WASHINGTON (May 24, 2000) -- In a speech at the National Press Club today, Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony said abolition of the death penalty is an authentically pro-life position, and called for a "moral revolution" to address the problems which lead to violent crime.
"This is a time for a new ethic—justice without vengeance," Cardinal Mahony said. "Let us come together to hold people accountable for their actions, to resist and condemn violence, to stand with victims of crime and to insist that those who destroy community, answer to the community. But let us also remember that we cannot restore life by taking life, that vengeance cannot heal and that all of us must find new ways to defend human life and dignity in a far too violent society."
As part of the National Press Club's regular "News Maker Luncheons," Cardinal Mahony outlined the Church's teaching on the death penalty and offered a Catholic perspective on recent developments. He noted that the Church's teaching on capital punishment has evolved over time, but that today, the death penalty cannot be tolerated if other means of meting out justice and protecting society exist.
Quoting from Pope John Paul II's encyclical The Gospel of Life, he said "'the nature and executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.' He goes on to say '... as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.'"
Cardinal Mahony acknowledged that the crime and violence in our society demand justice, but he reminded his audience that the purpose of punishment should never be vengeance. He recalled the example set by Pope John Paul in response to the gunman who nearly assassinated him in 1981.
He also spoke of Bud Welch, whose daughter was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing. Welch, who was denied an opportunity to testify at the trial of convicted bomber Timothy McVeigh because of his opposition to the death penalty, has argued that "capital punishment only deepens the emotional wounds opened by the initial act of violence rather than healing them," Cardinal Mahony said.
He referred to some recent polling numbers which indicate that support for the death penalty may be declining in the United States. According to a recent ABC News poll, support for the death penalty has dropped from 70% to 64% in the last few years; a TIME Magazine poll online showed only 43% support for the death penalty.
"Now, even some death penalty supporters are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the status quo" the Cardinal said. "The arbitrary manner in which the death penalty is sometimes applied; the disproportionate number of racial and ethnic minorities and low-income persons on death row; the fiscal burdens borne by penal institutions; and, most disturbingly, the mounting evidence that innocent people have been convicted and sentenced to death—all these factors have sown considerable doubt in the minds of elected officials and the public at-large."
He said simple solutions rarely address complex problems. Instead, he called for "a moral revolution," which begins with real respect for life.
"This will be a long struggle," Cardinal Mahony said. "It begins by raising new doubts about the death penalty. It will require new and more serious efforts to address crime and reform prisons.
But in the end, we cannot practice what we condemn. We cannot defend life by taking life. We cannot contain violence by using state violence."
NOTE: Full text of Cardinal Mahony's speech (www.nccbuscc.org/sdwp/national)