Cardinal Theodore McCarrick
Archbishop of Washington
March 21, 2005
I’m here today to launch a Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty and to recommit the US Conference of Bishops to that goal. Bishop DiMarzio, the Chair of our Domestic Policy Committee, could not be here so he asked me, as the former Chairman, to tell you how important this campaign is for our Church and for our nation. This holy week is the time Catholics and all Christians are reminded of how Christ died – as a criminal brutally executed.
This cause is not new – our bishops’ conference has opposed the death penalty for 25 years. But this campaign is new. It brings greater urgency and unity, increased energy and advocacy and a renewed call to our people and to our leaders to end the use of the death penalty in our nation.
For us, ending the use of the death penalty is not simply about politics, it is about our faith. We believe human life is a gift from God that is not ours to take away. Our faith commits us to the life and dignity of every human person – first the victims of violent crimes and their families, who deserve our help and protection. Today we will hear from a victim’s father, Bud Welch.
Our Catholic teaching on the death penalty is both clear and complicated. The Catholic Church has long acknowledged the right of the state to use the death penalty in order to protect society. However, the Church has more and more clearly insisted the state should forgo this right if it has other means to protect society. Pope John Paul II, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Vatican Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, and statements from the U.S. bishops are all clear and consistent that the use of the death penalty ought to be abandoned in our nation because we have alternative ways to protect society.
For us this is not about ideology, but respect for life. We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing. We cannot defend life by taking life. In his encyclical The Gospel of Life, the Holy Father challenges followers of Christ to be “unconditionally pro life.” He reminds us that “the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.
This campaign brings together our social justice and pro-life efforts. We are united for action to end the use of the death penalty. This is the plea of Pope John Paul II, the call of Catholic bishops, a challenge for our Church and a task for our nation.
This is not just about crime, but also about justice — what kind of society we want to be. The death penalty in our land is deeply flawed – more that 100 people on death row have been exonerated; the death penalty is unfairly applied depending on where a crime is committed, the race of the victim and offender, the quality and costs of defense and other factors. Today we will hear from a person who spent years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. The use of the death penalty really cannot be mended, it must be ended. The death penalty diminishes all of us. Its use ought to be abandoned not only for what it does to those who are executed, but what it does to us as a society.
This unprecedented campaign begins with prayer and reflection. It is also about challenge and change, education and action.
- The Catholic campaign will challenge the temptation to answer violence with violence. It will confront the notion of “an eye for an eye.”
- The Catholic campaign will work to change the debate and decisions on the use of the death penalty; building a constituency for life , not death; calling on our lawmakers to lead, not follow, to defend life, not take it away.
- The Catholic campaign will educate — in our parishes and schools, universities and seminaries. We need to share Catholic teaching with courage and clarity, reaching out to those who teach our children, write our textbooks, form our priests, and preach in our pulpits. This is a work of formation and persuasion, not simply proclamation.
- The Catholic campaign will act — with continued advocacy in the Congress and state legislatures, in our legal briefs and before the courts. Our advocacy already has contributed to steps forward — for example, Supreme Court decisions citing our briefs in striking down the death penalty for the retarded. This is just a beginning.
John Zogby is about to share the results of a remarkable study. It will show a sharp decline in Catholic support for the use of the death penalty. I am gratified, and encouraged, but I am not surprised.
I am one of those Catholics who has reflected on and reconsidered my support for the use of the death penalty. I am part of a family with a lot of policemen. Support for the death penalty was part of growing up. However, I am a now teacher and pastor in a Church that puts the defense of human life and dignity at the center of its mission. And I was moved by the call of Pope John Paul II to be “unconditionally pro-life” and his consistent call to resist the use of the death penalty.
I’ve come to believe the death penalty hurts all of us, not just the one being executed. It diminishes and contradicts our respect for all human life and dignity.
I’m not a young man. But as a pastor, teacher, and citizen, I hope I will see the day when the nation I love no longer relies on violence to confront violence. I pray I will see the day when we have given up the illusion that we can teach that killing is wrong by killing.