Yes. The Church Is Opposed to the Death Penalty

“All Christians and men of good will are thus called to fight not only for the abolition of the death penalty, whether legal or illegal, and in all its forms, but also to improve prison conditions, with respect for the human dignity of the people deprived of their freedom”
Pope Francis, October 23, 2014

Anthony Granado, USCCB

Anthony Granado, USCCB

Last week, the chairmen of the USCCB Committees on Domestic Justice and Human Development and Pro-Life Activities, joining Pope Francis, reasserted their opposition to the death penalty. In their statement, Cardinal Sean O’Malley and Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski welcomed the U.S. Supreme Court’s January 23, decision to review the drug protocols for lethal injections in Oklahoma. This comes after the April, 2014 botched execution of Clatyon D. Lockett, where witnesses recounted that he was seen in pain for some time before finally dying.

The case of Glossip v. Gross is being brought by three men on Oklahoma’s death row, Benjamin Cole, John Grant and Richard Glossip. They are asking the court to reject the three-drug protocol used in lethal injection in Oklahoma claiming this violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The Court is expected to begin hearing arguments in April.

Pope Francis, building on the legacy of his predecessors, has called for the abolition of the death penalty. It was Pope Saint John Paul II in his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, who was instrumental in urging society to reconsider the death penalty. He reminded us that the Lord is not a god of death but the God of the living. He spoke of the very limited means when recourse to capital punishment may be unobjectionable, such as when there is no other way to protect the common good of civil society (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2267). But such theoretical instances in modern society, he said, “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

With scandalous frequency, people on death row have been exonerated through DNA testing of crimes for which they were convicted. It is abhorrent to hear of innocent people being put to death by the State or that botched executions have taken place resulting at times, in the slow, painful death of a human being; a person created in the image and likeness of God.

Cardinal O’Malley and Archbishop Wenski’s statement is consistent with over 40 years of opposition to the death penalty by the American bishops. According to Archbishop Wenski, “the bishops continue to say, we cannot teach killing is wrong by killing.”

Cardinal Sean O’Malley echoes St. John Paul II in reiterating that there are better ways to protect society without taking human life. He hopes the Supreme Court’s review of Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocols will lead to the realization that that state’s actions erode a reverence for human life. The only logical and life affirming conclusion he sees, is that “capital punishment must end.”

We believe and put our trust in a merciful and loving God. We are conscious of our own brokenness and need for mercy. Our Lord calls us to imitate him more perfectly by witnessing to the inherent dignity of all persons, including those who have committed evil acts. Today, instead of repaying death with death, the Church is calling us to also witness to something greater and more perfect: a Gospel of life, hope and mercy.

Anthony J. Granado is a policy advisor at the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.

Go deeper:
Listen to Anthony’s interview last week on the Catholic Church and the death penalty on the Drew Mariani Show.
Check out the work of our collaborator, Catholic Mobilizing Network, to end the use of the death penalty.

Denying Dignity in the Name of Deterrence?

Ashley Feasley, USCCB

USCCB’s Ashley Feasley, Esq.

Last week, we failed as a nation to welcome the stranger.

Instead of welcoming vulnerable women, mothers and children seeking refuge from Central American violence, we opened a new prison-like facility to detain them. Last Monday, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson unveiled the Dilley Family Detention Center, a former oil field worker camp in rural South Texas and now the nation’s largest family immigration detention center. Dilley will house 2,400 young immigrant mothers and their children.

On Friday, GEO Corporation announced a 626-bed expansion to its facility in Texas, the 532-bed Karnes County Residential Center. Karnes will now have a total capacity of 1,158 beds available to detain women and children and will generate approximately $20 million per year in additional corporate revenues. The opening of Dilley and the expansion at Karnes mark the most recent and strongest articulation of the Obama administration’s policy goal of using detention as a tool to deter migrant families from arriving at the southwest Border.

The current ramping up of prison-like facilities to contain vulnerable women and children goes squarely against the principles articulated by the U.S. Catholic Bishops and the ethos of Catholic social teaching itself. Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Migration, responded to the opening of the Dilley facility by saying:

“It is inhumane to house young mothers with children in restrictive detention facilities, as if they are criminals.” 

Bishop Elizondo noted that these mothers and children arrive “. . . traumatized from their journey . . . and need care and support, not further emotional and psychological harm.” And he is right, as study after study has shown that detention harms children’s psychological development.

