United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
on behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
to the Judiciary Committee
of the United States Senate
Washngton, D.C., September 28. 1989
I wish to take this opportunity to thank the Judiciary Committee of the United States Senate for inviting me to offer testimony on behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Although this testimony, indeed these hearings, focus on the use of the death penalty itself, I want to state unequivocally that we are also deeply concerned for the victims of crime. As pastors, we feel and share the suffering of families torn apart by crime. We believe there are practical steps society can take to redress the suffering and loss crime brings to its victims and to the communities in which they reside. Compensation should be considered for financial and other losses. Our human care and concern for the victims of crime will enable us to achieve greater justice for all involved.
The Catholic Bishops of the United States are deeply committed to defending the sanctity of human life. This belief stands in contradiction to the widespread practice of abortion, the lack of concern for the poor, the continued acceptance of racial and sexual discrimination, and the self-destructive use of drugs. It is also troubling that there is a growing acceptance and use of the death penalty.
While various life issues are different and require separate analysis, we believe a consistent ethic of life suggests that the death penalty is not an appropriate response to crime in our contemporary society. The rapid increase in the large number of people on death row and the increased frequency of executions constitute a frightening reality.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is opposed to capital punishment. While not denying that the state has a right to employ the death penalty, the United States Catholic Bishops first declared their opposition to the use of the death penalty in 1974. The opposition has been reaffirmed many times since.
We believe abolition of the death penalty would promote values which are important to us as citizens. Moreover, we are opposed to S.32, a bill which would establish procedures for the imposition of the death penalty by the federal government.
We believe human Life is so precious that the state should not take the Life of any person, even one who has taken another life. Society must send a message that we can break the cycle of violence, that we need not take Life for Life.
As a civilized society, we must struggle to find more humane, more hopeful, and more effective responses to violent crime. Each of us bears a responsibility to foster an attitude in a broader society which affirms human life and rejects vengeance as a means of promoting justice.
The bishops gave explicit attention to this issue in a statement issued on November 13, 1980. In that statement the bishops said:
Crime is both a manifestation of the great mysteries of evil and human freedom and an aspect of the very complex reality that is contemporary society. We should not expect simple or easy solutions to what is a profound evil, and even less should we rely on capital punishment to provide such a solution.
In 1988, the Catholic Bishops of Illinois said, "To take a human life, even that of someone who is not innocent, is awesome and tragic. It seems to us and others that, in our culture today, there are not sufficient reasons to justify the state continuing to exercise its right in this manner."
A major concern for us is not only the death penalty itself, but also how it is applied. We appreciate the fact that this bill recognizes the influence of prejudice and discrimination within the criminal justice system and seeks special precautions to prevent discrimination. As a nation we should face up to the discriminatory aspects of the death penalty. A disproportionate number of those in prison and on death row are poor and non-white and unable to avail themselves of the best legal resources.
Abolition of the death penalty will not eliminate discrimination based on race or income in our criminal justice system. Racist attitudes and the social consequences of racism in many instances influence the determination of who is sentenced to die in our society. Moreover, it is a scandal that, according to this bill, a minor child of only sixteen years of age who commits a capital crime could be tried and executed. We do not regard this as acceptable. While S.32 acknowledges the presence of discrimination in criminal proceedings, it does little to remedy the institutional racism in a capital trial.
Ultimately, the question before us should be: How do we best preserve human life and the dignity of all persons, while at the same time ensuring respect for law and the protection of society? Our answer to this question will determine the kind of society we choose to be. We seek a society of justice, not vengeance and violence. We believe a determined, though compassionate, response to crime that forgoes the violence of the death penalty is more consistent with respect for all human life. It will better protect the rights of all persons.
In conclusion, we encourage this committee to reject the use of the death penalty at the federal level. By rejecting S.32, you can send a clear message of leadership in the effort to preserve and enhance human life and human dignity in our society. This kind of leadership can help foster a serious effort to develop humane and effective alternatives to the death penalty and to help heal some of the divisions in our society. Let us create an environment in our society in which all human life is cherished, violence is shunned, and punishment leads to reform.