Testimony of the New York State Catholic Conference Regarding The Death Penalty in New York
Most Reverend Dominick J. Lagonegro
Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of New York
Catholic Bishops’ Liaison, Catholic Chaplains Apostolate Committee
December 15, 2004
New York City Bar Association
Good afternoon Assembly Chairpersons and other distinguished members of the New York State Assembly. I am Dominick Lagonegro, Auxiliary Bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York and Bishop Liaison to the Catholic Chaplains Apostolate Committee in New York State. In addition, I serve nationally as Catholic Bishops’ Liaison to the American Catholic Correctional Chaplains Association.
While I bring the perspective of the Catholic prison chaplain community, I speak today in an official capacity on behalf of the New York State Catholic Conference, providing a unified voice for the eight dioceses and all the Catholic Bishops of our State. We thank you for allowing us the opportunity to offer our moral perspective on the critical issue of the death penalty.
We applaud you for holding these hearings to examine the complexities and moral dimensions of capital punishment, as well as new data which has 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.
As a priest and chaplain liaison, I have made visits to correctional facilities and spoken with incarcerated individuals. In September of last year, I had occasion to visit the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, where death row prisoners are housed. It was a sobering experience.
The chaplains who minister to the imprisoned in this state on a daily basis are there to bring spiritual care, pastoral services and Sacraments to isolated individuals living in the most dehumanizing conditions. They are instructors of the faith, liaisons to the family, counselors, and advocates.
Above all else, they are beacons of hope in oftentimes hopeless and desperate situations.
For those who minister to the men condemned to death in this state, it is next to impossible to bring hope when there is no room for rehabilitation. Our chaplains advocate for basic human rights, a life of dignity, and the possibility of healing and conversion. But all of these objectives are on a collision course with a death penalty law. The death penalty tells these offenders their lives are not worth the effort, and society would be better off if they were dead.
In saying this, in no way do I forget those who are victims or those who have lost loved ones to violent crime. In no way do I mean to minimize the grief and unimaginable pain felt by those left to mourn. If I did, my call for justice in the criminal justice system would ring very hollow.
I understand why many people conclude that those who perpetrate horrific 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 righteous reaction.'
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. Revenge does not bring the “closure” so many hope to find. Executions merely continue the cycle of violence begun by the perpetrators.
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 Holy Father 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.”
Reflecting the Church’s strong opposition to capital punishment, Pope John Paul II has on numerous occasions urged state governors to grant reprieves for condemned murderers on death row. He has called the death penalty “both cruel and unnecessary.” (Papal Mass, St. Louis, Missouri, January 27, 1999) At his Sept. 13, 2000, general audience in St. Peter's Square, the Pope 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."
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 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 called “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. We believe the state should never take the life of a human being, even one who may have committed horrific evil.
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 SFY 2004-2005 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.
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.