Family Life/Respect Life: Abolish the Death Penalty
Bishop Howard Hubbard on the Death Penalty
January 25, 2005
Testimony by Most. Rev. Howard J. Hubbard, Bishop of Albany,
before a joint hearing of the Assembly Codes,
Corrections and Judiciary Committees.
Good morning Assembly Speaker Silver, Assembly members Aubry, Lentol, Weinstein and other distinguished members of the New York State Assembly. I am Howard Hubbard, Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany and Chairman of the New York State Catholic Conference Public Policy Committee. Founded in 1916, the Catholic Conference represents all the Bishops of New York State in matters of public policy. I speak here today on behalf of the New York State Catholic Conference, providing a unified voice for the eight dioceses of the Empire State.
The Catholic Church is the largest non-profit provider of education, health care and human services in the state. Catholic schools, charitable agencies, hospitals and countless other faith-based programs exist in all counties of this state, providing services to the most vulnerable, poor, oppressed and unprotected members of the human community. Our Catholic tradition compels us to be active participants in civic life, to help shape a more just world that upholds the dignity of every individual, and to serve those in need. We comment today to offer our moral perspective on the critical issue of the death penalty.
We applaud you for holding these hearings to examine the complexities, nuances, and moral dimensions of capital punishment, as well as new data which have become available since the death penalty was reinstated in our state in 1995. Opening the public policy process to real dialogue and discussion on crucial matters of public debate is a step in the direction of genuine legislative reform, which we heartily endorse.
Time and again in the course of my 41 years of priestly ministry, I have listened to the heart-wrenching stories of mothers, fathers, husbands and wives who have lost their beloved sons, daughters, brothers and sisters to violent crime. They share beautiful memories of their loved ones and grief that is too deep for words. The way in which innocent lives have been snuffed out in an instant by a brutal act of madness, leads to unimaginable pain for those left to mourn.
I also have a nephew who is a New York State trooper. Each time he goes on duty his life is on the line and his wife and four children are in danger of losing a husband and father. So in offering testimony today, I am not unaware of the danger law enforcement agents and their families experience, of the trauma of victims families nor of the fear of the general community in the face of violent crime. Indeed, on a human level, horrific crimes of violence seem to cry to heaven for vengeance. It is understandable, then, that many people conclude that those who perpetrate such monstrous evil should suffer the same fate as their victims. Vengeance is an understandable human reaction when great evil confronts us, but it is not the morally acceptable reaction.
Rather, my experience and my faith lead me to conclude that while justice most certainly demands corrective punishment for those who have done grave harm, we as a civilized people must not resort to vengeance, which is not only unhealthy to our society but ultimately unsatisfying for those who have been harmed. Victims of violence, struggling to overcome their enormous loss and fear, can find some sense of peace only through reconciliation and non-violence. Revenge through execution does not heal the wounds, control the rage, fill the emptiness, or bring the anticipated “closure” so many hope to find. Executions merely continue the cycle of violence begun by the perpetrators.
Lest you think only someone who has never personally experienced the horrific death of a beloved family member could oppose capital punishment, listen to the testimony of Marietta Jaeger-Lane, founder of Murdered Victim's Families for Reconciliation.
Marietta's youngest daughter, Susie, was kidnapped, held for ransom and, then, killed. Her initial response was "to kill him for what he had done to her family." Upon closer reflection she writes in her book Journey of Hope: From Violence to Healing," I came to realize that to kill this man in Susie's name would be to violate and profane the goodness and sweetness of her life. I could not honor her memory by becoming that which I deplored -- someone who wants to kill. She was worthy of a more noble and beautiful memorial than a cold-blooded, premeditated, state-sanctioned killing, producing yet another victim and another grieving family. I better honored my precious daughter by insisting that all of life is sacred and worthy of preservation. So I asked the prosecutor not to apply the death penalty.”
In the years since, through her experience with the organization she founded to help families of murder victims, Marietta has concluded that "those who have retained a vindictive attitude, however justified they may be or feel, in the end give the offender another victim -- themselves." On the other hand, she writes, those who have learned "how to surrender their normal initial response, the human response of rage and revenge, and allow it to be converted to an attitude of concern and compassion for the offender "have discovered that" their hearts have been healed, their spirits have been strengthened, and they are able to lead healthy, fruitful lives once again.
Catholic Church teaching on the death penalty has sometimes been misunderstood, and often times mistakenly conveyed. It’s easy to understand why, as it has evolved over time as civilization has progressed. Pope John Paul II enunciated the Church’s modern understanding of the morality of capital punishment in his 1995 encyclical, The Gospel of Life. In this landmark document, the Pope says that states “ought not go to the extreme” of execution. While acknowledging the state’s right to use this form of punishment if it is the only way to protect the innocent, the pope notes that in modern society, such cases “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”
Thus, the Pope has expressed his hope "that there no longer be recourse to capital punishment, given that states today have the means to efficaciously control crime, without definitively taking away an offender's possibility to redeem himself." (General Audience in St. Peter's Square, September 13, 2000)
The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” reiterates this teaching, stating:
“If …non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority should limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.” (Section 2267)
We believe that New York State’s correctional system, comprised of 70 state facilities housing 65,000 inmates, can adequately safeguard the public through confinement and habilitation of offenders. Our Catholic chaplains, who minister to inmates and employees in prison on a daily basis, report that the policies, operations and technologies in this system are constantly being improved to maintain safety and security for those both inside and outside of prison.
