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Oregon Catholic Bishops
Death Penalty Not the Answer
To address these moral evils in our society, many in our nation and in our State of Oregon are calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty. But the death penalty is an inadequate response to violence in our world, for the death penalty does not deter; it is discriminatory; it is fallible; it is costly; it is real; it is final; it's ultimate victims are all of us.
Consistent Life Ethic
Our faith in God calls us to "choose life, not death." Our belief in a divine Redeemer calls us to respect life in all it's forms. Our commitments as followers of Jesus call us to a consistent life ethic, encompassing all human life from conception through natural death, from the innocent to the guilty.
The Basis for the Dignity of the Person and the Sanctity of Life
Rich in mercy and compassion is our God, who gives us the priceless gift of life, and creates us in His own image and likeness, the basis of our human dignity and the sanctity of life.
The Example of Jesus
Jesus, our Redeemer, who taught peace and forgiveness by word and example, was Himself the Victim of capital punishment, the innocent Victim of the death penalty, who would pray for His executioners, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Luke 23:34.
Our Religious History
Our religious history, before and after the time of Christ, is replete with examples of those who suffered the death penalty innocently: the Apostles themselves, 30 of the first 31 Popes, the early Christian martyrs and those still being put to death today for their religious beliefs. It is fitting that the Church, long an innocent victim of the death penalty, should now seek a more Christ-like response to violence and crime. Our religious history is also one of repentance and conversion, of saints and sinners. The leader of the Chosen People, Moses, murdered an Egyptian (Exodus 2:12), The great King David, one of the ancestors of Jesus, would premeditate the murder of Uriah the Hittite, so that he could marry Uriah's wife, Bathsheba, who would give birth to King Solomon (2 Samuel 11:15). His repentance is recorded in the widely known 51st Psalm, "Have mercy on me, O Lord."
The Position of the Bishops
The American Catholic bishops have repeatedly called for an end to capital punishment in this country. In 1974, out of a commitment to the value and dignity of human life, the Bishops of the United States declared their opposition to capital punishment. In 1978, the Bishops' Committee on Social Development and World Peace reiterated this policy, "We continue to support this position (opposition to capital punishment) in the belief that a return to the use of the death penalty can only lead to the further erosion of respect for life in our society."
A Development of the Public Conscience
Both our religious history and our national and state history show that there has been a development of our public conscience, a growth toward a more humane way of punishing the criminal, and a process that is in keeping with the dignity of the individual, the possibility of repentance and conversion, and the tender compassion of our God.
The Teaching and Example of Pope John Paul II
Our present Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, has often spoken on the dignity of the individual as a basis of respect for life in all its forms, saying in his recent encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, "The human person - every person without exception - has been redeemed by Christ, because Christ is in a way united to the human person, even if the individual may not recognize this fact." (#l4, p. 11)
Experience of Other Nations
Capital punishment is not a solution to capital crime. The death penalty is a dying institution in this latter part of the 20th century. It has already been abandoned in much of the civilized world. England, Canada, the Scandinavian countries, most of Western Europe and the majority of countries in the Western Hemisphere have abolished it.
The State of Oregon
In our own State of Oregon, the citizens first abolished the death penalty in 1914, but with World War I and the great social changes of the time, the people restored it 6 years later. In 1964, Oregonians overwhelmingly ended the death penalty, but again reestablished it in 1978. (This measure was later declared unconstitutional by an Oregon supreme Court decision in 1981.)
Arguments Against the Death Penalty
If we have learned anything from our religious and social history about capital punishment, it is that the death penalty is not equal justice; that the death penalty is not a deterrent to serious crime; that the death penalty is costly; that the death penalty makes irreversible mistakes: and that the death penalty is not consistent with our respect for life as Christians.
The death penalty is not equal justice. It is clearly discriminatory. Only one percent of all convicted killers end up on death row. They are on death row often because they are poor, young, uneducated, or members of minorities.
