venom that had apparently built up in McVeigh and led him to destroy Julie and 167 others. It was then that he began his work against the death penalty. Bud Welch came to see that the answer to violence was not more violence. It was, as Julie had said, love. In this spirit of love he has even visited with Timothy McVeigh's father and sister to tell them that he does not blame them for what Tim had done and that he would work tirelessly to see that he was spared the death chamber.

Since 1974, the U.S. bishops have expressed their disapproval of the use of the death penalty in the United States. Most recently, we issued, "A Good Friday Appeal to End the Death Penalty" (April 2, 1999). We did so in response to the Holy Father's exhortation in St. Louis earlier in the year:

"The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life in every situation. A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary."

The Church's teaching on the death penalty has unfolded over time. Recognizing extreme evil, the early Church taught that there were instances when the only way to protect society was to execute the offender.

But in 1997, the new Catechism of the Catholic Church was updated to reflect a different view, one that was articulated in Evangelium Vitae: We now have better means to protect society and should never resort to execution.

Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, the recognition of every life as a gift from God and the increasing emphasis on human dignity, have forced us to think carefully about the tremendous assaults on human life, including the death penalty.

Our American society, perhaps more than any other, promotes and even glorifies violence. Movies and television programs often are a testimony to this tragic reality. In the U.S. bishops' 1994 statement, "Confronting a Culture of Violence," we recognized that:

"Increasingly, our society looks to violent measures to deal with some of our most difficult social problems -- millions of abortions to address problem pregnancies, advocacy of euthanasia and assisted suicide to cope with the burdens of age and illness, and increased reliance on the death penalty to deal with crime. We are tragically turning to violence in the search for quick and easy answers to complex human problems. A society, which destroys its children, abandons its old, and relies on vengeance fails fundamental moral tests. Violence is not the solution; it is the most clear sign of our failures. Too often we seem to be unable to resolve our most intractable problems without resorting to violence."

Young people seem particularly vulnerable to such messages. The pervasiveness of abortion, the recent school shootings (though admittedly rare), the violence in our movies and on our television, the violent talk and gestures, the racism (still a significant problem in our country), the poverty of so many children, all lead to more violence.

It is the view of the Holy Father and of the U.S. bishops that the death penalty serves only to contribute to the culture of violence.

We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing. It is not only what the death penalty does to the offender, but what it does to us: It undermines our respect for life.

There are also many practical reasons to be against the death penalty. With the necessary levels of appeals and special "death rows," it is more costly than life without parole. It is applied disproportionately to the poor and minorities and is applied indiscriminately.

Of the 17,000 people who commit murder each year, roughly 2,000 are eligible for the death sentence and about 250 will actually receive a sentence of death. The death of an inmate creates additional grief and suffering for another set of victims, those of his or her family. Finally, there has been and will continue to be the awful mistake of executing an innocent person.

I know that many of you, like all of us, struggle with this issue. The horrible crimes committed by some of the condemned evoke strong emotions. But I hope you will join me in praying about this issue, reflecting more fully on Church teaching, and engaging your family, friends, brother Knights and others in thoughtful dialogue about this issue. We all look forward to the day when we respect life so much we won't take any life through any means.

A booklet on the development of Church teaching on capital punishment from the Old Testament to Pope John Paul II is available from the Knights of Columbus Catholic Information Service.

Entitled Catholics and Capital Punishment: The Morality of Capital Punishment According to Church Teaching (#302, English and Spanish), the 28-page booklet by Dominican Father Augustine Judd helps clear up confusion about what the Church teaches and why she teaches it.

Individual copies are available for 50 each from the Knights of Columbus, PO Box 1971, New Haven, CT 06521-1971. Contact the KofC's Catholic Information Service at 203-772-2130, Ext. 397, for pricing information on orders of 100 or more booklets.

Justice Denied