Following the Holy Father’s lead, the Catholic Bishops of this state and nation have, for decades now, been unified in their consistent and vigorous opposition to capital punishment. This position is grounded in our fundamental belief in the sacredness and dignity of all human lives, including those who may have taken another life.
In 2000, the New York State Bishops issued a pastoral statement, Restoring All to the Fullness of Life, on the concept of restorative justice. In this statement we note that the purpose of the criminal justice system is not merely punishment but correction and redemption.
We wrote: “We must reject the traditional emphasis on retribution that manifests itself in an over reliance on incarceration and resort to the death penalty. We must instead balance corrective punishment with efforts at healing, forgiveness and rehabilitation.”
At the heart of Catholic social teaching is the knowledge that the human person is central, the clearest reflection of God among us. Every human being possesses a basic dignity that comes from God, not from any human quality or accomplishment, not from race or gender or age or economic status. Human life is inherently precious.
Those who commit crimes do not give up their human dignity, and those who administer justice must not deny this God-given dignity. No person is beyond God’s redemptive mercy.
Therefore, just as we see the love of God, the value of life, and human dignity in an innocent child from the first moment of his existence, we must learn to see the love of God, the value of life, and human dignity in a guilty criminal, even as we condemn the criminal act. We reject capital punishment as a negation of human dignity: the expression of the direct intent to take the life of a human being. We believe the state should never take the life of a human being, even one who may have committed horrific evil.
The death penalty is an affront to the human dignity of both those on whom it is inflicted and those in whose name it is employed. A state-sanctioned penalty of death makes the individual on whom it is inflicted a means to an end – a means of satisfying a desire for revenge. Human persons, because of their absolute and unconditional value, should never be used as a means.
For the community-at-large, in whose name it is imposed, the death penalty radically ends our call to caring, concern and love for our fellow human beings. Capital punishment is a particularly egregious violation of our dignity as citizens because it is our government, acting on behalf of each of us in this representative democracy, involved in the business of killing.
In short, we as a state and nation cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing. Capital punishment is not and cannot be the way for a humane and civilized society to deal with the very real problem of violent crime. For violence only begets violence and this vicious cycle diminishes us all innocent and guilty alike.
Thus, we urge New York State government to take advantage of the historic opportunity given to us by the Court of Appeals, and to abandon the state-sanctioned penalty of death.
We understand that those who commit violent crimes must be incarcerated, both as just punishment and to protect society. Furthermore, we stand in solidarity with their victims and their loved ones. Our recognition of the suffering inflicted on victims leads to our firm resolution that assistance be given to them and their families, and that justice be done fairly and swiftly.
As previously noted, we believe crime prevention efforts that are founded on a commitment to the sanctity and dignity of every human life will best restore safety and stability to society. For victims, this means treatment of their physical and emotional injuries; assurance of corrective punishment for those who have done them harm; just compensation when feasible; and a loving invitation to healing and forgiveness. For offenders, this requires penalties that offer correction as well as punishment; rehabilitation programs, healing and restoration where feasible; and post-incarceration programs to assist with re-integration into society.
We urge the New York State Legislature to find more humane, hopeful and effective responses to violent crime. The cycle of violence will only be broken when we all begin to respond as individuals to the social conditions which breed crime. We pledge to do all that we can, both pastorally and legislatively, to promote strong family life, mend broken homes, improve education, provide more jobs, stop drug abuse, keep guns out of the hands of criminals and lift the poor out of poverty. All in government and the community-at-large should join in a comprehensive response.
In this regard, we note the 2004-2005 State Budget saw reductions in programs that serve runaway and homeless children, poor families, those in need of affordable housing, those with chemical dependency and mental health problems. State appropriations for youth development, violence prevention and delinquency prevention programs were also reduced. Adequate funding for these valuable programs is urgently needed in order for our state to dig up the roots of violent crime and maintain a comprehensive approach to addressing violence in our society.
Surely many others will testify here today with detailed data, studies and anecdotes about the effectiveness and usefulness of the death penalty over the past ten years. While we do not pretend to know every detail or hold all the answers, we too have lingering questions about the capital punishment system put into place in 1995 in New York State.
Among our many concerns are the possibility of wrongful convictions; the risk of arbitrary, discriminatory or inequitable application; appropriate stewardship of the state’s limited financial and judicial resources; and adequate safeguards to protect the mentally ill, the retarded and juveniles. We hold serious doubt that there is any way to ensure that all of these misgivings can be quieted, and all of these questions can be resolved in a satisfactory manner.
Yet even if a capital punishment statute could be crafted to fix all the problems, ensure constitutionality and due process, and protect the rights of all, there is no way the death penalty could be reinstated in a manner which resolves our primary ethical concern.
In our modern and civilized society, capital punishment is simply unwarranted and inconsistent with the Catholic Church’s vision of the sacred inviolable dignity of the human person, and the need to recognize the possibility of redemption and conversion. We seek a society of justice and peace, not vengeance and violence.
The government of a civilized society, through its laws, sets an example of how we are to live. Rather than maintaining public order and protecting the health and welfare of its citizens, a government which carries out executions serves only to perpetuate the violence and destruction it seeks to end.
We urge you to send a message that we can break the horrific cycle of violence and that we need not take life for life. We urge you to embrace the wisdom of Pope John Paul II by rejecting the culture of death and embracing a culture of life. We urge you not to reinstate the penalty of death in the State of New York. Thank you.