In July, I visited Artesia, News Mexico, where this summer a hastily thrown together “facility” for migrants and refugees crossing the border opened, consisting of portable buildings on the grounds of a federal law enforcement training center. During a tour, I witnessed scores of small children and babies, some walking and sitting outside under the hot sun. One little girl, probably just 2 years old, wore a sweater and was sweating heavily. When asked why she was wearing the sweater, her mother said that it was the girl’s favorite possession, and that she was worried it would be taken away from her if she took it off. The image of an overheated little girl wearing her favorite and likely only possession brought home how entirely unsuited prison-like detention facilities are for children. The Artesia facility is now in the process of being closed.

Family detention conflicts with a central tenet of Catholic social teaching: the dignity of human life. In their pastoral letter, Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope, the US and Mexican bishops declare that “regardless of their legal status, migrants, like all persons, possess inherent human dignity that should be respected.”

Bishops are speaking out against the rapid rise of family detention facilities popping up in their backyards. Archbishop Gustavo-Siller of the Archdiocese of San Antonio, where both Dilley and Karnes are located, has spoken out against family detention. On Dilley’s debut, he said:

It is the largest facility of its kind and some have called it ‘History Making’. That forces me to ask, ‘What kind of history does our country want to make?’ Will our history be defined by the detention of children and their mothers who do not threaten us with either violence or security risks? They need mercy and compassion, not derision and detention. The deep emotional and spiritual wounds that have been inflicted on them remain open sores without proper counseling and care.

The system doesn’t have to be like this. There are financially and morally responsible alternatives to detention that are available. Community-based alternatives to detention offer case management for children and their mothers as well as a cost-saving and humane solution to this problem.

The bishops ask that you advocate for the end of family detention. We must work together to welcome the stranger. Detention is an inhumane option for these vulnerable women and children. Contact the White House at 202-456-1414 and send Congress a postcard letting them know that you oppose family detention.

Ashley Feasley, Esq., is an immigration policy advisor with the USCCB Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs Staff.

Our Faith Calls Us to Restore Justice


Karen Clifton, Catholic Mobilizing Network

In Pope Francis’ call to abolish the death penalty in all forms, he tells us that the American criminal justice system is in need of a new and restorative approach. The United States incarcerates an appalling number of its citizens. While our country represents 5% of the world’s population, we are home to 25% of the global prison population and we imprison more citizens per capita than almost any other country. [i] [ii]

When we sentence men, women and children to be incarcerated, we send them to a prison system in which they are at an exponentially greater risk of becoming victims of violence and suicide. On any given day in the United States, an estimated 600 people are raped in prison and roughly 80,000 incarcerated adults and youth are held in conditions of solitary confinement, a practice considered by many as a form of torture.[iii] [iv] These statistics are shocking but none of these numbers conveys the ripple effect this system has in our society in creating broken individuals, families, neighborhoods and communities.

Our corrections system costs us tens of billions of dollars a year but is neither effective in rehabilitating offenders, nor in deterring crime.[v] Haunted by institutionalized racism and the criminalization of mental illness, prison dehumanizes and hardens its residents rather than “correcting” them. Over half of all inmates are re-arrested within three years of their release. [vi] We have created a system that pushes inmates into gangs and substance abuse to cope with prison life and the dead-end opportunities they face upon release.

How can we provide these persons the opportunity to experience the unconditional love of God? How can we meet their needs by counseling their broken spirits and addressing their addictions and mental illness?

Shujaa Graham spent 4 years on California's death row for a crime he did not commit. He was raised on a plantation in the segregated South in the 1950s. (Photo by Scott Langley)

Shujaa Graham spent 4 years on California’s death row for a crime he did not commit. He was raised on a plantation in the segregated South in the 1950s. (Photo by Scott Langley)

Retribution focuses on punishing the offender. Restorative justice, by contrast, focuses on the needs of victims, their communities, and the offender and seeks to repair broken relationships and heal harm. Restorative justice is at the core of the Gospel. It witnesses to the dignity of all human life, guilty and innocent.

To offer the convicted person a path to restoration is not to be soft on crime. It calls the convicted person to do the hard work of justice, shoulder responsibility and seek forgiveness, repair broken relationships with victims and communities, and address the issues that led them to their actions.

In the words of Fr. David Kelly of the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, we cannot write off offenders as worthless, banish them and expect a different result. Rather, we need to ensure that offenders are held accountable and remain part of the community while they serve their sentence.[vii] Restorative justice programs prove that broken people can be rehabilitated through encounter and prayer. The results of restorative justice pilot programs in the US are promising. Bridges to Life, a restorative justice program that began in Texas, reports recidivism rates lower than half of the national average.[viii]

As Pope Francis says, our media and political system promote “violence and revenge, public and private, not only against those responsible for crimes, but also against those under suspicion.” Violence as a quick solution to our problems has become culturally ingrained and changing this is hard work. As Catholics, we must confront this culture of violence to create a new generation of hope and justice. It will take something as radical as the Gospel message of forgiveness, healing and reconciliation.

