Attorney General William Barr’s announcement on Thursday that the federal government would resume executing death row inmates after a nearly two decade hiatus is coming under fire from national Catholic leaders.
Bishop Frank Dewane, chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, said he is “deeply concerned” by the move and urged the Trump administration to reconsider.
“In 2015 Pope Francis, echoing the views of his predecessors, called for ‘the global abolition of the death penalty.’ He went on to state that, ‘[A] just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.’ The Catholic Bishops of the United States have echoed this call for many years, including their 2005 statement, ‘A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death,’” Dewane said.
“In light of these long held and strongly maintained positions, I am deeply concerned by the announcement by the United States Justice Department that it will once again turn, after many years, to the death penalty as a form of punishment, and urge instead that these Federal officials be moved by God’s love, which is stronger than death, and abandon the announced plans for executions,” he continued.
Barr, a Catholic, ordered the Bureau of Prisons to schedule the executions of five inmates. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 62 individuals are on the federal death row.
The last federal execution took place in 2003.
“Under administrations of both parties, the Department of Justice has sought the death penalty against the worst criminals,” Barr said in a statement. “The Justice Department upholds the rule of law - and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”
In August 2018, Pope Francis announced that he was formally changing the Catechism of the Catholic Church to declare the practice “inadmissible.”
“The death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” reads the Catechism now, with the addition that the Church “works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”
This is a development from what the document, approved under Pope John Paul II in 1992, said on the matter, which allowed for it under the condition that it is necessary as “the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”
Last month, the USCCB voted 194-8 to update the U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults (USCCA) to reflect the updated language.
News of the announcement comes at a time when statewide executions are at an all-time low, with only 23 executions occurring in 2018.
Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, Executive Director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network against the Death Penalty responded to Thursday’s announcement by noting that “Resuming federal executions - especially by an administration that identifies itself as ‘pro-life’ - is wrong-headed and unconscionable.”
“In the 16 years since the federal government last conducted an execution, the American public has changed its collective thinking on the death penalty. As of October 2018, a record low of 49% of Americans believe the punishment is applied fairly, a result of mounting evidence of racial bias, arbitrariness, innocence, and other factors,” she continued in a statement.
“Twenty-five states have distanced themselves from the death penalty in some formal capacity, the two most recent being the state of California which fell under a governor-imposed execution ban in March, followed by New Hampshire which repealed the practice by legislative override in May,” she observed.
“The actions of the Federal government are meant to represent the values of the American people - values of equality, fairness, and for Catholics, above all, a belief in the sanctity of all human life,” Vaillancourt Murphy concluded. “The resumption of executions at the federal level flies in the face of these values, and promotes a culture of death where we so desperately need a culture of life.”
Long-time death row advocate and anti-death penalty activist, Sister Helen Prejean also weighed in, taking to Twitter to say she heard the news as she was about to board a flight to Alaska.
“The DOJ regresses as the rest of our country evolves,” she wrote.
“It is disheartening that the administration has chosen to follow the death road, when the life road calls us to work for justice for all,” she said in a statement. “Admittedly, following the life road demands more from us. It demands that we spurn myth-based thinking; that we educate ourselves on issues, policies and practice; that we reflect deeply; and that we commit ourselves to justice built from the ground up.”