WASHINGTON (February 10, 2000) -- The President of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference has urged President Clinton to propose a suspension of all federal executions.
"As you know, the Catholic bishops in the United States have long called for an end to the death penalty," Bishop Fiorenza said. "Today, I write to add my voice to others who have called for a suspension of federal executions. In the wake of Governor George Ryan's courageous step to stop executions in the State of Illinois, I pray that you will use your office to put a stop to this brutal and unnecessary punishment."
The Illinois moratorium, announced last week, was the result of several wrongful convictions of death row inmates that have come to light in recent months.
A copy of Bishop Fiorenza's letter was sent to Attorney General Janet Reno.
In the letter, Bishop Fiorenza called attention to recent actions and statements by Pope John Paul II which highlight the Church's aversion to capital punishment He noted that during the Pope's visit to St. Louis in January, 1999, the governor of Missouri spared the life of a condemned man at the Holy Father's request.
"And recent statements by the Holy Father demonstrate his continuing conviction that there are better ways to protect society that are more in keeping with the dignity of all people, even those who have taken the life of another," Bishop Fiorenza continued. "The Pope has said that because of our ability to keep society safe from aggressors, the need to execute individuals has become 'rare if not practically non-existent.'"
Practical reasons to be against the death penalty, according to Bishop Fiorenza, include its arbitrary application, its cost, inadequate counsel, the possibility of executing wrongly convicted people, and racial disparities. "We use such arguments in our efforts to convince Catholics and others to stop supporting this practice," the Bishop wrote. "But we also condemn the death penalty because of what it does to us as a society. We believe that the death penalty, along with legalized abortion and assisted suicide, contributes to a culture of death by saying that some lives are expendable. Such a message is in stark contrast to Jesus' message of love and life. As we said in our Good Friday Appeal to End the Death Penalty (April 2, 1999):
'Increasing reliance on the death penalty diminishes us and is a sign of growing disrespect for human life. We cannot overcome crime by simply executing criminals, nor can we restore the lives of the innocent by ending the lives of those convicted of their murders. The death penalty offers the tragic illusion that we can defend life by taking life.'"We urge you to propose a suspension of all federal executions in light of these arguments," Bishop Fiorenza wrote.
There are 21 people on federal death row at the present time. No one has been executed at the federal level since 1963 but at least one execution is expected in the relatively near future. Juan Raul Garza, convicted in 1993 under the federal drug kingpin statute for murders committed in Brownsville, Texas, was recently moved to a facility in Terre Haute, Indiana, which houses the new federal lethal injection chamber.