(Photo by Scott Langley.)

(Photo by Scott Langley)

Karen Clifton is executive director of Catholic Mobilizing Network.

[i] View comparative data about worldwide prison populations from The International Centre for Prison Studies here.

[ii] Sean McElwee. “America’s Awful, Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Prison System.” The Huffington Post. July 1, 2013.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] National Religious Campaign Against Torture “Ending Torture in US Prisons

[v] For more information about total state correctional expenditures (not including federal expenditures) see the Bureau of justice Statistics report “State Corrections Expenditures, FY 1982-2010.” April 30, 2014.

[vi] According a report made available by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, among state prisoners released in 30 states in 2005, 67.8% of prisoners were re-arrested within 3 years. Alexia Cooper, Matthew Durose and Howard Synder. “Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 30 States in 2005: Patterns from 2005 to 2010.” April 22, 2014.

[vii] See the transcript of the conference “Restore Justice!” held in Washington DC on November 21, 2014.

[viii] GuideStar Exchange Charting Impact Report. “Bridges to Life.” April 24, 2014. Page 3.

Do We Desire Mercy or Sacrifice?

Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ (Mt. 9:13)

In the Gospels, the Pharisees challenge the disciples by asking them why Jesus keeps company with sinners. Jesus reminds them that it is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. He tells the Pharisees, “I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (Mt 9:13).The Pharisees are quick to judge and condemn. But Jesus teaches them another way, the way of mercy.

In reflecting on our nation’s prisons and jails, the continuing pervasiveness of the death penalty, the many people, especially minorities, sentenced to years in prison for non-violent crimes, as well as recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, we are compelled to ask: Do we, as a nation, desire mercy or sacrifice?

The United States imprisons more people per capita than any other nation in the world. In the recent study, The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences, researchers concluded that in the last 40 years, the rise of incarceration in the United States has been “historically unprecedented and internationally unique.”

A review of the data paints a startlingly dark picture, one that stresses punishment rather than mercy and healing. In 1973, federal and state prisons held close to 200,000 adults. As of today there are approximately 2.2 million people in America’s prisons and jails. Although the U.S. makes up just 5 percent of the world’s population, we have nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

Incarceration costs for federal, state and local governments have been astounding. At approximately $80 billion annually, only state level Medicaid spending has increased faster in the last two decades. More importantly, there has been tremendous cost in human life, and in broken communities and families.

Minorities have been disproportionately impacted by our nation’s sentencing policies. Today, minorities make up 60 percent of the U.S. prison population. Hispanics are twice as likely to be incarcerated as whites and, shockingly, one in three black males can expect to go to prison at some point in his lifetime.

Our Catholic moral tradition calls us to build a culture of healing, restoration and mercy rather than retribution. Centuries ago, St. Thomas Aquinas taught that punishment for its own sake can never be justified. In the Summa Theologica he wrote, “Penalties are not sought for their own sake, because this is not the era of retribution; rather, they are meant to be corrective by being conducive either to the reform of the sinner or the good of society…”

The U.S. bishops in their 2000 pastoral statement, Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice, wrote, “We are all sinners, and our response to sin and failure should not be abandonment and despair, but rather justice, contrition, reparation, and a return or re-integration of all into the community.”

One way the Church is responding is by supporting restorative and criminal justice reform efforts in national policy. For example, the USCCB supports the Second Chance Act (S. 1690/H.R. 3465), which authorizes funding for important reentry programs that assist people leaving incarceration. Programs focusing on housing, substance abuse and mental health treatment, job training, etc., help people transition back into the community. Another piece of legislation the USCCB supports, the Smarter Sentencing Act (S. 1410/H.R. 3382), will help begin reform of our nation’s harsh mandatory minimum sentencing policies. This legislation will give judges options to reduce sentences for non-violent drug offenses which excessively impact minorities.

While punishment and correction of those who have harmed others and society can be just, punishments must fit the crime. Our focus should not be on retribution or punishment for punishment’s sake, but to lift up human dignity, healing and restoration for both victims of crime and those who commit crime.

Pope Francis reminds us that the “Lord never tires of forgiving us, never.” Today, we must ask ourselves, do we desire mercy or sacrifice?Granado headshot BW

Anthony J. Granado is a policy advisor at the USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.

Go deeper:
Learn about the USCCB’s advocacy for criminal and restorative justice and follow @AnthonyJGranado on twitter.

Check out organizations supported by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development working on civil rights.