Last week, Nebraska became the 19th state to abolish the death penalty and advocates say California has a very real chance of becoming the 20th.
“The decision in Nebraska is part of a national movement … away from the death penalty,” said Javier Stauring, co-director of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Office for Restorative Justice.
“I’m optimistic; I think it’s positive times,” he said. “I have no doubt that we will end the death penalty in California and nationwide.”
Archbishop José H. Gomez, his brother bishops and even Pope Francis have been outspoken in their opposition to the death penalty. However, capital punishment is one of those issues about which Catholics can — and often do — have differing opinions.
The Church does not exclude the possibility of the death penalty. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that states have the right and the duty “to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense” — including the penalty of death when an offense is grave enough.
Proportional punishment is one reason Ed Feser, a California-based Catholic author and scholar, believes the death penalty should stay in place. Feser said some crimes — including mass murder — are so heinous that death is the only proportionate punishment.
“To abandon capital punishment altogether is implicitly to abandon the principle that a punishment should be proportional to the crime, and it is therefore to abandon the very idea of punishment,” he said.
“And if that goes, the whole idea of criminal justice really goes with it,” he added. “Capital punishment is therefore necessary to anchor our very sense of justice.”
Yet, Stauring said, justice is also the driving force behind his staunch opposition to the death penalty.
“We want justice,” Stauring said. “We all want justice. But there are different forms of justice and … we need to aim higher than revenge when we talk about justice.”
Disagreements over justice aside, Stauring believes the modern death penalty system in California is a broken system that is beyond repair.
For one, the death penalty is expensive. A 2011 study suggested California taxpayers have spent more than $4 billion on the death penalty since it was reinstated in 1978. The authors of the study said costs could reach $9 billion by 2030.
The death penalty system in California is also scandalously slow. About half of California’s 750 death row inmates are waiting for the funding to appeal their sentences.
But the solution is not expediting the process; even with the slow system, more than 150 U.S. inmates convicted and sentenced to death have been found innocent.
A federal judge went so far as to temporarily suspend the death penalty in California on the grounds that it violates laws against cruel and unusual punishment because of delays.
“Indeed, for most, systemic delay has made their execution so unlikely that the death sentence carefully and deliberately imposed by the jury has been transformed into one no rational jury or legislature could ever impose: life in prison, with the remote possibility of death,” Judge Cormac Carney said in the July ruling.
Political scientist Joseph Bessette is the first to admit the inefficiency of the state and federal courts in California. But, he said, delays are no reason to abolish the death penalty completely because even with the delays, the death penalty serves as a deterrence and as retribution.
“And note that the deterrent effect can operate on two levels,” he said. “At one level is the calculation by the potential offender, but at a deeper level is the effect that such a clear moral message can have on those who grow up in a society that gives vicious murderers the punishment they deserve.”
Stauring doesn’t think so.
“The effect that the death penalty has on our society is one that diminishes our humanity and the value of human life,” Stauring said. “Killing people to make the point that killing is wrong just makes us all a little less human.”
In his 1995 encyclical “Evangelium Vitae,” St. John Paul II wrote, “[Punishment] ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.
“Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”
The pope said later, during a 1999 Mass in St. Louis, Missouri, “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. ... I renew the appeal I made ... for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.”
Feser said, “The tendency of recent popes and other churchmen to oppose capital punishment can, in the nature of the case, only properly be understood as a prudential application of moral principle and neither as a reversal nor even as a development of past teaching.”
Regardless of their differing opinions, Catholic advocates for and against the death penalty all agree that the faithful have a responsibility to be informed and involved.
And the time for California Catholics to get informed and involved is now.
Stauring said there is a strong possibility that the 2016 ballot will include an initiative to repeal the death penalty in the state. The measure would be modeled after a similar measure that was narrowly defeated in 2012.
“Catholics can play a very significant role,” Stauring said. “I think that advocates who strategize in work against the death penalty really look at Catholics as that key piece to help them end the death penalty.”
Those interested in getting involved in efforts to repeal the death penalty in California can connect with the archdiocesan-sponsored organization “Catholics Against the Death Penalty.”
Those interested in exploring the defense of capital punishment from a Catholic perspective can check out Feser and Bessette’s upcoming book, which has the working title, “By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment.”