Does Not Deter
The death penalty is not a deterrent to serious crime. Various studies and data definitely question the effectiveness of the death penalty as a deterrent to crime. Most serious crimes are committed in the heat of passion and are not premeditated. If anything, some studies show the death penalty may stimulate more violent crime, by demonstrating a public disregard for life. (The six states with the lowest murder rates have all abolished capital punishment.)
Does Not Save Money
The death penalty is costly. It does not save money. A study by the New York State Legislature estimated the costs for the execution of one person (with the mandatory court appeals) at more than $2 million, while maintaining a prisoner for 30 years costs between $300.000. and $750,000.
Capable of Error
The death penalty makes irreversible mistakes. Of 93 people sentenced to die in Oregon since 1903, two were later found innocent, and a significant question arose about the guilt of a third. Nationwide, 105 of the persons executed or imprisoned for life were later found to be innocent. (Palmer: A Study of Murder, 1960).
Does Not Respect Life
The death penalty is not consistent with our respect for life as People of God. The death penalty denigrates the very gift of life which we are all taught to respect, and so all life suffers the life of the unborn, the life of the disadvantaged, the life of the elderly, the life of our brother, our sister, our fellow human being. The hidden victim of any execution is the public conscience, and we all suffer in our respect for the sanctity of all human life each time someone is put to death in our name.
The Bishops' Challenge
The Catholic Bishops of our nation recently challenged all of us to the witness of Jesus' own love, which calls us always to love our neighbor and leads us to the "presumption which binds all Christians; we should do no harm to our neighbors; how we treat our enemy is the key test of whether we love our neighbor; and the possibility of taking even one human life is a prospect we should consider in fear and trembling. " (Challenge of Peace, Art. 80)
A Call to Prayer and Reflection
We, the Catholic Bishops of Oregon, call our people to reflect prayerfully on this issue of capital punishment and the larger moral issue of respect for life.
The Victims of Crime
We empathize in a special way with the victims of violent crime and their families, who are often the first to show forgiveness and compassion to the perpetrators of crime.
The Concern of the Bishops
We repeat here the words of the Bishops' Statement on Capital Punishment of 1980: "We do not profess the abolition of capital punishment as a simple solution to the problems of crime and violence. We affirm that there is a special need to offer sympathy and support for the victims of violent crime and their families . . . The care and support that we give to the victims of crime should be both compassionate and practical . . . it is the special responsibility of the Church to provide a community of faith and trust in which God's grace can heal the personal and spiritual wounds caused by crime and in which we can all grow by sharing one another's burdens and sorrows."
The Bishops call for practical steps to be taken to improve the criminal justice system: "We insist that important changes are necessary in the correctional system in order to make it truly conducive to the reform and rehabilitation of convicted criminals and their reintegration into society. We call upon governments to cooperate in vigorous measures against terrorists who threaten the safety of the general public and have taken the lives of the innocent. We acknowledge that there is a pressing need to deal with social conditions of poverty and instances which often provide the breeding grounds for serious crime."
Our Personal Response
The Bishops' Statement tells us that we must all be a part of the solution to the problem of crime and violence: "We urge particularly the importance of restricting the easy availability of guns and other weapons of violence. We oppose the glamorizing of violence in entertainment, and we deplore the effect of this on children. We affirm the need for education to promote respect for the dignity of all people. All of these things should form part of a comprehensive community response to the very real and pressing problems presented by the prevalence of crime and violence in many parts of our society."
A Reform of the Criminal Justice System
In conclusion, it is our judgment that neither the reinstatement nor the abolition of the death penalty will provide a solution to the growing rate of crime. Its reinstatement will tend only to escalate brutality and encourage violence. Its abolition may be interpreted by some that we are soft on crime. Rather, we advocate a basic reform of the very system of justice which will make it possible to abolish the death penalty, reduce crime and thus improve the criminal justice system at work in our nation.
Rich in Mercy and Compassion
"The Lord is kind and merciful; slow to anger and rich in compassion." As members of God's family, created in His image and likeness, we are called to love all our brothers and sisters without exception. As members of God's holy People, a redeemed community of faith and love and service, we are called to the same mercy and compassion of our Divine Redeemer, who came and lived among us.